The limits of regional democracy engineering: ECOWAS and the Niger coup

Présidence de la République du Bénin |

Christof Hartmann

​At the end of July 2023, an African military coup made it into our mainstream news. The increased attention to the coup in the West African republic of Niger had two main causes. First, a large German military contingent was stationed in Niger, and second, the regional organisation ECOWAS, which includes all 15 West African states, decided not only to impose economic sanctions but also to threaten military intervention if the coup leaders did not immediately restore constitutional order. But why were regional actors unable to effectively defend democracy and constitutional order in Niger through peaceful means? As part of a research project, we are examining the different non-military intervention practices of African regional organisations. The limits of regional democracy engineering can be clearly seen in Niger: ECOWAS lacked a sufficient mandate to influence domestic political developments below the threshold of a military coup, and there was a lack of proactive democracy promotion in Niger and the region.

No simple geopolitical patterns in the Niger case

Both the coup itself and the harsh reaction of ECOWAS were quickly interpreted by the international public along simple geopolitical lines. The coup reflected another Sahelian state's turning away from its former Western allies and towards Russia, and the intervention of ECOWAS was an attempt by the West to prevent this step, by force if necessary. From an academic point of view, these assessments have since been refuted. The coup in Niger was the result of a power struggle between the elected government and a section of the army. In a second step, the military regime used anti-French sentiment in the region to legitimise the coup as patriotic self-defence against Western domination. This narrative was able to prevail in Niger because the French government had prioritised its own economic interests in the country for decades, and a high level of misinformation had been circulating in the region's social media for years. The idea that ECOWAS was simply following a French agenda is not very plausible looking at leading ECOWAS states such as Nigeria and Ghana, even if France has presumably exerted influence on the remaining francophone allies in the region.

The interventionist democracy protection agenda of ECOWAS

As for ECOWAS, its actions were less surprising than first claimed. Its response initially followed the normative framework adopted by the regional organisation more than 20 years ago, according to which coups in member states are unacceptable and must be condemned and sanctioned accordingly. The term "unconstitutional change of government" (UCG) was coined in the region to signal that, in addition to the military, the constitutional order was also under threat from politicians who manipulated elections to stay in power. Even at that time, the relevant protocols stated that ECOWAS had a whole range of response options at its disposal, ranging from diplomatic instruments (such as the suspension of membership rights) and economic sanctions to military intervention in extreme cases. After ECOWAS had twice in recent years specifically threatened to deploy the military in the event of constitutional crises (Côte d'Ivoire 2010-1, Gambia 2016-7), and in Gambia in 2017 also deployed regional military units on the border, ECOWAS's approach to the Niger crisis cannot come as a complete surprise, even though the organisation had limited itself to sanctions and refrained from issuing military threats in the wake of the coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso in previous years. There were two reasons why ECOWAS immediately threatened the most massive of all possible coercive instruments this time: Within ECOWAS, more interventionist actors had gained the decisive positions, and the regional elites had recognised the failure of the previous sanctions policy in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Unlike in The Gambia in 2017, however, the local rulers and the Niger’s army were not impressed by the threats this time. While sanctions were maintained as a means of exerting pressure, there was no military intervention despite all announcements to the contrary, and ECOWAS has instead begun to negotiate a return to constitutional order with the coup plotters. Some of the reasons for this are obvious: a military force that could have invaded Niger was not ready, and there was no real support for military intervention among the armies, political elites or populations of the other ECOWAS member states. Our research reveals two central arguments as to why ECOWAS ended up in this dilemma:

A mandate that is only impressive on paper

Although ECOWAS as an organisation has developed an impressive set of rules, it remains unclear which strategies could be used to deal with political developments that indicate a breach of democratic principles at some earlier stage. Negotiations on strengthening the regional democracy protocol have been going on for several years, but all proposals ultimately failed due to a small minority of reform-blocking heads of state. While the protocol formulates strict democratic and rule of law standards that member states must fulfil, the ECOWAS Commission - beyond election observation - lacks a strong enough mandate to publicly enforce compliance with these standards. Over the years, an impressive regional early warning system has been established, which collects a large amount of data from member states to prevent crises. However, this information is not sufficiently translated into preventive strategies, particularly in the event of political conflicts and constitutional crises because the heads of state and government lack political commitment.

The democratic basis in the member states is lacking

This lack of commitment is reflected in the incremental erosion of democratic institutions in the region. This is not only the case in the Sahel states of Mali and Burkina Faso, where not only the democratic but also the political order as a whole is being called into question. Even in the coastal states of West Africa, where there is no jihadist threat, democratic institutions and achievements are increasingly weakened. In countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Benin and Sierra Leone, ruling presidential parties or coalitions are increasingly consolidating their dominance, domestic political opponents are being sidelined through legal proceedings, and the space for critical journalists and civil society actors is shrinking. This is also the case in Nigeria, which was the strongest supporter of enforcing ECOWAS position against the coup plotters, but whose president himself came to office in highly controversial elections.

If the ruling elites in almost all ECOWAS member states are less and less committed to democratic rules in everyday life, it will be difficult to demand compliance with these rules in other states. The putschist regimes understood this very well when they pointed to the less than impeccable governance of the elected president of Niger, whom they deposed. On the one hand, the civilian governments of ECOWAS member states will have a vested interest in ensuring that military coups do not become the norm in the region. Anti-coup norms will therefore be upheld. ECOWAS has been the regional organisation with the strongest democracy-protection regime in the world. Developments in recent years have shown the limits of such regional democracy engineering: The protection and promotion of democracy by regional organisations cannot be based on strong legal norms alone, but requires both a proactive and comprehensive regional democracy agenda that goes beyond the protection of elected officials, as well as a strong democratic base in the region's societies and governments to give credibility to this agenda.


Christof Hartmann, INEF Director