West African foreign ministers are holding emergency talks on Thursday in Nigeria’s capital Abuja to discuss the political crisis in Senegal and disputes with military rulers in three other member states.
The extraordinary session of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) follows President Macky Sall’s sudden decision to delay elections in Senegal, just a week after Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger declared they were quitting the bloc.
The ECOWAS Mediation & Security Council said ministers would gather to “discuss current security and political issues in the region”.
It remains unclear whether representatives from the four countries being discussed are attending.
ECOWAS has urged Senegal – one of its most stable member states – to return to its election timetable, but critics have already questioned the group’s sway over increasingly defiant member states.
The turmoil has also brought the almost 50-year-old bloc’s broader role into doubt, especially after its warning of military intervention in Niger last year fizzled out with no sign the country’s toppled president is closer to being restored.
ECOWAS was formed in May 1975 in Lagos. The only other member to withdraw before now was Mauritania in 2000.
Senegal’s troubles are a “new crisis ECOWAS doesn’t need”, Beninese political consultant Djidenou Steve Kpoton told the AFP news agency. “Its powerlessness in the face of the situation is self-evident.”
Other analysts said they had confidence in the bloc’s long-term ability to deal with regional problems through mediation. But with its reputation at stake, ECOWAS’s handling of the latest political upheaval is being closely watched.
Protests broke out in Senegal this weekend when President Sall announced he was postponing the February 25 vote just hours before campaigning was set to begin.
Lawmakers voted almost unanimously in favour of the delay on Monday night after security forces stormed the chamber and removed some opposition members, who were unable to cast their votes. Across the country, citizens told Al Jazeera they are in shock and remain pensive about what could happen next.
The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications also shut down mobile internet on the day of the parliamentary vote, citing security concerns. “Dear customers,” read a text from phone provider Orange, “By decision of the state, mobile internet is suspended by all operators.”
Observers expressed concern that one of the region’s most influential and stable members was tearing up the rule book, sparking violent protests and raising concerns about knock-on effects in the region.
Sanctions and stability
In a statement late on Tuesday, ECOWAS cautioned Senegal against jeopardising “peace and stability” during difficult times for West Africa. But it was unclear what the bloc would do if President Sall defied its warning.
One power ECOWAS has at its disposal is imposing trade sanctions, as it did against Mali and Niger following recent coups.
But the sanctions have hit citizens hard and military regimes remain in place.
Last month, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, already suspended from ECOWAS, announced their joint withdrawal, worsening a diplomatic headache for the bloc.
“I think there’s still time to backpedal … we can sit at a table and negotiate,” former Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara told Al Jazeera earlier this week. “That is what I wish for and appeal to our authorities to do, especially as ECOWAS have said they are willing to find a negotiated path forward and the AU [African Union] has pledged to mediate those talks.”
Experts also say Senegal is still a long way off the stage where ECOWAS is likely to impose financial penalties.
“Sanctions cannot come in at this point,” Idayat Hassan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, DC, told AFP.
“What can come in is more mediation,” she said, expressing confidence in the power of the bloc’s backchannel diplomacy.
“ECOWAS is struggling, but it’s nothing new,” she said, arguing it was important to take a long-term view of the organisation founded in 1975. “West Africa used to be one of the most coup-prone regions in the world before democratic consolidation began to set in.”
While Hassan said there had been a relatively recent reversal, she argued ECOWAS had proven “adaptable, resilient, and able to deal with most of these challenges”.
“It cannot be business as usual,” said Rama Salla Dieng, a Senegalese lecturer in African Studies at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, who called for a public consultation on the bloc’s role.
“We have to be very pragmatic,” she said. “If people think that ECOWAS doesn’t have a need to exist any more … then do we still need ECOWAS?”