The ECOWAS Community Court’s 2023 International Conference on “Zero Tolerance for Unconstitutional Change of Government” (UCG) in West Africa, has ended in Banjul, the Gambian capital with wide ranging recommendations, including the criminalisation of UCG and the creation of a special task force to intervene in cases of UCG in member States.
The four-day meeting also called for the strengthening of “the apolitical nature of the Armed Forces to guard against UCG,” and utilising “early warning tools and existing Protocols to recalibrate the regional peace and security architecture.”
The term “unconstitutional change” should be defined in the ECOWAS instruments and what constitutes a violation of convergence principles clearly spelt out, said the Conference Communique, which also called on member States to stem tenure elongation, eliminate all pseudo-democratic laws, and criminalise UCG at the national level with national courts having jurisdiction.”
It recommended effective sanctions against perpetrators of UCG, including coup plotters and their supporters, with the amendment of the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Governance to “ensure that sanctions do not affect the fundamental human rights of ordinary citizens.”
The Communique urges a “review of the efficiency of sanctions” and creation of an implementation guideline, while calling for respect of term limits and an end to constitutional manipulations by incumbents to extend their mandates.
It further called for a stop to tenure extension by political leaders, while the Protocol of the Community Court of Justice should be modified to allow for judicial intervention in election matters.
It also recommended the strengthening of the means of settling electoral disputes at the national level through the enactment of laws and setting up of mechanisms for independent adjudication of electoral disputes.
The Conference called for an increase in the number of judges of the ECOWAS Court of Justice in line with International best practices and the amendment of the “Protocols on the Court to enable access to individual citizens in respect of violations of community laws/obligations including activating sanctions proceedings against member States.”
ECOWAS should “muster the political will to hold member States accountable to their treaty obligations,” the Communique said.
It further called for the guarantee of the independence of the judiciary and the strengthening the capacity of courts to render justice and also recommended that the root causes of political conflicts should be addressed to ensure political stability, peace, and progress, as well as cultivation and strengthening of a democratic culture for economic growth.
ECOWAS should “combat corruption in public life as it undermines public confidence in state institutions and creates conditions for instability,” noted the Communique.
It also called for measures against misinformation and disinformation, particularly the negative impact of social media and the involvement of the youth.
ECOWAS should ensure strict adherence by member States to the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and “effective implementation of regional Treaty and Protocols to make compliance thereof a condition for retaining the membership of the sub-regional bloc,” the Communique urged.
Furthermore, ECOWAS should strengthen the competences and enforcement capacities of the ECOWAS Court of Justice as well as focus on the fight against poverty and the promotion of social dialogue.
It urged that National Electoral Institutions should be supported with structured training of stakeholders such as political parties, Civil Society, academia, and the media, on community principles and values.
According to the Communique, ECOWAS should “utilise proactive preventive diplomacy, mediation and results oriented conflict management strategies driven by consistency, neutrality and inclusivity to deal with management and resolution of conflict.”
It called for the creation of a functional mediation, conciliation, and arbitration committee for settling disputes in ECOWAS countries, and with a standard Community legal framework for member States to fulfil their treaty obligations.
ECOWAS member States should ensure strict adherence to the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Communique recommended, and called “a deliberate effort to discourage the teeming youths from being dangerously radicalised by Terrorists, Separatist Militias, Bandits, Kidnappers, and Ethno-religious fundamentalists within the West African sub-region.”
In his keynote address at the opening of the Conference on Monday, the Guest Speaker Prof Chidi Odinkalu, former Chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, charged ECOWAS member States to ratify, domesticate and implement the 2014 Malabo Protocol which prescribes trial by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) of politicians, soldiers or mercenaries who subvert constitutional rule on the continent.
He said this would serve as a deterrent against UCG.
The President of the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, Justice Edward Asante, said the annual Conference was the regional Court’s most important programme.
He described the theme this year as a burning issue, given military interventions in governance through military coups in the past two years in three ECOWAS member States – Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso., which are now under military rule and suspended by ECOWAS.
Declaring the Conference open, Gambian President Adama Barrow, represented by vice President Muhammad Jallow, said, “Zero tolerance for unconstitutional changes in government should not just be a slogan; it should reflect in our actions, in our policies, and in our laws.”
“Let our discussions guide us towards a future marked by peace, unity, prosperity, and an unwavering commitment to constitutional order,” he added.
The opening ceremony also featured welcome statements and goodwill messages from Heads of ECOWAS Institutions, including the ECOWAS Commission President Omar Alieu Touray, represented by the ECOWAS Resident Representative to the Gambia Miata French, as well the Gambian Justice Minister and Chief Justice, among others.
Some 24 papers were presented during the Conference under seven sub-themes, including “Lack of Free, Fair and Transparent Elections as a Key Source of Conflict; Holding member States Accountable for Their Treaty Obligations and the Sanctions Regime,” and the “Role of National Courts of member States and the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Upholding Human Rights, Rule of Law and Constitutional Democracy.”
Presenters and attendees included Justice Ministers and Attorneys General, eminent Judges and Lawyers from ECOWAS member States, as well as constitution, governance, human rights, and election experts.
The Conference recommendations are expected to contribute to efforts towards ending unconstitutional change of governments, the conduct of credible elections, respect for human rights, constitutional order and consolidation of Democracy in the ECOWAS Region.
*Paul Ejime, a Global Affairs Analyst, is a Consultant on Strategic Communication, Media Development, Governance Issues, Peace & Security and Election.