Sanctions kill people and breed instability. Why are the AU and ECOWAS imposing such draconian, Western-styled, ethnocentric measures on their member states rather than seeking solutions that champion the African way, based on inclusive consultation, participation and dialogue and equitably free speech?
The answer lies in understanding what the nature of moral responsibility is when confronted with a problem as complex as popularly-supported military coups. Is the language behind the actions of expulsion and sanctions helpful in encouraging a shift from military takeover to democratic priorities? Or is the language of expulsion and sanctions morally irresponsible and just one more form of complicity in the immiseration of others?
The real impact of sanctions: the spread of suffering
There are more than 1,348 trucks loaded with products of first necessity for survival that are blocked at the Senegalese border with Mali. Not only is this a security and health hazard for all concerned that can seriously derail the success in managing the Covid pandemic; more than 3,000 people have been forced to camp out in extremely precarious conditions. Just as important, it also directly impacts thousands of local businesses and millions of people in Mali and Senegal who depend on the delivery, access to and purchase of those goods for the survival of their families.
Meanwhile, AU leaders and ECOWAS members are preparing for the summit taking place this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which is the darling of the United States and whose President won the Nobel Peace Prize but is now mired in a civil war that has led to outcries of genocidal tendencies and shows no signs of abating. The summit will focus on, among other things, how military takeovers constitute a threat to peace, security (food, health, climate) and stability in West Africa.
What’s wrong with economic sanctions?
Sanctions are nothing new. Their use was first recorded in 432 B.C. in the Athenian Empire to strangle a rival city state’s economy by banning traders from marketplaces. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that they became a prominent tool of economic statecraft as a "peaceful" alternative to direct bloodshed and destruction.
Since World War I, the governments of major Western powers, chief among them the United States, have increasingly used sanctions as a passive-aggressive means to achieve their foreign policy objectives. But they are no silver bullet for effecting/forcing desired policy changes in other countries.
Sanctions intentionally harm many innocent people and, contrary to their “promise”, induce people to see the sanctioner, rather than their own government, as the enemy. The truth is, sanctions often fail; the estimated success rate is less than 5%.
Indeed, sanctions are a blunt instrument that more often than not produces unintended and undesirable consequences: they can trigger a dangerous and expensive exodus of people; they can perversely bolster authoritarianism by creating scarcity that enables the government to better control distribution of goods; and they always have massive adverse effects on basic human rights and on the economy and humanitarian wellbeing of the targeted country, particularly the most vulnerable.
The inefficacy of sanctions may have detracted little from the willingness of American presidents to impose them, but that in no way excuses the piggy-back willingness of African governments and institutions to follow the path of what Richard Haas, a veteran American diplomat and President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has tagged as “sanction madness”. The African Union and ECOWAS should not adopt it as a policy choice.
Far from delivering on the idealistic promise of collective, nonviolent prevention of human rights abuses and promotion of international norms, sanctions contribute to economic devastation that harms the livelihoods and very survival of the innocent people the imposers of sanctions say they want to protect. In fact, not only do sanctions not protect the innocent and vulnerable; they are a form of intervention that reveals vulnerability on the part of whomever imposes them. It is unconscionable to use them as a therapy to feel good about doing “something” that is bad because it transgresses the very democratic norms and practices the sanctions purportedly seek to defend.
ECOWAS and its members exist to represent the peoples of Africa and defend their rights and interests. But neither the institution nor the leaders who represent its member states have ever been given a mandate by the African People to resolve conflicts by resorting to foreign practices that, for all practical purposes, disdain and indirectly seek to cut the multi-secular ties that bind African society together and serve as the basis for conflict resolution in the African context. Africa and Africans have a sufficient number of indigenous resources to resolve their conflicts more effectively and productively than any foreign bag of tricks.
It’s easy for others, like the United States, to support the actions announced by the African Union and those taken by ECOWAS in “defense of democracy and the rule of law” in African members countries. But neither President Biden nor Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are in Africa or have any direct experience living there. They both have a distant and ethnocentric understanding of what they think is going on.
U.S. leadership and policymakers may be “sympathetic to the plight” of the African people and security forces affected, but this kind of abstract sympathy is an established national ritual for expressing sympathy that is little more than a form of self-exculpation and empty sentiment in the face of the suffering of Africans. In this sense, the biting satire of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson (essay 14 of The Rambler, 1750) is most relevant: “Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory.”
While no military coup should be condoned, those that have recently taken place in West Africa were not power grabs, as the Western media have characterized them. Instead, these coups mirror each other in that they are the expression of the breaking point of the peoples of entire nations who have had it with despotic, kleptocratic strongmen who could care less about the citizens they are supposed to lead and instead defend hypocritical foreign interests that ignore African needs, rights and aspirations. The African peoples cheering a military coup are expressing a desperate cry for self-determination and the freedom to achieve independent democracy rooted in African democratic processes and practices.
Paraphrasing the Coordinator of Road Transport Professionals of Senegal (CPTRS), Mr. Momar Sourang, the Presidents of the African nations represented in ECOWAS may not feel in their own flesh the impacts of penalties and sanctions they decide to impose through the disenfranchisement of universal suffrage, but they are called to look for an intelligent, humane solution. They can start by gathering the African way under the Palaver tree.