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ECOWAS in Turmoil as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger Leave West African Regional Bloc

16 Feb 2024

What is Happening?

On January 28th 2024, the military juntas in the Sahelian nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger released a joint statement announcing they had “decide[d] in complete sovereignty on the immediate withdrawal” from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The statement denounced that the regional bloc “under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to its member states and its population”.

More specifically, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – where military coups d’état occurred respectively in 2021, 2022, and 2023 – accused ECOWAS of failing to support their fight against “terrorism and insecurity”, while imposing “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions”. All three – founding members of the bloc in 1975 – were suspended from ECOWAS, with Mali and Niger facing hefty sanctions as the bloc tried to pressure the early return of civilian governments with elections. The Sahelian countries commented ECOWAS reaction as an "irrational and unacceptable posture" at a time when the three "have decided to take their destiny in hand".

The drift between ECOWAS and the Sahelian nations started a few years ago: in May 2022 Mali withdrew from G5 Sahel, the security alliance established in 2014 with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger, and in September 2023 joined forces with Burkina Faso and Niger to create the mutual defence pact of the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS).

However, on January 25th Niger tried to mend ties with ECOWAS by inviting its representatives to the capital Niamey, but only representation from Togo showed up. Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, Niger’s army-appointed prime minister, lamented that “there is bad faith within this organisation”. Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister, went as far as declaring that "instead of an ECOWAS of the people, the organisation has become a technocratic tool which that ultimately deviated from the legitimate aspirations of the West African peoples." The juntas’ decision has gathered the support of the local populations, especially in Mali where demonstrators flooded the streets of Bamako brandishing placards bearing slogans such as “Down with ECOWAS, long live ASS”.

On February 8th, the Mediation and Security Council of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a special ministerial-level session in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss political and security issues, including the withdrawals of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger from the organisation. Officially defined as a last attempt to solve the crisis and mediate a solution, the meeting was in fact the first step to try and manage the “exit” smoothly. The modalities of the withdrawals announced by the three Sahelian countries are irregular: immediate departure is materially impossible to implement and does not comply with ECOWAS’ governing treaty. Article 91 stipulates that withdrawal takes effect one year after formal notification, and during the notice period, states asking to leave must respect their commitments to the bloc.


What Is In It For You?

Our European readers should monitor these developments closely, as the security environment in West Africa has drastically changed over the last few years. France once had a strong presence across the Sahel but announced the withdrawal of its troops from the three countries after the coups: French troops left Mali in August 2022 and withdrew from their last outposts in Niger by the end of December 2023, marking the failure of “Operation Barkhane”, launched in 2014 to fight Islamist groups in the Sahel. 

Anti-French sentiment in the region might particularly affect the French (and European) energy sector, as over the last ten years, 20% of the 88,200 tonnes of natural uranium imported into France came from Niger, with only Kazakhstan (27%) providing more, and in 2022 Niger accounted for 4% of global production (7° place). In November 2023, Niger's junta revoked an anti-migration law (passed in 2015 under EU pressure) that had helped reduce the flow of West Africans to Europe but which was reviled by desert dwellers whose economies had long relied on the traffic. Niger is a crossroad of different migration routes across the Sahara from West and Central Africa, and its deteriorating relations with Western and European countries should concern most EU readers.  

Furthermore, all readers interested in African politics, security, and development might be concerned about the overarching stability of the region: French military withdrawal and economic sanctions on already fragile economies have heightened concern that armed groups could spread southwards towards the relatively stable coastal countries of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast. West Africa recorded more than 1,800 attacks in the first six months of 2023, resulting in nearly 4,600 deaths and generating severe humanitarian consequences.

Lastly, this decision might inflict severe damage to African regional cooperation, as ECOWAS has long been considered one of the most effective regional blocs, with direct involvement in many regional crises and the deployment of six peacekeeping forces since its creation in 1975. (Sierra Leone in 1998, Ivory Coast in 2003, Liberia in 2003, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, Mali in 2013, and The Gambia in 2017.)

What Happens Next?

 It is still early to determine whether this drift will become an irreparable break: the Sahelian countries followed a similar path of leveraging military juntas to cut ties with former colonial powers and face the security threats posed by Islamist terrorism, but it is unlikely that they will try and establish their alternative regional bloc in West Africa. The three countries have a total population of less than 70 million and a combined GDP (Purchase Power Parity, PPP) of around $170 billion (£134.7 billion): relevant metrics which pale if compared to Nigeria, ECOWAS’s leading power, with a GDP PPP of $1.365 trillion (£1 trillion) and a population of 230 million.

Niger's military leaders, facing overwhelming inflation and a scarcity of medicines, have said they need up to three years for a transition back to civilian rule; in Mali, the ruling officers under Colonel Assimi Goita had previously pledged to hold elections in February this year, but that has now been pushed back to an unknown date; Burkina Faso, which has not been put under sanctions after Captain Ibrahim Traore seized power in September 2022, has set elections for this summer, but says the fight against the insurgents remains the top priority.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS’ protocol on democracy and good governance will continue to apply to the outgoing states until 29th January 2025. However, the bloc will have to choose between insisting the three juntas stick to their deadlines for returning power to civilian rule or backing down to prevent them from leavingH

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