West Africa: Ecowas – Why Withdrawal of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso Signals Fresh Trouble for the Sahel

On 27 January 2024, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their plan to withdraw from membership of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), despite repeated efforts at reconciliation.

Diplomacy scholar Nicholas Westcott explains how the decision may be the latest symptom of a deepening crisis in the Sahel, the area south of the Sahara desert stretching from Mauritania in the west to Chad in the east.

Why does their decision pose a threat to the region?

The coastal states in Ecowas fear contagion from both jihadism and political disorder in the Sahel. If the three Sahelian countries leave Ecowas, that risk increases. So does the risk of potential hostility to Malian and Burkinabe migrants in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. Stopping free movement between these three countries and the rest of west Africa would have serious economic consequences for all concerned.

Other governments in the region also fear damage to their own democracies – if not from coups, then from anti-western populists.

Guinea already has a military government. Others such as Cameroon, Togo and Sierra Leone may be vulnerable.

With elections ahead in Ghana, and postponement of the election in Senegal, this year will test democracy in the region.

This schism in Ecowas is also a risk for Africa’s partners in Europe and the US. Recent research in the African Affairs journal showed that resentment of the increased French military presence was a key reason for the Nigerien military backing the coup led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani rather than elected president Mohamed Bazoum.

Other western countries risk being tarred with the same neocolonial brush unless they reform international institutions to reflect African concerns. They need to expedite the changes necessary to ensure that the multilateral system works for the benefit of small poor countries.

If this doesn’t happen, China’s narrative that the existing system works only to the benefit of “the west” will gain traction on the continent.

What are the drivers?

All countries in west Africa face a multilayered crisis. This has been brought on by years of sluggish growth following the 2008 financial crisis, COVID and the Ukraine war, the impact of climate change and population growth.

Elected governments are finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy the expectations of their citizens. This is particularly true of the growing number of unemployed young people who have become disillusioned with democracy and are open to violent regime change, whether through jihad or a coup d’etat.

It is almost a re-run of the 1970s when drought, corruption and development failures led to a rash of coups in the region. People who cannot make a living legitimately will find other ways to do so.

Jihadism and banditry have increased despite western efforts to combat them. Western support has thus lost credibility, even if the real failure is primarily political and economic.

Why have regional bodies like Ecowas not been able to help?

Faced with the juntas’ threat of secession, African regional organisations, in this case Ecowas and the African Union, face a dilemma. Do they to stick to their principles and exclude states that have experienced unconstitutional changes of government until they re-establish governments accountable to their citizens? Or do they compromise their principles to preserve at least nominal unity, and allow authoritarian governments back into the club?

Reconciliation efforts by Togo, through its Peace and Security Forum in Lomé last November, and by Nigerian Islamic leaders have not borne fruit. Nevertheless, it’s possible that the departure announcement is a bargaining chip to get more lenient terms for their reintegration into Ecowas.

Ecowas responded by saying that it had not yet received formal notification, which means, according to the regulations, that the countries can only leave in a year’s time. This provides all parties with negotiation time. The AU has also urged negotiation to keep Ecowas together. For its part, Nigeria’s response has been less accommodating.

What lies behind the military regimes’ announcement?

Regime survival has become their overriding objective. Their explicit intention seems to be to undermine the principle that African nations should apply standards to each other. The fact that African governments themselves signed up to these principles is as irrelevant to the insurrectionists, who want to retain power, as it is to the jihadists, who want to seize it.

They have set out the following justifications for their withdrawal:

  • Ecowas provided no support against the jihadists
  • Ecowas has imposed “illegal” sanctions that are harming the people
  • Ecowas has fallen under the influence of foreign governments.

These arguments are weak. They reflect an attempt to look like defenders of the poor and opponents of western influence.

It seems to be working. Populations are being mobilised and armed to fight the jihadists.

The juntas appear to be donning the mantle of Thomas Sankara. The revered former president of Burkina Faso, who seized power himself, is seen as a hero for his opposition to corrupt elites and French influence, his modesty and principles, and his concern for the ordinary Burkinabe.

It also plays conveniently into a narrative that both China and Russia are promoting: that current global institutions have been set up to defend neocolonial western interests, that adherence to “western values” (such as democracy and human rights) denies countries their right to develop in their own way; and that only China and Russia are true defenders of the interests of the global south.

Russia is putting its guns where its mouth is. There are an estimated 1,000 Russian troops in Mali – formerly Wagner, now state-run and re-branded the Africa Corps – and the first 100, with more to follow, have arrived in Burkina Faso.

Others are being recruited for Niger. Their official justification may be anti-terrorist duties, but their real purpose is to protect the regime from further threats of mutiny, coup or invasion.

The danger is that the Sahelian states could become unaccountable regimes, protected by Russia in return for gold, and living off the illicit trafficking of people and goods across the Sahara.

The migrant trade is already thriving again in Agadez, the key transit point in northern Niger to the Mediterranean coast. And nothing worries European countries more than a dramatic increase in African migration. So they will be watching developments with concern.

Nicholas Westcott, Professor of Practice in Diplomacy, Dept of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London

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