Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 603, 1 February 2024

Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso's termination from ECOWAS and regional challenges
Anu Maria Joseph

In the news
On 28 January, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso announced that they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The announcement came alongside all three countries being suspended from the bloc after recent military takeovers. The three governments stated that the withdrawal was a “sovereign decision.” They jointly stated that the bloc had “drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism." They stated that the bloc, "under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to member states and peoples." They added that the bloc failed to address insecurity in their countries while imposing “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions.”

The same day, in response, ECOWAS stated: “Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali remain important members of the Community and the Authority remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse.”

On 29 January, Sierra Leone's Minister of Foreign Affairs and the mediator between ECOWAS and the military governments of the respective countries, Timothy Musa Kabba, denied the accusations, describing it as “unfortunate.” He added that the bloc’s objective was to “find a solution to the impasse” and ensure peace and stability in the region.

On 30 January, Nigeria, the chair of the bloc, accused all three countries of letting down its people’s interests, stating: "Unelected leaders engage in a public posturing to deny their people the sovereign right to make fundamental choices over their freedom of movement, freedom to trade and freedom to choose their own leaders.”

Issues at large
First, tensions between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, and ECOWAS. The relations between the bloc and the three countries strained after the military coups- Niger in July 2023, Burkina Faso in January 2022 and Mali in August 2020. The bloc had called on all countries to restore civilian rule. However, the military leaders have been postponing the civilian transition citing the restoration of security before elections. Niger’s junta asserted that they need at least three years for a transition. Mali was supposed to hold elections in February; this was postponed without further details. Burkina Faso has planned to conduct elections this year, but the military claimed that fighting insurgency is their priority. ECOWAS has been mediating with the juntas for a civilian transition. However, suspension from the bloc, sanctions and failed negotiations, and the threat of a military intervention following the coup in Niger increased the tensions. Additionally, in December, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso signed a mutual defence pact against any foreign military intervention and established the Alliance of Shael States (AES).

Second, the role of external actors. External actors, including France and the US, called on the military leaders to reverse the coup. French President Emmanuel Macron announced support for ECOWAS’ planned military intervention in Niger against its refusal to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. This came after France lost its bilateral, security and economic ties with all three countries following the widespread anti-French sentiments and accusations of French interference in internal affairs. French troops had to withdraw from Mali in November 2022, Burkina Faso in February 2023 and Niger in December 2023; all following military coups. They accused France of influencing ECOWAS to impose sanctions and carry out military intervention. Besides, following the deteriorated ties with the West amidst the sanctions, especially France, the three military governments have established military ties with alternative powers, including Russia and Iran.

Third, the role of sanctions. ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU and the US had imposed sanctions on all three countries calling to reverse the coups; however, sanctions have failed. Although sanctions on Mali and Burkina Faso were lifted, Niger continues to face severe repercussions under sanctions. In Niger, ECOWAS imposed the closure of land and air borders, a no-fly zone for commercial flights, suspended financial transactions and froze assets of the countries in ECOWAS’ central banks. It disrupted livelihood and exacerbated humanitarian crises. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), in Niger, the number of people facing food security doubled from 3.3 million following the coup. Niger shares a 1,608 kilometres long border with Nigeria where nearly 8.5 million people from several border towns depend on cross-border trade. The border closure has disrupted the livelihood of a larger population, with rising cost of living, inflation and business losses.

In perspective
First, the withdrawal of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso from ECOWAS was not unexpected. All three governments had implicated no intention to adhere to what they claimed as a France-influenced ECOWAS. The new Sahel alliance was the first step towards implying its intention for a sub-region of like-minded countries independent of ECOWAS. A withdrawal from the 49-year-old bloc would potentially change the regional dynamics. With a strengthening military regime bloc, further coups are likely to happen with military leaders wanting to join the new Sahel bloc. A non-allegiance to ECOWAS would also imply that a democratic transition in all three countries is idealistic in the near future.

Second, the sanctions always backfired. With sanctions in place and insurgency on pace, the repercussions would not limit to Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The spillover effect would extend to the whole of West Africa. While the new alliance seeks security collaborations, with deteriorated ties with the West and the rest of the region, these countries lack the capacity, funding and equipment to sustain it. This would imply an increased jihadist and rebel insurgency in the region. 

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