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The Alliance of Sahel States withdraw from ECOWAS: What does this mean for (West) Africa?

Updated: Feb 12

By Abdul Wando

 

On the 28th of January 2024, the military junta governments of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso (who make up the Alliance of Sahel States) released a joint statement announcing their immediate withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). According to them ECOWAS has “drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism"[1] and "under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to member states and peoples."[2] Notably, they criticise ECOWAS for its failure to tackle violent extremism in the region.

 

ECOWAS was established in 1975 as an economic and political union. Its original intended goal was to create a single trade bloc in order to generate economic development in the region and improve the living standards of its people.[3] Although it did eventually evolve to include security in its mandate, one may still be tempted to argue that ECOWAS has been, and in general all too often is blamed for regional insecurity. Regardless, beyond visa free travel between member states, anyone would be hard pressed to make the case that after 49 years of existence ECOWAS has made significant and meaningful progress in both its original (economic development) and updated (economic development and security) goals.

 

Is ECOWAS’s failure to achieve these goals why Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have now decided to leave the regional bloc? To answer this, first we need to look at the context in which these three countries established the Alliance of Sahel States. In September 2023 Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso set up the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS), in response to ECOWAS Chairman President Tinubu of Nigeria threatening military intervention in Niger to reverse the coup that ousted former Nigerien President Bazoum.[4] The ASS agreement binds the signatories to provide military assistance to one another in the event of an attack on any one of them.[5] When this pact was signed, all three Alliance states had already been suspended from ECOWAS. Bearing all this in mind, there has been a clear divide between the Alliance states and the rest of ECOWAS for several months at least, and so with the benefit of hindsight it seems an inevitable political outcome that the Alliance states formally withdrew from ECOWAS. Similarly, their reference to “the spirit of Pan-Africanism” is inherently political, deploying the concept primarily to disparage ECOWAS while bolstering the ASS’s image and legitimacy. It is improbable that ECOWAS Chairman President Tinubu, as believed by ASS, threatened military intervention in Niger at the West's urging. Instead, it appears to be motivated by Tinubu’s own interest in preventing the spread of coups in the region. However, given the intrinsically loose nature of the term “Pan-Africanism”, all too often it is instrumentalised by various actors in a similar manner to how the Alliance is doing so now, but that is another story for another day.


ECOWAS Chairman President Tinubu speaking at ECOWAS summit in Abuja, Nigeria, 2023. (Photo Credit: Presidency)

 Irrespective of the reasons behind the withdrawal, the ramifications of these developments for West Africa and Africa as a whole indicate a lamentable increase in the likelihood of heightened instability. The tension between member states of the ASS and ECOWAS poses a significant risk. It will particularly threaten Niger’s cooperation in the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The MNJTF is a security agreement between Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon for jointly combatting Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State of West Africa Province) terrorists who exploit the porous borders of these four countries. It also remains to be seen if ASS member states will drop out of other regional bodies, such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) or even the African Union (AU).

 

The military governments of ASS have pointed out serious problems that have perennially compromised the development of their countries and Africa continentally. Undue and extreme external influence in domestic affairs particularly from France, corruption, poverty, and underdevelopment. These problems were all cited as justifications for their coups. Whether the ASS military governments efforts to address these problems will have a meaningful positive impact still remains to be seen. It is noteworthy that all three (amongst other African countries) enjoy an increasingly close relationship with Russia, who have provided wheat,[6] and through Wagner security.[7] It is possible that establishing strong connections with Russia might result in it assuming France's role in West Africa. Some are already interpreting this withdrawal from ECOWAS as Russia emboldening the ASS to weaken western influence in the region while increasing their own.[8]

 

Interim President of the Republic of Burkina Faso Ibrahim Traore and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2023. (Photo Credit: Mikhail Metzel/TASS)

Nevertheless, despite these circumstances, ECOWAS Chairman President Tinubu's declaration of potential military intervention in Niger following the coup was rightly widely perceived as excessive, both within and outside Nigeria. Given the evolving alliances and persistent security challenges, ECOWAS may find itself compelled to coexist with the ASS, engaging in diplomatic efforts to avert the potential for increased instability.

 

 



[1] Wong V., (2024), “Ecowas: Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso quit West African bloc”, BBC News, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-68122947 

[2] Wong V., (2024), “Ecowas: Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso quit West African bloc”,

[3] ECOWAS, “About ECOWAS”, ECOWAS, available at: https://www.ecowas.int/about-ecowas/ 

[4] Adetayo O., (2023), “A test of wills: Can ECOWAS reverse Niger coup and establish a new order?”, Aljazeera, available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/8/1/a-test-of-wills-can-ecowas-reverse-niger-coup-and-establish-a-new-order

[5] Al Jazeera (2023), “Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso establish Sahel security alliance”, Aljazeera, available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/16/mali-niger-and-burkina-faso-establish-sahel-security-alliance 

[6] Booty. N., (2024), “Burkina Faso thanks Russia for ‘priceless gift’ of wheat”, BBC News, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-68116860 

[7] The Associated Press, (2023), “Niger’s military rulers ask for help from Russian group Wagner”, Aljazeera, available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/5/nigers-military-rulers-ask-for-help-from-russian-group-wagner 

[8] Samuel-Ugwuezi. O., (2024), “Bolaji Akinyemi: Russia is emboldening Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso to weaken ‘western influence’ in Africa”, AriseNews, available at: https://www.arise.tv/bolaji-akinyemi-russia-is-emboldening-mali-niger-burkina-faso-to-weaken-western-influence-in-africa/

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