/ 1 February 2024

Coup trio’s exit from West Africa bloc shakes region

Niger Coup New2
Coup: Nigeriens hold a sign reading ‘Together we will make it’ during a march called by supporters of coup leader General Omar Tchianis. Photo: Djibo Issifou/Getty Images

The military regimes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have announced their immediate withdrawal from the West African bloc, Ecowas, accusing it of posing a threat to their sovereignty.

Burkina Faso and Mali said they had sent the Economic Community of West African States “formal notice” of their exit, with Niger expected to follow suit soon, after the three countries unveiled their move in a joint statement at the weekend.

Some observers fear the exit of three founding members of the Ecowas, formed in 1975, could compromise trade and push back the return to civilian rule in the countries concerned as they battle jihadist violence and poverty.

The three slammed Ecowas’s “irrational and unacceptable posture” after the 15-member bloc imposed a range of sanctions in an attempt to hasten a return to democratic rule.

In August, Ecowas threatened military intervention after the toppling of Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum. Although that did not materialise, the fallout notched up tensions that had been brewing following coups in Mali in 2020 and Burkina Faso in 2022.

On Sunday, the trio — who have formed an Alliance of Sahel States (AES) — said Ecowas had come “under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles” and was a “threat to member states and peoples”.

Burkina Faso and Mali were supposed to hold elections later this year, which would meet an Ecowas condition to drop sanctions. But the military authorities want to extend the “transition” periods, citing the insecurity engendered by jihadist unrest.

Niger’s military leader, General Abdourahamane Tiani, has yet to unveil an intended timeline for restoring civilian rule.

Fahiraman Rodrigue Kone, a Sahel regional expert for the Institute for Security Studies, suggested that “the AES states anticipated a coming debate on the end of the transitions”.

“Withdrawing from Ecowas seems to put that on the back burner.”

Le Patriote, a pro-government newspaper in Côte d’Ivoire, commented: “Well ensconced and enjoying the trappings of power, they [the AES leaders] wish to linger forever in their presidential chairs.”

Withdrawal will hit hard given that Ecowas guarantees visa-free travel and right of settlement and work in member countries. Losing such benefits will cause concern, as will the potential effect on regional trade.

All three countries are landlocked and their main coastal economic partners, notably Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, are, like them, members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU). The grouping also guarantees “freedom of movement and residence” between its eight members, as well as tariff-free trade on certain items along with tariff harmonisation and trade norms.

One country that could feel the effects of the triple withdrawal is Nigeria, which is not a WAEMU member. Nigeria accounts for more than half of Ecowas’s overall GDP and is neighbouring Niger’s main economic partner — although much of their shared 1  500km border is poorly controlled both in terms of security and trade.

“Even if it’s through smuggling, goods and people will return to Niger. You can’t separate Sokoto [northern Nigeria] from Konni [Niger] — it’s the same people,” said Chaibou Tchiombiano, secretary general of Niger’s import-export and wholesalers’ union.

Although the military regimes say they are withdrawing “without delay”, Ecowas regulations stipulate that requests to leave must be made in writing a year beforehand.

Ecowas said on Sunday that it had not received notification.

“Legally, withdrawal with no delay is not possible,” Kone said. “These states will have to find some form of agreement and negotiations will go in the direction of finding the means to undertake withdrawal gradually.”

Amid jihadist advances in the Sahel, “the region is fragmenting, becoming the object of stronger geostrategic competition, and this is not good news for stability”, Kone warned.

Sharp criticism of the CFA franc, the common currency of WAEMU members, by the military regimes and their supporters could see Alliance of Sahel States countries leave the organisation and renounce the free exchange of goods and labour. — AFP