The Sahel Split: How ECOWAS “Lost” Three of Its Founding Members

By Olaogun Michael 

Note: This article examines the causes, consequences, and outlook of this unprecedented move, which has rocked the region and the world.

On Sunday, January 28, 2024, the strength of Africa and ECOWAS got further weakened after three West African countries – Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – declared their departure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc they co-founded in 1975. The decision, described as a “sovereign choice”, was taken by the military regimes that currently govern the three countries, after repeated conflicts with ECOWAS over the return of democracy and the fight against terrorism.

As we may know, ECOWAS is a regional organization of 15 West African countries, with the goal of fostering economic integration, political cooperation, and peace and security in the region. ECOWAS has a population of about 400 million people and a combined GDP of about $816.4 billion. Unfortunately, the recent trajectory among the bloc has distracted its attention from pursuing the goal for which it was established.

What prompted the withdrawal of the three countries?
The three countries that left ECOWAS have been held by the jugular due to political and security issues in recent years, as a result of the emergence of Islamist militant groups in the Sahel region, a semi-arid zone that spans across Africa. The groups, such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP), have launched attacks on civilians, indigenous security forces, and foreign troops, killing thousands of people and displacing millions more.

The three countries have also witnessed military coups that overthrew their elected governments and annulled their constitutions. Mali had two coups in 2020 and 2023, Burkina Faso had one in 2022, and Niger had one in 2023. The coups were caused by various factors, such as public dissatisfaction, corruption, ethnic divisions, and foreign meddling. Sadly, ECOWAS amidst of the challenges faced by its member states has been accused to be as a “toothless bull dog”.

Since the military takeovers in the three countries, ECOWAS, as the regional bloc, has been trying to persuade the military regimes to restore civilian rule and hold free and fair elections, as well as to collaborate with the international community to counter terrorism and other security threats. At the failure of diplomatic approach, ECOWAS under the leadership of the President of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu has imposed sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, on the coup leaders and their supporters, and threatened to use military force if needed. ECOWAS has also backed the deployment of a multinational force, known as the G5 Sahel, composed of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, to combat the militants.

However, the military regimes have defied ECOWAS’s demands, accusing the bloc of being swayed by external powers, especially France, the former colonial master of most West African states. France has about 5,000 troops in the Sahel region, as part of its Operation Barkhane, which aims to assist the local forces against the militants. The military regimes have also criticized ECOWAS for failing to help them tackle the root causes of the crises, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change.

In September 2023, the three countries formed their own alliance, called the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), and distanced themselves from France and other Western partners. They also enhanced their ties with Russia, which has been providing them with military and economic aid, as well as diplomatic support. The three countries said they wanted to pursue their own vision of development and security, based on the principles of sovereignty, solidarity, and self-reliance.

Though Article 91 of ECOWAS’ revised treaty states that member states cannot abruptly withdraw from the bloc but must give the Executive Secretary ”one year’s notice in writing”, and ‘’At the expiration of this period, if such notice is not withdrawn, such a state ceases to be a member of the Community,’’ but the body language of the leaders of the three states reflects that their souls already departed ECOWAS.

The implications of their withdrawal?
The withdrawal of the three countries from ECOWAS is a major setback for the regional bloc, which has been regarded as a model of integration and cooperation in Africa. The withdrawal diminishes the size, population, and economic power of ECOWAS, and erodes its credibility and legitimacy as a regional actor. The departure also creates a division within the region, as the other 12 members of ECOWAS may have different opinions and interests on how to handle the three countries.

The departure also presents serious difficulties for the stability and security of the region, as the danger of terrorism and violence persists. The departure may impair the coordination and cooperation among the countries in the battle against the militants, and create chances for the militants to take advantage of the gaps and divisions. The departure may also impact the humanitarian situation in the region, as the three countries host millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, who rely on the aid and protection of the international community.

The departure may also have consequences for the relations between the region and the rest of the world, especially France and other Western countries, which have been engaged in the Sahel for decades. The departure may indicate a change in the geopolitical balance of the region, as the three countries seek to diversify their partnerships and align themselves with other powers, such as Russia, China, and Turkey. The departure may also raise questions about the role and significance of the African Union, the continental body that supervises the regional blocs, and its ability to address the conflicts and crises in the continent.

What is the way forward?
The departure of the three countries from ECOWAS is not permanent, as the ECOWAS treaty allows for the possibility of rejoining the bloc, subject to the approval of the other members. However, it is likely to have lasting effects for the region and beyond, as it reflects the worsening political and security crises in the Sahel, and the growing discontent and mistrust among the countries and their partners.

The way forward for the region requires dialogue, diplomacy, and compromise, among all the stakeholders, to find a peaceful and lasting solution to the crises. The solution should address not only the immediate issues of democracy and terrorism, but also the underlying issues of development and governance, that affect the lives and livelihoods of the people. The solution should also respect the sovereignty and diversity of the countries, while promoting the integration and cooperation of the region, for the benefit of all.

Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi, a policy analyst and democracy observer wrote from Abuja. He can be reached at:

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