The recent coup in Niger surprised regional security actors, as the country was relatively stable compared to neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions and issued an ultimatum, leading Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea to support Niger and threaten intervention. In response, the junta formed the Sahel Alliance (AES) with Mali and Burkina Faso to strengthen security cooperation. The AES aims to combat terrorism, address rebellion, and promote economic integration. However, concerns arise regarding entrenching juntas and potential encouragement of further coups. The AES's emergence challenges regional organizations and raises global implications.
When a successful coup occurred on July 26, 2023, in Niger, the event raised concerns among neighboring states in the region. While Niger was not considered immune to a military takeover, it had a relatively stable political and security situation prior to the coup. Hence, many regional security actors did not anticipate an imminent coup similar to those that had taken place in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Both Mali and Burkina Faso had experienced two previous coups before the military takeover in Niger. Moreover, the threat of violent extremism in Mali and Burkina Faso before the aforementioned coups was more pronounced. Given the perceived security situation in Niger, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded to the coup by imposing harsher sanctions compared to those placed on Mali and Burkina Faso. As a landlocked country, these sanctions had significant implications for Niger. Additionally, ECOWAS issued a seven-day ultimatum for the junta to hand power back to Mohamed Bazoum, the deposed civilian leader, or face a military intervention by ECOWAS forces.
Early Regional and Global Response
After ECOWAS issued the ultimatum, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea considered it a threat to their sovereignty. The ruling juntas in these states feared they could be the next targets if ECOWAS successfully intervened in Niger. Consequently, they declared their support for Niger and threatened to join the defense should the region carry out its threats.
This further escalated the crisis in Niamey and bolstered the morale of the junta. Mali and Burkina Faso also provided economic assistance to the Nigerien junta to mitigate the impact of the already biting sanctions. Notably, Russia offered assistance through Mali during the Russia-African summit in St. Petersburg. The convergence of this apparent support reinforced the junta's resolve to hold on to power and challenge ECOWAS leaders.
After the expiration of the ultimatum and a seeming lack of unanimity among states in the region on whether to proceed with a military intervention, the African Union did not support the military approach pursued by West African leaders. Algeria, in particular, strongly opposed the ECOWAS initiative as it shares a long border with Niger in the Sahara Desert. This diplomatic fragmentation only made the junta feel more comfortable.
Although ECOWAS did not entirely rule out the military option, it showed a willingness to reconsider its position due to the lack of support and resolve for military intervention. Representatives from ECOWAS met with the junta, but the junta made it clear that it would not immediately release the deposed leader from house arrest or hand over power to him. Similarly, Mohamed Bazoum was not prepared to accept that he was no longer the legitimate president of Niger, but his fate largely depends on the junta.
Contributing Factors for the Formation of the New Alliance
The creation of a new alliance between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger does not come as a surprise given the events that unfolded after the coup in Niger. These three countries likely believed that by forming an alliance, they could deter ECOWAS from intervening militarily, as threatened. If pledging support to Niger proved effective, establishing an alliance based on mutual security and a charter could institutionalize collective security among their ruling regimes.
The alliance encompasses security, political, and economic components that are expected to complement each other in safeguarding the interests of member states. One of its key objectives is to collectively confront external aggression against their territories. Additionally, the alliance aims to combat terrorism and other rebellions. It also has the option to address internal rebellions within member states. Recognizing the continued sanctions from regional powers and coastal states, economic cooperation is vital for the survival of the alliance and individual states. While the leadership of the group is not clearly defined, indications suggest that Mali holds a dominant position within the alliance.
The combined area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is approximately 2.780 million square kilometers (1.073 million square miles), larger than the total area of Ukraine, France, Poland, Spain, Germany, and Italy—the largest countries in Europe apart from Russia.
The alliance's territory comprises three main vegetation zones: savannah, Sahel, and desert (Sahara), progressing from south to north. The Sahel and desert regions provide a harsh environment inhabited by ethnic groups adapted to these conditions over time. Groups in the Sahel primarily engage in pastoral economic activities, with cattle raising as a major occupation. The northern region is sparsely populated by Tuareg, Fulbe, and Arab minorities. The savannah is predominantly occupied by sedentary agriculturalists who cultivate staple crops like corn, millet, and sorghum. Additionally, cash crops like cotton are grown for export.
In terms of population, Burkina Faso has the largest number of inhabitants, followed by Niger and Mali. This region has one of the youngest populations in the world, with Niger having a significantly high fertility rate. The young population plays a crucial role in shaping the political events unfolding in the region.
In early 2014, leaders of states in the western Sahel met in Nouakchott, Mauritania, to discuss regional security, resulting in the creation of the G5 Sahel. The member states—Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—formed the alliance with the primary goal of combating violent extremism in the region.
The G5 Sahel was established following France's Operation Serval and aimed to foster collaboration among states in leading the fight against extremism. Five months after its establishment, France led the alliance in launching Operation Barkhane to sustain momentum against increasingly ferocious jihadist groups.
However, by 2017, extremist organizations had regrouped and formed a robust federation, posing significant challenges to the G5 Sahel and international forces, particularly in Mali. The security situation deteriorated, reaching pre-2014 levels.
In 2020, Mali experienced its first successful coup with civilian governments governing all G5 Sahel member states at the time. The junta in Mali faced pressure from other alliance members, ECOWAS, and the African Union to relinquish power. Eventually, a compromise was reached to form a transitional government consisting of civilian and military members.
Months later, in 2021, Asimi Goita seized power in Bamako, ignoring diplomatic pressure. Notably, Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel, marking the first time a member state exited the alliance. This move effectively isolated Mauritania from the rest of the G5 Sahel. Subsequently, Mali asked French forces stationed in its territory to leave. Although the 2022 coup in Burkina Faso deepened regional instability, the subsequent counter-coup followed Mali's path. The junta in Ouagadougou requested the withdrawal of French forces but remained officially part of the G5 Sahel. Currently, French forces are withdrawing from Niger as the new junta officially requested their departure.
With French forces being the backbone of the G5 Sahel, their exit renders the alliance ineffective for the member states. Presently, only Mauritania and Chad, located at opposite ends of the Western Sahel, remain as functional members. Consequently, the creation of the Alliance of the Sahel (AES) has become necessary for the three landlocked countries to cooperate effectively and achieve collective security—an essential factor given their status within ECOWAS.
The juntas ruling the member states of the AES justified their respective coups by citing regional insecurity. However, since the juntas took power, the security situation in Mali and Burkina Faso has further deteriorated. Security and humanitarian reports indicate dire conditions requiring immediate attention, as extremist groups become more audacious in their attacks against security forces and civilians.
The alliance's focus on the Liptako-Gourma region, covering the tri-border area of the alliance, holds potential for addressing the increasing attacks. Effective coordination and competent security planning by the alliance's actors will be critical in achieving this goal.
Additionally, the alliance could lead to enhanced economic integration among member states. While the primary focus appears to be on security operations and countering the growing terrorism threat, the potential for improved economic cooperation among the three landlocked economies should not be overlooked. While the three states have similar economic structures, they possess different food production and other capabilities. Cooperation among them could yield positive outcomes.
Technical support among member states could also make a difference in sectors where individual states face chronic challenges.
Another major implication is that the creation of the new alliance may solidify the position of the juntas in power. With collective security and cooperation, the juntas in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Niamey may feel secure and comfortable delaying or refusing to hand over power to civilian administrations. This could create a permanent gap in the ECOWAS region, particularly if negotiations for power transfer become obstinate due to strengthened military leadership in Niger.
Furthermore, the emergence of the alliance seems to undermine the charter of ECOWAS and raises questions about the future of the regional organization. While various military cooperation and alliances exist within the ECOWAS region, the AES contradicts the principles of the regional organization, which does not recognize military rule. This brings to the forefront the challenges and choices that lie ahead for ECOWAS.
Additionally, the alliance's freedom to cooperate with any external interest of its choice has global political implications. In 2022, Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo openly objected to the possibility of dealing with the presence of Wagner forces in Burkina Faso. He believed that Burkina Faso had invited the Russian PMC to assist with security, although Burkina Faso denied it. This potential presence of Wagner in Burkina Faso, coupled with their existing presence in Mali, may not be objected to by other West African states, as these countries are technically members of ECOWAS.
As ECOWAS member states, these countries present a challenge to the regional body, which must decide whether to adapt to the prevailing realities or adhere to its principles to achieve desired goals in these states. Both choices present considerable difficulties for the regional bloc, which was established in 1975.
In conclusion, the formation of the Sahel Alliance and the evolving political and security landscape in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger underscore the importance for stakeholders to remain proactive and attentive. Organizations and individuals operating or residing in the region should stay vigilant, closely monitor the situation, and be prepared for potential disruptions caused by shifting security and political events. By maintaining a proactive stance and staying attuned to developments, stakeholders can effectively navigate the dynamic environment and safeguard their interests amidst changing circumstances.
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