Three Sahel States Quit West African Regional Bloc

Initial Assessment of the Regional Impact

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Photo by James Wiseman / Unsplash

On January 28, 2024, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—three Sahel states governed by military juntas—declared their intention to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This region has been struggling with relentless and increasingly deadly violent extremism since the early 2010s. Although the complete exit of these states from ECOWAS was not fully anticipated, a series of events and developments had hinted at a growing rift that could lead to such a decision.

In late 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger had already formed a military and political alliance. This alliance was established in retaliation against what these nations perceived as aggressive and unsupportive actions from ECOWAS, particularly in response to the handling of their internal security crises and the coups that brought the juntas to power.

The most recent announcement concerning their departure from ECOWAS signifies a further escalation in tensions and a widening divide between the regional bloc and the junta-led countries. This move may have profound implications for regional cooperation, security, and economic stability.

Background Context

The turmoil began when Tuareg rebels, alongside jihadist extremists, seized control over large territories in northern and central Mali. They captured significant settlements including Timbuktu and Gao and expanded their reach into Niger. The fall of Gaddafi in Libya left a vacuum that facilitated arms trafficking across the Sahel, exacerbating the Mali conflict.

The insurrection was intensified by radical Islamist groups like Ansar al-Din, led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, and supported by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Their actions posed a significant threat to regional stability.

As fear grew that the violence might spread across West Africa, France collaborated with other nations to confront the threat. In 2013, ECOWAS deployed the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) following a UN mandate. Operation Serval, initiated by France, aimed to reclaim territories held by extremists in Mali and Niger. International and local leaders recognized the need to differentiate between nationalist aspirations and extremist agendas, acknowledging the Tuareg's call for autonomy.

Algeria played a significant role in mediating peace talks, leveraging its counterterrorism experience and facilitating a peace accord in 2015 between moderate Tuareg rebels and the Malian government. The peace accord aimed to isolate and target the remaining extremist elements by offering a political solution to the nationalist Tuareg rebels.

As Operation Serval concluded, France launched Operation Barkhane to provide a more sustained and strategic approach to ensuring regional stability. To bolster military efforts, the G5 Sahel was established, uniting Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad in a coordinated security framework.

The combination of military interventions, political negotiations, and international aid helped to achieve a degree of stability, though it was not long-lasting. Despite initial successes, extremist groups managed to regroup and escalate their activities, presenting a continuing security challenge in the region.

The situation in Mali and the wider Sahel highlights the complexities of addressing insurgencies that have both a local and an international dimension. Besides military and political actions, there are significant humanitarian needs due to the displacement of populations and the destruction of cultural heritage. The role of former colonial powers, like France, and regional organizations, like ECOWAS and the African Union, showcases the intricate balance between local autonomy and international assistance.

The adaptability and resilience of extremist groups demand a flexible and multifaceted response strategy, combining military force with socio-economic development and political inclusion to mitigate the root causes of instability.

Consequently, the Mali conflict and the broader Sahel crisis reflect the intersection of local insurgencies with global security concerns. The situation continues to evolve, with new challenges emerging as regional stability is tested by the resurgence of extremist groups and shifting political realities. Effective conflict resolution in the Sahel demands an integrated approach that includes military deterrence, political dialogue, socio-economic development, and respect for human rights, alongside the strategic coordination of regional and international stakeholders.

Terrorism Advancement and Political Instability

Terror groups, previously thought to be on the backfoot, reorganized and launched a more vicious offensive, extending their reach to coastal states and central urban areas in the Sahel.Under the leadership of Iyad Ag Ghaly, a federation of al-Qaeda-linked groups, named Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), were formed and began to capture territory.

In Burkina Faso, a local terror group named Ansaroul emerged, adding to the complexity and lethality of the regional threat. A splinter group from JNIM formed an Islamic State affiliate, further complicating the security landscape with its brutal and indiscriminate tactics. The region saw internal conflicts between JNIM and the Islamic State affiliate, leading to clashes between these groups.

Despite their presence, international and regional forces struggled to combat the evolving terror threat effectively, hindered by operational challenges and the constraints of their legal mandates.

In 2020, escalating attacks and insecurity led to justifications for military coups, such as the one in Bamako, Mali, where the military initially shared power before taking complete control. In early 2022 Burkina Faso saw a military takeover, citing insecurity. This was followed by a subsequent counter-coup led by junior officers. By mid-2023 political chaos ensued in Niger as a coup was staged by the commander of the presidential guard, creating a tension point with Nigeria, the region's largest democracy and economic powerhouse.

The ongoing political turbulence and coups posed a threat to the stability of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). As the ECOWAS chairman and a neighboring state, Nigeria found itself in a challenging position to address the coup in Niger, both for regional stability and its national interests.

The period from 2017 to 2023 has, therefore, seen an alarming resurgence of extremist groups in the Sahel, highlighting the adaptability and resilience of terror organizations. The situation has been exacerbated by political instability, with multiple military coups signaling a crisis of governance across the region. The JNIM federation and the rise of an Islamic State affiliate have resulted in a more complex and multi-faceted conflict. These developments raise significant concerns for regional stability, as well as testing the efficacy of international and regional counterterrorism strategies. The involvement of military forces in politics in Mali and Burkina Faso, alongside the recent coup in Niger, challenges democratic norms and regional security, placing additional pressure on neighboring countries like Nigeria to respond effectively.

ECOWAS Reaction

The coup in Niger was met with a particularly strong response from ECOWAS, reflecting an immediate indignation and the threat of potential military intervention. Military heads from West African states convened in Abuja and Accra to discuss a possible response to the coup in Niger.In a bid to pressure the junta, ECOWAS states, led by Nigeria, imposed sanctions and blocked trade to the landlocked country. Yevgeny Prigozhin purportedly offered support to the Nigerien junta during the Russia-Africa summit, signifying external interest in the region's instability.

Despite ECOWAS's pressure, the Nigerien military junta used the detained president as leverage and threatened to put him on trial for treason, showcasing their resilience against external interventions. As diplomatic efforts failed, it became clear that ECOWAS would not proceed with military intervention, while the junta in Niger solidified its power. Mali and Burkina Faso expressed solidarity with Niger, promising mutual defense against any ECOWAS military action, which led to a new politico-military alliance.

As relations with ECOWAS deteriorated, Russia increased its involvement by signing security assistance agreements with the junta-led states. Reports suggest a growing Russian presence in Burkina Faso, indicating a strategic pivot to establish a stronger foothold in the Sahel region.

Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger took steps against the presence of international forces, with Mali requesting the termination of the UN mission and an end to Operation Barkhane. These actions are part of a broader trend by the juntas to assert sovereignty and reject international military involvement on their soil.

The announcement that Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are leaving ECOWAS in 2023 marks a significant escalation in regional tensions and a breakdown of an alliance that has been central to West African cooperation since 1975.

The period has been marked by a series of events that underscore the complex interplay of regional politics, international relations, and security dynamics in West Africa. ECOWAS's strong stance against coups, the obstinacy of military juntas, Prigozhin's involvement, and Russia's growing ties with these states all reflect the multiplicity of actors and interests at play. The formation of a politico-military alliance between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger represents a regional reaction to the perceived threat of intervention and illustrates the desire of these juntas to assert control and reject external influence. The deteriorating relationship with ECOWAS culminating in the departure of these core member states bears significant implications for the future of regional cooperation and stability in West Africa.

Regional Implications

The landlocked Sahelian countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger depend on access to the ports of coastal states for imports and exports. The exit from ECOWAS complicates this access and could lead to significant economic repercussions. While sanctions on Niger have been notably stringent, the collective departure from ECOWAS may result in more severe and coordinated sanctions impacting Mali and Burkina Faso as well.

ECOWAS faces a decision on whether to impose a total embargo on the three defector states, which would have grave implications for their economies and populations. The actions ECOWAS takes will depend on how its member states view the actions of the juntas, considering factors such as regional stability and economic interdependence.

As ties with traditional regional partners are severed by the juntas, they may increasingly lean on Moscow for diplomatic backing and economic aid. Regional states, especially those allied with Western powers, may view the proximity of Russian forces—both state and private—as a significant security concern, potentially intensifying global geopolitical competition in West Africa.

The increasing involvement of Russia in West Africa, juxtaposed against the interests of Western-allied coastal states, could contribute to a "new cold war" scenario in the region. Coastal ECOWAS members like Ghana and Nigeria, who are wary of a growing Russian presence, may respond to these developments with increased security measures.

The African Union's historical stance against military intervention by regional blocs, as seen in the case of Niger, indicates a preference for diplomatic solutions. The AU could become a critical broker in addressing the schism between ECOWAS and the defector states, using its continental reach and influence to mediate. The cooperation and synchronization of regional security arrangements under the AU's purview may offer a path toward resolving the current crisis.

The departure of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger from ECOWAS poses complex challenges for regional economic ties, security dynamics, and international diplomacy in West Africa. The decision could lead to increased isolation for these countries and a turn toward Russian support, shifting geopolitical alliances in the region. The situation highlights the difficulty of balancing national sovereignty against regional stability, with the potential for intensifying global rivalries. The African Union's role as a mediator could be pivotal in navigating these challenges and finding a peaceful resolution that maintains regional cohesion and security.


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