West Africa: What will happen after the “Sahel-Exit”?

On the way to what? Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Photo: Shutterstock.

ANALYSIS. On January 28th, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger announced that they are exiting ECOWAS with immediate effect. The divide within West Africa between the poor and unstable Sahelian countries and the richer and more stable Coastal countries is now widening dramatically. What does this “West-African Brexit” mean for the future of the region?

This is an analysis. the opinions expressed are those by the author.

ECOWAS (CEDEAO in French) was created in 1975 to promote economic integration and today has 15 member countries, of which eight are French-speaking. It is equivalent to the EU for West Africa and considered to be the strongest regional organisation in Africa. Not only in terms of the free movement of people and goods, but also in terms of dialogue between its leaders. Among other things, ECOWAS signed a protocol on democracy and good governance in 2001 which sets governance standards and calls for sanctions when those standards are not respected. As a consequence, in 2017, when Gambian President Yahya Jammeh tried to stay in power after losing the elections, ECOWAS sent troops and forced him to step down.

On the 28th of January, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger simultaneously announced that they are leaving ECOWAS with immediate effect. These three Sahelian countries have many things in common: they are former French colonies, they are landlocked and among the poorest countries in the world, they are under heavy pressure from transborder armed groups, and they are all under military rule (since 2020, 2022 and 2023 respectively).

Rising tensions within ECOWAS

With the worsening security crisis in the Sahel, tensions have been rising within ECOWAS, particularly between its French speaking members. As the Sahel countries have been increasingly exposed to violence, their populations’ disappointment with democracies which do not deliver has grown, leading to military coups in Mali in 2020 and in Burkina Faso in 2022 which have been generally well received by the populations. Simultaneously, the disenchantment with France, and the West generally, has also grown, partly due to their military presence not improving the security situation. Russia has been quick to exploit these frustrations and to fan the fire of anti-West sentiment through massive disinformation campaigns which have strengthened the Sahelians’ conviction that France and the West are at the root of the insecurity crisis and that ECOWAS is their mouthpiece.

In July 2023, through a coup, Niger joined the club of countries under military rule. Since the reasons for the overthrow of the elected government seemed less justified in Niger than in Mali or Burkina Faso (Niger was efficiently handling security threats and was implementing progressive developmental policies), the reaction of ECOWAS was harsher than it had been for the two others. They imposed severe sanctions and threatened a military intervention in the hope of getting the putschists to relinquish power, but achieved the opposite. The population of Niger seemingly rallied around the new government, not so much because the ousted government was bad, but because they felt their national sovereignty was under attack.

The Sahelians vs the Coastals

That Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger now see themselves as a club was confirmed in September 2023 when they withdrew from the international force set up by France to fight Islamists in the Sahel, the G5, and created AES, the Alliance of Sahel States. This move seems to have been appreciated by their populations, and generally speaking, the three military governments still seem to have the support of their populations. The Sahelians proudly call themselves pan African and most express the conviction that their countries are finally on their way to true sovereignty, more than 60 years after independence. They tend to look with contempt at “the Coastals”, such as Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo and Benin, seeing them as dependent on and subjugated to France.

As for the populations of the Coastal countries, they see themselves as pragmatic and tend to shake their heads at what they see as the excesses of their Northern neighbours. Most are looking at the evolution in the Sahel with concern and disbelief. They increasingly worry about the lack of democracy and the increasing breaches of human rights in the name of national unity and sovereignty. They see the AES decision to exit ECOWAS as rash and profoundly undemocratic and are convinced that it is secretly motivated by the wish of the three military governments to stay in place indefinitely. They are sincerely worried that this marks the end of democracy for the three Sahelian states. 

ECOWAS member countries. Map: Wikipedia cc.

It should be noted that Togo, one of the coastal countries, has taken on a special role and has become a sort of mediator between the two sides. Togo, which is under civilian rule, is seen as an ally by the putschists and has managed to achieve both the return of the Ivorian soldiers arrested in Mali and the release of the wife and son of the deposed Nigerien president, who is still being detained.

This divide between “Sahelians” and “Coastals” has not always existed. For the last few years, there has been increasing and ongoing criticism against ECOWAS from populations in all countries of the West African region. The criticism mainly concerns ECOWAS being very strict in their condemnation of military coups in general (and of the one in Niger in particular), while turning a blind eye to Presidents tweaking constitutions to get around term limits (as in Togo and Ivory Coast) or crackdowns on the opposition (as in Senegal). ECOWAS has increasingly been seen as a club for heads of state serving the purpose of preserving the status quo. 

While this critique is being heard in all countries, it is stronger in the Sahel countries, in particular since July 2023 due to the harsh but inefficient sanctions against Niger. Also, following the coups, all three countries were actually suspended from ECOWAS’s decision-making bodies. The decision of the three AES countries to leave ECOWAS therefore did not come as a surprise per se. However, the sudden nature of the announcement and the fact that they claim that their leaving has immediate effect, although ECOWAS’s regulations stipulate one year’s notice, has come as somewhat of a surprise.

The rationale for exiting ECOWAS

As with many announcements and declarations of the military governments, the arguments for leaving ECOWAS are more ideological than fact based. The exit is claimed to respond to the “expectations, concerns and aspirations” of their populations. But in the absence of elections, referendums, or any type of democratic forum, it is of course very difficult to judge the degree of popular acceptance of this Sahel-exit. 

Through their joint communiqué, the three countries claim that “ECOWAS, under the influence of foreign powers, and by betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to its member states and the populations whose happiness it is supposed to ensure”, and that “the organization has moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism. Indeed, the organization failed to assist our states in our existential fight against terrorism and insecurity; and worse, when our nations decided to take their destiny in their own hands, it adopted an irrational and inacceptable position by imposing sanctions which are illegal, illegitimate, inhuman and irresponsible.”

The ECOWAS Commission responded Sunday night by their own communiqué, remarking that they are “yet to receive any direct formal notification from the three Member States about their intention to withdraw from the Community” and stating that Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali remain important members of the Community, and that the Commission“remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse”.

What next?

In the absence of a factual cost-benefit analysis, it is difficult to speculate on the consequences for the Sahel countries of leaving ECOWAS. Theoretically, the remaining members of ECOWAS could begin to apply import taxes, and demand visas for citizens of the AES states. In practice, they may choose not to do so, in much the same way that they have been providing electricity to Niger notwithstanding the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS.

Whatever happens will be of utmost importance to the 70 million inhabitants of the AES who are already among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. The Sahel region now accounts for more deaths from terrorism than South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa regions combined. It is easy to empathize with the Sahelians’ plight and their conviction that they need a new course to get out of the extremely difficult situation they are in. Seen in that context, one can understand their belief that true national sovereignty is the only way forward and that democracy must be sacrificed if needed. But the question remains, in a context where there are no elections, where the activities of political parties are banned, and where those who criticize the government are considered unpatriotic and are often punished by arbitrary detention, how can the will of the people be expressed?

Malena Liedholm Ndounou
Consultant and West Africa specialist

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