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Could Senegal help mediate tensions between ECOWAS and AES states?

Given their favourable standing with Alliance of Sahel States (AES) countries, Senegal’s new leaders could resolve regional tensions.

Since taking office on 2 April, Senegal’s new President Bassirou Diomaye Faye has busied himself diplomatically in West Africa with two rounds of visits to countries in the region.

Faye’s initial trips to Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Cape Verde aimed to strengthen cooperation with his neighbours. Those to Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso were seemingly to foster reconciliation between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its three members that formed the Alliance of Sahel States (AES).

AES is a common defence organisation created in September 2023 by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, who announced their withdrawal from ECOWAS in January this year. The decision raised concerns about the potential impact on ECOWAS and the three Sahel nations. Under the ECOWAS treaty, the exit takes effect 12 months after the official notification, provided it isn’t withdrawn.

With seven months remaining, the crisis must urgently be resolved. It threatens to undermine the achievements of integration and further weaken a region already struggling with transnational security threats and geopolitical challenges.

Senegalese diplomacy should ensure that leaders of ECOWAS and AES countries are open to compromise

ECOWAS is an essential institution that must be safeguarded. The free movement of people and goods is a major achievement that distinguishes West Africa from other regions on the continent. ECOWAS has helped restore security and democracy in West Africa and has contributed to resolving civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau (in the 1990s), Côte d’Ivoire (2002-10), Mali (2013) and The Gambia (2016) through diplomatic efforts and military interventions.

Given their favourable standing with AES leaders, Senegal’s new authorities are well positioned to help ongoing mediation efforts aimed at ensuring Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger remain in ECOWAS. Unlike other leaders in the region, the new Senegalese authorities don’t have tense relations with AES states. Senegal’s leaders also share AES views on respecting the sovereignty of West African countries. The undisputed quality of the elections that brought Senegal’s president to office also lends credibility.

Faye’s visits to Bamako and Ouagadougou on 30 May seemingly laid the groundwork for his mediation with AES countries. He clarified his position on strengthening ECOWAS and discussed the challenges with his hosts.

To persuade AES states to reconsider their decision to withdraw, Senegalese diplomacy should first ensure that leaders of ECOWAS and AES countries are open to compromise. While ECOWAS is aware of the consequences of the three countries’ exit, AES leaders appear focused on consolidating their alliance. The draft text creating a confederation, reportedly finalised in May, is apparently awaiting validation from AES leaders.

Their decision to withdraw from ECOWAS appears to be a strategy to evade the regional bloc’s requirement for short transitions and that transition leaders not run in elections. Presidential elections scheduled for 2024 in Mali and Burkina Faso have been postponed indefinitely. Transition periods have been extended, and in Burkina Faso, an explicit provision allows the transition leader to run in the upcoming elections. In Niger, no transition timeline has been set since Mohamed Bazoum’s ousting in July 2023.

Despite the stance of AES leaders, Senegal should still work to restore dialogue between ECOWAS and the three nations, and seek a regional solution to the issues that prompted their exit.

Senegal should advocate for increased counter-terrorism support from ECOWAS for AES countries

In addition to grievances regarding ECOWAS’ handling of the coups in their countries, AES leaders criticise the organisation for not providing enough counter-terrorism support. Although ECOWAS deployed contingents in the African-led International Support Mission to Mali in 2013, its contribution to reducing the current cycle of insecurity has been limited. As AES states prioritise counter-terrorism, Senegal should advocate for increased ECOWAS support for these countries.

The three military regimes’ intentions to remain in control indefinitely, disregarding their initial commitments to short transitions, are increasingly being challenged by political and civil society actors. Combined with shrinking public space and lacklustre economic performance, this threatens AES countries’ stability – and their military regimes.

To avoid indefinite transitions, Faye should seek ECOWAS’ acceptance of a reasonable extension of the current transition timelines, including in Niger, with clear indicators for steps to follow. A compromise could then be reached with AES countries, and ECOWAS could help them achieve the objectives in a new timetable. Among the indicators would be freedom of association to allow the participation of all socio-political actors.

Mediation efforts with AES countries could also help accelerate ECOWAS’ own reform process

Mediation efforts with AES countries could also help accelerate ECOWAS’ own reform process. For at least a decade, some ECOWAS leaders have blocked the adoption of the revised ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which prohibits constitutional manipulations and third termism. Senegal’s new authorities have shown a commitment to reforming ECOWAS. By highlighting the risks of coups, they can convince other leaders to endorse the protocol.

Broader ECOWAS reform should strengthen the bloc’s political, institutional and financial capacity to prevent coups and respond to citizens’ democratic and economic aspirations. Lessons from current crises, especially in Niger, should prompt a rethink of ECOWAS’ responses to unconstitutional changes of government.

If Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger’s exit goes ahead, it would undermine the progress achieved by ECOWAS throughout its 49-year history. By withdrawing their notification to leave ECOWAS, these three countries could help address weaknesses in the regional organisation from within – allowing ECOWAS to emerge stronger.

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Development partners
This article was published with support from the ECOWAS Peace and Security Architecture and Operations (EPSAO) Project, co-financed by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), implemented by GIZ. The ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, BMZ and GIZ. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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