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Proposed ECOWAS exits leave West Africa at a crossroads

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger’s request to withdraw presents a crucial opportunity to improve the regional bloc’s functioning.

On 8 February, the Mediation and Security Council of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold a special session in Abuja. The ministerial-level meeting will discuss political and security issues, including the withdrawals of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger from the organisation.

This follows the announcement on 28 January by the three countries’ military leaders that the nations would immediately be leaving ECOWAS – the regional bloc founded in 1975 to promote economic integration. The three countries account for 15% of ECOWAS’ population, nearly half its surface area and have considerable economic potential.

The three governments’ grievances against ECOWAS are twofold. First, they believe the bloc’s economic and financial sanctions against Mali and then Niger, following military coups in those states, are ‘illegal, illegitimate, inhuman and irresponsible in violation of its own rules’. They also contend that sanctions were imposed at the instigation of ‘foreign powers’. Second, the leaders allege ECOWAS withheld support for their fight against terrorism and insecurity.

Relations have been deteriorating since the coups in Mali (2020 and 2021), Burkina Faso (2022) and Niger (2023), which resulted in their suspensions from ECOWAS. The creation of the Alliance of Sahel States in September 2023 further fragmented the regional bloc. The alliance – a collective security mechanism set up in response to ECOWAS’ threat of military intervention in Niger after the coup – signalled the groups’ intention to seek political distance and autonomy from the bloc.

The creation of the Alliance of Sahel States signalled the three countries’ intention to split from ECOWAS

ECOWAS has faced major challenges over the past decade in dealing effectively with violent extremism and governance challenges in its member states. The perception of double standards – in which the bloc cracks down on military coups but turns a blind eye to ‘institutional coups’ by elected governments such as in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea – has undermined ECOWAS’ credibility in the region.

The current situation presents an important opportunity for ECOWAS to review its frameworks, policies and practices to make the organisation more consistent and effective. This approach could create conditions for the return of the three countries to the regional bloc and prevent additional exists.

Politically, the withdrawals can be explained by two factors, both of which could be at play. They could be a strategy to circumvent ECOWAS’ requirements for short transitions and for coup plotters not to stand in presidential elections. Or they could be a means to pressure the organisation into negotiating a solution that would see the three juntas remain in ECOWAS in exchange for more flexible positions and the lifting of sanctions in Niger.

Their departure would negatively affect both the regional bloc and the citizens of the exiting countries. West Africa remains one of Africa's most successful examples of integration and economic, political and security cooperation.

People’s free movement throughout the region, guaranteed by the visa-free system and a common passport, is one of ECOWAS’ key achievements benefitting the region’s citizens. For landlocked countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger especially, the customs union facilitates imports through the application of a single common external tariff.

For almost 50 years, ECOWAS’ rules and operating methods have shaped governance in its member states. Regarding the free movement of people and goods, and access to coastal ports, the withdrawal won’t, for now, affect relations between the three countries and other states in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), whose treaty also guarantees these principles. However, bilateral or multilateral mitigation measures would need to be agreed with non-WAEMU member states.

ECOWAS’ perceived double standards on governance issues has undermined its credibility in the region

The modalities of this withdrawal are irregular, considering that immediate departure is materially impossible to implement, and doesn’t comply with ECOWAS’ governing treaty. Article 91 stipulates that withdrawal takes effect one year after formal notification. The only precedent is Mauritania’s exit in December 2000, after the country gave notice in December 1999. During the notice period, states asking to leave must respect their commitments to the bloc. 

The decision to withdraw, which will significantly affect Sahelians, doesn’t appear to have gone through any prior national consultations. Citizens supported the coups in the Central Sahel because they wanted governance to improve – not so that new leaders could have carte blanche. This calls into question the legitimacy of the three juntas' decision to exit ECOWAS. In Mali, for example, the coalition of organisations of the Appel du 20 février 2023 pour Sauver le Mali opposed the withdrawal.

This lack of popular consultation could further destabilise already fragile transitions. Niger is struggling to formally start its transition, and Mali and Burkina Faso are nearing the end of their ECOWAS-agreed terms. Presidential elections scheduled for March and July 2024 in Mali and Burkina Faso have been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS finds itself in a serious crisis. The organisation’s protocol on democracy and good governance will continue to apply to the outgoing states until 29 January 2025. However, the bloc will have to choose between insisting the three juntas stick to their deadlines for returning power to civilian rule, or backing down to prevent them from leaving.

A review of ECOWAS’ policies could bring the three countries back into the fold and prevent more withdrawals

The choice is even more difficult considering that the withdrawals could be the prelude to a possible exit from WAEMU. This development would be even more damaging for the three countries and the rest of the union.

The crisis highlights the need for ECOWAS to review and improve its mechanisms for dealing with violations of democratic governance in its member states. The use of indiscriminate sanctions against Mali in 2022 and Niger since July 2023 – which is being legally contested and mainly affects civilians – must also be reconsidered in light of their ineffectiveness. Clearer, targeted and more predictable sanctions would be preferable.

ECOWAS’ call for a negotiated solution has been backed by the African Union Commission. Should it not be possible to keep the three states within the bloc after the one-year notice period, all parties must work towards a proper exit that minimises regional instability.

Discussions must include a security dimension that establishes appropriate regional cooperation and coordination mechanisms based on lessons from the past decade of international intervention in the Sahel. In particular, such mechanisms should pay special attention to the connectivity and interdependence of cross-border areas.

Lastly, considering the intense great power competition globally, and the Central Sahel states’ shift in alliances towards Russia since 2020, ECOWAS and the three departing countries must acknowledge the danger that these dynamics pose for the region. Collective efforts are vital to solving the profound development and security challenges shared by all countries in the region.

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