The military regimes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have announced their withdrawal from the West African bloc, ECOWAS, accusing it of posing a threat to their sovereignty.
Some observers fear the exit of three founder members of the Economic Community of West African States, formed in 1975, could compromise trade and push back the return to civilian rule in the countries concerned as they battle jihadist violence and poverty.
AFP looks at the potential regional implications:
– Years of tension –
The three slammed ECOWAS’ “irrational and unacceptable posture” after the 15-member bloc (including the departing trio) imposed a range of sanctions in an attempt to hasten a return to democratic rule.
In August, ECOWAS threatened military intervention following the toppling of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum.
While that did not materialise, the fallout notched up tensions which had been brewing following coups in Mali in 2020 and Burkina Faso in 2022.
On Sunday, the trio — who have formed an Alliance of Sahel States (AES) — jointly said that ECOWAS had come “under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles” and was a “threat to member states and peoples”.
– Heady scent of power –
Burkina Faso and Mali were supposed to hold elections later this year, which would meet an ECOWAS condition to drop sanctions.
But the military authorities want to extend the “transition” period, citing the insecurity engendered by jihadist unrest.
Niger’s military leader General Abdourahamane Tiani has yet to unveil an intended timeline for restoration of civilian rule.
Fahiraman Rodrigue Kone, Sahel regional expert for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), suggested that “the AES states anticipated a coming debate on the end of the transitions.
“Withdrawing from ECOWAS seems to put that on the back burner.”
Le Patriote, a pro-government newspaper in Ivory Coast, commented: “Well ensconced and enjoying the trappings of power, they (the AES leaders) wish to linger for ever in their presidential chairs.”
– Threat to trade –
Withdrawal will hit hard given that ECOWAS guarantees visa-free travel and right of settlement and work in member countries.
Losing such benefits will cause concern, as will the potential effect on regional trade.
All three countries are landlocked and their main coastal economic partners, notably Senegal and Ivory Coast, are, like them, members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU).
The grouping also guarantees “freedom of movement and residence” between its eight members, as well as tariff-free trade on certain items along with tariff harmonisation and trade norms.
One country that could feel the effects of the triple withdrawal is Nigeria, which is not a WAEMU member.
West African powerhouse Nigeria accounts for more than half of ECOWAS’ overall GDP and is neighbouring Niger’s main economic partner — though much of their 1,500-kilometre (940-mile) border is poorly controlled both in terms of security and trade.
“Even if it’s via smuggling, goods and people will return to Niger. You can’t separate Sokoto (northern Nigeria) from Konni (Niger) — it’s the same people,” Chaibou Tchiombiano, secretary general of Niger’s import-export and wholesalers’ union, said.
– Currency implications –
Though the military regimes say they are withdrawing “without delay”, ECOWAS regulations stipulate that requests to leave must be made in writing a year beforehand.
ECOWAS said Sunday it had not received notification.
“Legally, withdrawal with no delay is not possible,” Kone said.
“These states will have to find some form of agreement and negotiations will go in the direction of finding the means to undertake withdrawal gradually.”
Amid jihadist advances in the Sahel, “the region is fragmenting, becoming the object of stronger geostrategic competition, and this is not good news for stability,” Kone warned.
Sharp criticism of the CFA franc — the common currency of WAEMU members — by the military regimes and their supporters could see AES countries leave the organisation and renounce the free exchange of goods and labour.