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Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and challenge of withdrawal from ECOWAS

The capability and unity of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been put to the test as coup leaders in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger quit the sub-regional group, following protracted disagreement over its rejection of military rule in West Africa. The four nations have joined forces to resist economic sanctions and potential military action by the other 11 countries within the bloc. Assistant Editor BOLA OLAJUWON looks at the issues surrounding the announcement and implications for the regional body....CONTINUE.FULL.READING>>>

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), also known as CEDEAO in French and Portuguese, is rated by the international community as an example of well-integrated regional body in Africa. It is also considered one of the pillar regional blocs of the continent-wide African Economic Community (AEC). The regional political and economic union of 15 member-states was established on May 28, 1975, with the signing of the Treaty of Lagos. Its initial mission was to promote economic integration in the region.

The member-countries comprise an area of 5,114,162 km2 (1,974,589 sq. mi), and have an estimated population of over 424.34 million. The goal of ECOWAS is to achieve “collective self-sufficiency” for its member states by creating a single large trade bloc by building a full economic and trading union to raise living standards and promote economic development. ECOWAS’s fundamental principles rely on equity, inter-dependence, solidarity, co-operation, non-aggression, regional peace, promotion of human rights, and economic and social justice.

Its protocols and plans include the ECOWAS Free Movement of Persons, Residences and Establishment Protocol and the Ecotour Action Plan 2019–2029. The Free Movement of Persons Protocol allows citizens the right to enter and reside in any member state’s territory, and the Ecotour Action Plan aims to develop and integrate the tourist industry of each member state. The regional body also serves as a peacekeeping force in the region, with member states sometimes sending joint military forces to intervene in the bloc’s member countries at times of instability or unrest.

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As some members of a civil society organisation were canvassing the establishment of ECOWAS an ti-terrorism task force to tackle escalating threat of terrorism across West African region, a major crisis hit the 49-year old body on Monday. Three member countries – Burkina-Faso, Mali and Niger – which are affected by pervasive terrorism owing to attacks by militants in the Sahel, quit the sub-regional group, following protracted disagreement over ECOWAS rejection of military rule in West Africa.

However, ECOWAS claimed that it was yet to get notification about the withdrawal announced by governments of the three countries. The three Sahel nations said in a joint statement on state televisions that they had made a “sovereign decision” to leave ECOWAS “without delay.” The juntas said they have “decided in complete sovereignty on the immediate withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from the ECOWAS,” alleging that the bloc has “moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and pan-Africanism” after nearly 50 years of its establishment.

The statement added: “Furthermore, ECOWAS, under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to its member states and its populations whose happiness it is supposed to ensure.” Military coups were common in Africa during the Cold War, and now seem to have returned. Between January 2020 and August 2023, there were five attempted and nine successful coups – the last being the military takeovers in Niger (July) and Gabon (August). Nearly 20 per cent of African countries have experienced coups since 2013.

Most recent coups have happened in West Africa, especially in French-speaking countries. This has alarmed the ECOWAS, which hurriedly convened summits on the issue in February 2022 and July 2023. As in Mali, ECOWAS countries have imposed sanctions on Niger and threatened to intervene militarily to dislodge the coup leaders if they fail to reinstate deposed president Mohamed Bazoum. And as with Mali and other cases, experience shows that sanctions alone cannot deter overthrows – the root causes must be addressed.

Struggling with jihadist violence and poverty, relations between the regimes and ECOWAS have been ruptured, following the coups took place in Niger last July, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Mali in 2020. The three countries were suspended from ECOWAS, with Niger and Mali facing heavy sanctions. They have hardened their positions in recent months and joined forces in an “Alliance of Sahel States.” The French military withdrawal from the Sahel – the region along the Sahara desert across Africa – has heightened concerns over the conflicts spreading southward to Gulf of Guinea states – Ghana, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast.

The prime minister appointed by Niger’s military regime, Ali Zeine, Thursday blasted ECOWAS for “bad faith” after the bloc largely shunned a planned meeting in Niamey. Niger had hoped for an opportunity to talk through differences with fellow states of ECOWAS which has cold-shouldered Niamey, imposing heavy economic and financial sanctions, following the military coup that overthrew elected president Mohamed Bazoum.

The bloc, in a statement on Monday, said it was yet to get any official or direct notification from the three countries. The statement reads: “The attention of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Commission) has been drawn to a statement broadcast on the National Televisions of Mali and Niger announcing the decision of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to withdraw from ECOWAS. The ECOWAS Commission is yet to receive any direct formal notification from the three member states about their intention to withdraw from the community.

“The ECOWAS Commission, as directed by the Authority of Heads of State and Government, has been working assiduously with these countries for the restoration of constitutional order. Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali remain important members of the community and the authority remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse. The ECOWAS Commission remains seized with the development and shall make further pronouncements as the situation evolves.”

The beginning of tense ties

In the last four years alone, there have been seven military coups in West and Central Africa. Four of the countries experiencing coups are members of ECOWAS, a regional organisation set up to promote stability and cooperation. In August 2020, a group of Mali’s colonels led a coup against President Ibrahim Boubacar Kaita. In 2021, the military led a second coup against the interim president Colonel Bah Ndaw. Guinea experienced a coup in 2021, Burkina Faso in 2022, and most recently, Niger met the same fate when General Abdourahmane Tchiani seized power in July. Outside of West Africa, Chad and Sudan also experienced military coups in 2021.

The original member-states – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo – wanted a large trading bloc that would facilitate self-sufficiency and cooperation among its member states as well as tackle political and economic tensions that often threatened their progress and stability. Before the current trend of instability, large-scale conflicts had decreased and coup d’états had become less frequent throughout the 48 years of the group’s existence. But, lack of good governance has bred long-festering grievances, frustration, extremism, violent insurgencies and communal conflicts.

However, recognising a connection between the economic prospects of individual states and political stability and security in the region, ECOWAS formed a peacekeeping alliance, the Economic Community of West Africa States Monitoring Group, in 1990. The monitoring group established a toolbox of responses for “extra-constitutional changes” in member states. These tools include sanctions, membership suspension, and the deployment of peacekeeping forces in accordance with ECOWAS Revised Treaty.

Owing to intransigence of the coupists in Niger Republic, ECOWAS heads of state met and the bloc’s chairperson, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, in accordance with ECOWAS Revised Treaty, declared that “no option is taken off the table, including the use of force as a last resort.” ECOWAS leaders had, after their meeting, renewed in strong language their condemnation of the military coup and of the junta’s detention of President Bazoum. The group called for his reinstatement in power and “a quick restoration of constitutional order.”

ECOWAS had expressed zero-tolerance for coups and condemned them as an illegal usurpation of power that rarely benefits the people or the country where coups have taken place. The leaders’ summit underscored “the determination of the ECOWAS Authority to keep all options on the table for the peaceful resolution of the crisis,” while saying that a “standby force” should be prepared for use “to restore constitutional order.” The statement gave no indication of the conditions under which any use of force would be considered.

The bloc vowed to enforce its sanctions, including the closure of borders with Niger, and economic and financial sanctions on the country. It also will maintain travel bans and a freezing of assets “on all persons, or groups … whose actions hinder” peaceful efforts to restore Bazoum to power. But despite ECOWAS leaders’ warning to Niger coupists, Mali and Burkina Faso offered statements of support for Niger’s junta.

Why ECOWAS took a harder line against the coup leaders in Niger

ECOWAS recognises the coup in Niger is an existential challenge not only to the political integrity of Niger, but to the security, political, and economic stability of the Sahel region, Coastal West Africa — and to ECOWAS itself. The group’s leaders know that the coup organisers in Niger were probably influenced by the success of the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. They know that West Africa is at a tipping point. They know that other states in the region are facing serious economic and political problems and are vulnerable to internal instability. EOWAS leaders, especially in the region’s four most important states (Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal) recognised that they have to take a firm stand. Failure to take strong action against Niger could energise other soldiers in West Africa to act unconstitutionally. The African Union (AU) also suspended Niger from all its activities following the military coup there and told its members to avoid any action that might legitimise the junta.

Tinubu

Weak enforcement of sanctions

After the hardline position took by Nigeria-led ECOWAS’ leadership, politicians, especially from Northern Nigeria, was introduced into the regional body’s stance with the claim of age-old relationship between the North and Niger. The role played by Northern rulers also reduced the stance of the regional body. Some politicians also lashed in on the matter by accusing President Tinubu of playing hardline position on the Niger issue, forgetting the principles set out in the AU Solemn Declaration on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa adopted in Abuja on 8 and 9 May 2000 and the Decision AHG. DEC 142 (XXV) on the framework for AU’s reaction to unconstitutional change of government, adopted in Algiers in July 1999. The framework specified sanctions to punish unconstitutional change of government as well as suspension from the organization.

Also, the changing global order has created an enabling environment for the recent spike of takeovers in Africa’s ‘coup belt’ – with Russia and newly assertive middle powers like Wagner offering themselves as partners to putschists. As the United States retrenches to pursue its strategic competition with China, its capacity to invest seriously in both strategic imperatives and values-led foreign policy objectives is coming under strain. With the essential taking precedence over the good, upholding democracy in Africa has slipped down the list of America’s strategic priorities.

Africa’s own system for deterring takeovers has also weakened considerably. The African Union’s enforcement of its coup-prohibiting rules grew increasingly inconsistent during the same period, during which time it began to enforce only selectively, due to the whims of powerful AU member states. This started with the coup in Mauritania in 2008, and was followed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s post-coup election in Egypt, and more recently by coup in Sudan. Russia, to a greater degree – places serious political and financial capital behind their engagement as well as no-questions-asked security support to the coup leaders in the Sahel. This creates outsized impact compared to the mid-level Western official engagement and more conditional provision of financial and security support.

Russia now creates an enabling environment for West Africa’s autocrats by making their international and African-regional isolation impossible. ECOWAS also has a history of suspending and sanctioning member states, only to then readmit and allow them to participate in ECOWAS activities so long as they fulfilled the requirements of holding a “democratic election.” ECOWAS is credited by many with enhancing economic growth and cooperation in the region. However, it has fallen short in addressing challenges to democracy and governance. Economic sanctions, especially those imposed by countries with their own economic challenges and needs, simply do not have enough leverage to sway a leader vying to seize power for non-economic reasons. Additionally, deterrence can only work when tools are applied consistently and predictably. Despite numerous instances of insecurity and instability, ECOWAS has only sent a peacekeeping force seven times since it was created. Even with the recent spate of coups, the last time ECOWAS deployed a security/peacekeeping force was in 2017. That was in The Gambia, and the coup ended without violence. Like many multilateral organisations, ECOWAS operates largely by consensus—something hard to achieve when it comes to sanctions and military deployment across state lines.

Also, the military rulers in the three countries had accused France of tele-guiding the ECOWAS leaders on sanctions and military option. France, a former colonial power which sees itself as a military power in the region and has intervened militarily in the troubled Sahel, faces growing anti-French sentiments across the region. Although Paris still maintains a m ilitary presence in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti, and Chad, many see 2023 as the year that marked a significant shrinking of France’s hold on its African allies.

Other analysts’ perspectives

An Associate Professor and the Acting Director of Research and Studies Department at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Efem Ubi, yesterday recalled that he asserted in a recent paper at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa that if ECOWAS intervened militarily in any of the three countries, it would be its end. He said in a situation of military intervention in any of the countries, they would align together and separate themselves from ECOWAS. “With the announcement of this new alliance, can we say ECOWAS is still in existence? This is just the beginning of what we are expecting to see. Now, they have moved away; they have formed an alliance. I don’t know what you are still going to call the other remaining 12 ECOWAS members. I think the issue of military coups has not been handled rightly by the bloc,” Ibim said.

He said the sanctions placed by ECOWAS on the three countries only affect the citizens and not the coup plotters. “ECOWAS has to look at the root causes of the problem of coups in West Africa. I have said it on many occasions that root causes of military takeover have not been addressed. What I think ECOWAS should do is to embrace more of diplomacy. It’s the military option that has degenerated to this point. They should find a way of discussing with the countries and bring them back on board. The best way is to manage the problem through dialogue,” he said.

However, former Vice Chancellor of Federal University Oye- Ekiti, Ekiti State, Prof. Kayode Soremekun, said the three countries have done what they think is in their interests. According to him, ECOWAS should use persuasive diplomacy. “The three countries should also not be carried away by the euphoria of the movement. I hope they are not being edged on by external forces. Russia is showing keen interests in the region. I hope this is not funeral song of ECOWAS being sung. Therefore, Nigeria and others should bring them back into the fold.”

But, a one-time Ambassador to Belgium, Prof. Alaba Ogunsanwo, said it was not the first time that a country would withdraw from ECOWAS. According to him, Mauritania, which was part of the countries that signed the ECOWAS Treaty in Lagos in 1975, gave one year notice in 1999 that it was leaving the organisation. “It left and it has not come back. These three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – are landlocked, which means it will be difficult for them without the ECOWAS neighbours interacting with them. Before ECOWAS was established, the three countries were interacting with themselves.

“Because they are under suspension, other ECOWAS countries can say they are rejecting their withdrawal. They can also say we will only accept your withdrawal when you return to civilian rule and the civilian governments can now say they are leaving ECOWAS. The situation is different from Mauritania, which said it would prefer to join the Maghreb Union. In ECOWAS, like other international organisations, individual country can decide to join or not to join, depending on the calculations of the interests to belonging to the organisation. The three as sovereign states can say they are withdrawing from ECOWAS.

“And ECOWAS can say you are the one who will suffer. Let’s see how you will survive. And ECOWAS can punish them more. I also know that some people would say let ECOWAS go and use force. But because ECOWAS is an international organisation, it should just allow erring members to go because they are sovereign countries. They may suffer from more sanctioning and when they learn their lessons; they can come back.”

A former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Bulus Lolo, described the decision of the three West African countries as a new development, which is not unconnected with the current political situations in the three countries. Stressing he was not surprised by their actions, he, however, said it is a storm in tea cup that would soon fizzle out the former Permanent Secretary said: “They are sending a signal, but the point is that they will be isolated as they are now. Down the road, they will be the one who will later want to seek readmission.”

He also asked rhetorically: “Where are they going to? After the present leaderships, what will be the future of the countries?” Lolo said no dem ocratic government would want to follow their path of action.….CONTINUE.FULL.READING>>>

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JOLOWO BUNALAYEFA PIUS is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for BUNADY NEWSLITE GLOBAL ENTERPRISE (Bunady.com). He started his Blogging/Journalism career at God's Own Wireless Company 2012. He's a graduate of Adekunle Ajasin University Akungba Akoko Ondo State, with a major in History And International Studies. You can contact him for press events, advertisement promotions on Email: contact.bunady@gmail.com

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