Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso last week announced they wanted nothing to do with the sub-regional bloc, ECOWAS, further deepening tensions between the bloc and countries currently led by juntas.
The 15-nation regional economic bloc was established in 1975, “To promote cooperation and integration … to raise the living standards of its peoples, and to maintain and enhance economic stability.”
Although created for economic reasons, the bloc has since gained political relevance, playing a key role in resolving political disputes in member countries with the latest being in Sierra Leone.
The trio said their exit was due to what they called illegal, illegitimate and inhumane sanctions. They added that ECOWAS has moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and Pan-Africanism.
“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,” the three countries said in a joint statement.
ECOWAS had initially suspended these countries as a temporary punishment for the military takeovers that occurred at separate times. However, the suspension of each country did not deter soldiers of the other from staging their coup.
The exit of these countries is perhaps a blow to ECOWAS’ efforts to strengthen democracy in the region at a time when there appears to be a ceremony of coups.
In response to the announcement by the trio, ECOWAS said it had yet to receive any notification of withdrawal as of Sunday. The regional bloc also said it was still in talks with the juntas of the three countries to return to civilian rule.
But the real question is whether these countries can leave ECOWAS without the latter’s consent. Chances are that they can even though the ECOWAS charter stipulates otherwise.
The decision to act contrary to what the charter stipulates is a sign that they will get away with ‘murder’ the same way they seem to be getting away with the coups in their countries.
But again, countries have freedom of association and can choose where they want to be.
What does the ECOWAS Charter say?
The ECOWAS charter stipulates that “any Member State wishing to withdraw from the Community shall give to the Executive Secretary one year’s notice in writing who shall inform the Member States thereof. At the expiration of this period, if such notice is not withdrawn, such a State shall cease to be a member of the Community.”
The three countries did not notify ECOWAS, at least according to the sub-regional body, perhaps in a show of defiance.
The economic sanction imposed on Niger following the July 2023 coup, led to a loss of about $50 million in potential earnings and revenues in just three weeks following the border closure.
Nigerien families bore the brunt of the sanctions alongside their Nigerian neighbours who live in border communities.
In addition to economic and political implications, there are security implications. As the withdrawing states continue to move towards alternative sources to secure their states, which is a key promise made by the junta on taking over, their already porous borders become even more porous allowing unsuspecting criminal groups to infiltrate and begin to operate within their borders.
This is not only detrimental for them but also for their neighbours with whom they no longer share intelligence. For a region that is already bedevilled by several terrorist factions, the situation will only worsen. For example, Niger until last year’s coup was a member of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up by neighbouring countries (Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin) to jointly share intelligence and fight terrorists who operate across the countries.
Additionally, Mr Cummings said, the exit of the trio is a worrying development for ECOWAS that seeks to foster inclusivity among members.
Having followed developments in the Sahel for years, Ornella Moderan of the Hague-based Clingendael Institute told PREMIUM TIMES that the announcement by the three countries to exit the regional bloc further fragilises its foundations.
She noted that in the three countries and beyond, ECOWAS is perceived as an organisation that lacks consistency in its promotion of democratic norms and values, condemning military coups on the one hand but validating constitutional manipulations by power-hungry incumbents on the other hand.
“To a large extent, it is this double standard that has fragilised ECOWAS’ moral and political authority in the region in the first place,” Ms Moderan said.
“There is a concern at this stage, there has to be. ECOWAS could be subject to significant fragmentation and its ability to ensure that democratic norms prevail in the subregion will be severely compromised,” Mr Cummings said.
How ECOWAS will react to this violation of its law remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that whatever action the bloc will take will go a long way in persuading or dissuading the member states.
Mr Cummings suspects that ECOWAS would explore diplomatic means of resolving the conflict.
Ms Moderan suggested that if the bloc wants to survive the challenge posed by Sahel states and revive its democratic agenda in the region, it will have to reconsider what it means to support such an agenda and undertake substantial reforms to become more effective and consistent at promoting democratic norms, not just on the surface with facade elections, but in the spirits of liberal democracy – accountability, rule of law for all including those in power, and systematic refusal of any abuse of power and position.
It seems challenging for an organisation undergoing a profound identity crisis at the moment – one that Sahel countries exit could turn into an existential crisis, she said.
Ms Moderan advised that Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso’s decision should be seen as symbolic, noting that even though they said their withdrawal was immediate, “from a practical point of view, it will take at least a few weeks or months to reorganise relations after their exit decision.”
What does this mean for all involved?
Of course, this new development has implications for the withdrawing countries. But not just for them, it also has implications for the region and the continent.
“There will be political and economic ramifications,” said Ryan Cummings of Signal Risk who noted that key concerns at this stage are whether the withdrawing countries are still going to be allowed to facilitate financial transactions in the West African monetary union and also be able to use the West African bank.
He noted that if ECOWAS calls on its members to sever relations with these countries as a punitive measure, it could also impact the countries, all of whom are landlocked. However, there are no guarantees neighbouring countries will adhere.
Countries have bilateral relations outside of ECOWAS, so it will be a hard call to make in terms of cutting ties with neighbours whom they have had age-long relationships with.
This withdrawal would also have implications for trade between countries. For instance, trade figures between Nigeria and Niger in 2022 were about $226 million, according to International Trade Centre data.