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West African coup juntas threaten to quit regional bloc: What it means

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ACCRA, Ghana – ECOWAS flag with member flags at the second extraordinary summit on the political situation in Burkina Faso, in Accra, Ghana, on February 3, 2022.

Photo by NIPAH DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Three West African countries currently under the rule of military juntas have announced plans to exit the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in a further sign of fragmentation across the region.

Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, all of which are ruled by military leaders that seized power in a spate of coups over the last three years, have been embroiled in fractious talks with ECOWAS over plans to return to constitutional order and hold elections.

Led by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, the regional bloc imposed punitive sanctions to push the juntas into declaring timelines on a return power to democratically elected civilian administrations, but negotiations have failed to yield substantial results.

The interim leaders of the three nations on Jan. 28 announced that they would leave ECOWAS “without delay” and join forces to form an “Alliance of Sahel States,” but the departure may not be that simple.

ECOWAS rules require a year’s written notice of intention to leave, and there is historical precedent. Mauritania left the bloc in 2000, reducing its membership to 15 countries.

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – Jan. 20, 2023: A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support the Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of France’s ambassador and military forces.

OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told CNBC that no formal paperwork had yet been submitted to the ECOWAS secretariat, and that the timing of the announcement is “clearly very political.”

“I think the juntas were worried that there’d been some significant traffic, including to France, where you had President Tinubu of Nigeria, President Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, and then the chief of army staff from Algeria — the first time at that level anyone from Algeria has been to France for about 17 years — and Algerians are playing an important role in mediating also in Niger and Mali,” he said.

Vines suggested that ECOWAS pressure on Burkinabe and Malian juntas to declare a timeline for return to constitutional rule, when they “don’t seem to be in any hurry to leave,” may have motivated their sudden insistence on national sovereignty.

Regional disintegration bolsters Russia

The countries with military administrations were subject to severe, nationwide economic sanctions from ECOWAS in response to the coups, rather than targeted measures against the junta leaders themselves.

Sanctions were loosened on Mali in exchange for a declaration of a timetable for return to constitutional rule, but this timetable was not being followed in Bamako.

Mucahid Durmaz, senior West Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, suggested that the hardship caused by these sanctions may have helped to solidify the juntas’ power and galvanize public opinion against the regional bloc.

“Their exit highlights the growing ideological rift between the Western-allied elected governments and military-run countries that are seeking warmer ties with Russia,” Durmaz said.

“The split will likely harm cross-border military cooperation between the two camps and heighten the threat of spill over violence into Ghana, Togo, Benin and Cote D’Ivoire.”

NIAMEY, NIGER – JULY 30: Coup supporters take to the streets after the army seized power in Niamey, Niger on July 30, 2023. (Photo by Balima Boureima/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Durmaz highlighted how disintegration at a regional level is heightening geopolitical competition between Russia and the West. Russia continues to expand its political and military engagement with countries in the Sahel, which has been beset by insecurity and Islamist insurgencies for several years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and France have been shifting focus toward bolstering militaries in coastal West African states, with an eye on the risk of insecurity spreading to democratic ally states.

Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group has a well-documented presence in Mali and is believed to be seeking to establish itself in Burkina Faso, both of which alongside Niger have ousted the French military to leave a vacuum for foreign military assistance to repel jihadist threats.

However, Vines highlighted that Russian military interests may face a more complicated path to partnership with forces in Niger, given that the country still hosts a U.S. drone base.

He also expressed some surprise that Niger had joined Mali and Burkina Faso in the breakaway group, since negotiations in Niger had been progressing in the wake of biting sanctions, and the coup was “more of an old-fashioned style palace coup” rather than one driven by a deteriorating security situation.

French troops and its ambassador began their withdrawal from Niger in October, and crowds in the streets supporting the military takeover proudly displayed Russian flags and anti-French messages, reflecting many years of mounting anger against the former colonial power.

Burkina Faso in January last year gave France one month to withdraw its troops, ending a military accord that enabled French troops to help national forces combat Islamist insurgents. This followed a similar withdrawal from Mali in 2022 after a nine-year operation.

Much like the ECOWAS withdrawal, the juntas cited a desire to defend themselves as sovereign independent states, but the looming specter of Moscow was difficult to avoid.

No ‘economic sense’

Vines suggested the union of the three Sahel states and splitting off from the western portion of West Africa “doesn’t make any economic sense.”

“They don’t really impact ECOWAS economically, they only represent 8% of ECOWAS GDP, and they’re all landlocked countries, so if you’re not ECOWAS, you lose freedom of travel and movement and you potentially face having visa restrictions,” he said.

All three nations are members of the largely Francophone West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and use the CFA franc currency, which is pegged to the euro, adding additional complexity to the process of collective economic separation. Mali has ruled out leaving WAEMU, while Burkina Faso is considering it.

A screen grab captured from a video shows the soldiers who appeared on national TV to announce the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, on July 27, 2023. Calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CLSP), they read a coup statement in a video they shot and broadcast on state television ORTN. 

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Durmaz agreed that the ECOWAS exits of the three landlocked countries would “deepen economic challenges and heighten food insecurity,” since all three depend on coastal neighbors’ ports for international trade.

“Their departure will severely damage regional integration and cross-border trade, as the exit risks triggering an increase in tariffs and restrictions on the movement of people, goods and financial flows,” he said via email.

“Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger will likely draw on the extractive sector to improve their weak economies. Burkina Faso and Mali have plans to build local gold refineries to retain more of the value of their gold production, while Niger will soon export its first barrels of crude oil through Africa’s longest oil pipeline that ends in the Beninese port of Seme.”

‘Buyer’s remorse’

Recalibrating economic and trade ties and infrastructure at a time when the three countries are already suffering from rampant poverty and insecurity may limit the grace period afforded the juntas by their respective populations.

A recent UN Development Programme report surveyed 5,000 people who had directly experienced a recent coup or unconstitutional change of government, including citizens of Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan. Their views were assessed against those of 3,000 citizens of fellow African countries on a path of democratic transition or consolidation, namely The Gambia, Ghana and Tanzania.

The research highlighted a growing intolerance of “states that fail to deliver on their democratic promise of inclusive economic growth, improved security and real measures for curbing corruption.”

Opposition supporters react to the news of a possible mutiny of soldiers in the military base in Kati, outside the capital Bamako, at Independence Square in Bamako, Mali August 18, 2020. The sign reads: ‘Down with France and its governor.”

Rey Byhre | Reuters

“This democratic disillusionment contributed to ephemeral popular support for coup leaders in some contexts,” the report said.

“Yet, the survey participants across all contexts expressed a clear preference for democracy as their governance of choice; marked by credible elections, gender equality, civil rights protection and, importantly, governments that deliver tangible benefits to the populace.”

Vines noted, in accordance with the report, that the three juntas were indeed popular among their populations when they ascended to power, but that this is “degrading quickly” as populations experience a certain degree of “buyer’s remorse.”

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