Sunday, July 14

Could the bonds holding the West African alliance together now unravel beyond repair? On January 28, 2024, in an unprecedented move, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso simultaneously withdrew from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

What ruptured partnerships sealed for nearly 50 years between these nations and ECOWAS? Has ECOWAS lost value as an institution? Can respect and cooperation be restored after the dramatic exits?

Formed in 1975, ECOWAS was intended to advance regional economic and political integration.
However, the bloc had placed intense pressure on the three nations to swiftly restore democratic rule after recent military coups. Feeling the rigid timelines violated their sovereignty, they exited in frustration.

The shockwaves undermine ECOWAS’ credibility as a democracy-upholding institution. The exits also disrupt vital trade and ignite ethnic tensions across newly shut borders. Aside from that, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso Together account for about 36% of the total land area and approximately 18% of the total population of ECOWAS. Stakeholders take stock. A prudent response emphasizing flexibility could lure the defectors back while affirming ECOWAS’ values.

As the dust settles from this historic exit, stakeholders across West Africa must reflect deeply on what should have been done differently.

Cultural Impact

The exits erode ECOWAS-fostered shared identity by disrupting high-profile cultural events, drawing talent across West Africa. Losing Malian, Nigerien, and Burkinabe contributors leaves these artistic platforms less vibrant and regionally comprehensive. This hampers the promotion of the region’s cultural heritage nurtured through ECOWAS programming over decades.

Economic Impact

Regional trade flows constrict by over 15% as landlocked Niger and Burkina Faso lose coastal access and must replace lost ECOWAS ties through less efficient bilateral agreements. Consequently, supply chains fracture, consumer prices climb upwards and currency stability trembles – risking market volatility.

Political Impact

The exit of the three countries weakens the solidarity and cooperation among the remaining members of Ecowas. It also opens the door for other external actors, such as France, Russia, and China, to offer the three countries alternative political, economic, and security partnerships.

ECOWAS Sanctions That Triggered The Withdrawals

Within a space of 3 years between August 18, 2020, and July 31, 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger experienced military coups that suspended each country’s constitution and brought juntas into power. 

In response, ECOWAS imposed a series of escalating sanctions, including:

  1. Travel bans on members of the military regimes from all ECOWAS member states
  2. Asset freezes and financial sanctions to isolate the nations economically
  3. Suspension of any form of budgetary support or aid from ECOWAS institutions
  4. A ban on critical imports like hydrocarbons and commodities

ECOWAS pressured the 3 countries to reinstate democratic constitutions, causing them to withdraw.

The French Connection 

The defectors accused ECOWAS of imposing French neocolonial interests under the guise of democracy promotion. ECOWAS denied the claims, explaining that upholding sanctions was a routine organizational protocol. Likely, the truth rests in a grey zone.

The upside of the withdrawal is that all three countries are free of France’s oppression, a significant win for the region.

Tiger’s Roar

The fact remains that military coups brutally interrupt democracy. In Mali, the two coups in 2020 and 2021 have worsened security. In Guinea, the coup in 2021 has reversed the democratic gains made since 2010. That decent chap who leads Burkina Faso has come under several assassination attempts since coming to power. Military rules are ancient and unsustainable. It has only escalated disorder – undermining economic progress while subjecting citizens to uncertainties.

However, another European leech has taken advantage of these coups. Moscow engages in Africa to counter the West by backing African states sanctioned by Western institutions. Russia’s activities in the Sahel include providing military and security assistance, training, and equipment to counter jihadist insurgencies. This has been helpful in a region where militants have exploited weak governance, poverty, and ethnic tensions.

What Should Have Been

ECOWAS could have pursued dialogue and mediation before imposing rigid timelines to ease tensions. Likewise, the defecting nations could have cooperated on shared regional security and stability concerns rather than abandoning joint commitments outright. Reaffirming solidarity around trade, infrastructure and education issues may have yielded creative solutions.

In Conclusion

As ECOWAS faces damaged credibility, I have outlined 3 constructive strategies for the regional power to regain integrity.

Firstly, Ecowas must work with member states to raise a formidable security force to counter terrorism. This is crucial as Islamist militancy continues to devastate member states. A joint military action could help stabilize the Sahel’s turmoil.

Secondly, Ecowas must push for good governance. The entire region is a crime scene. Democracy has failed, hence the coup d’etat. Elites have mastered the science of corruption and nepotism, especially in messy Nigeria and Mr Big Empty Talk Ghana. Narcoqueens and Godfathers,  aka politicians, continue to nurture institutional corruption, inefficiency, and distrust. Nearly all 14 countries under France’s control are authoritarian regimes. So why is ECOWAS watching France deliberately destabilize the region by supporting autocratic regimes while exploiting their natural resources?

For ECOWAS to be taken seriously, they must challenge the French out of the region and be firm advocates of the rule of law.

Additionally, Ecowas must push the EU to cut off terrorist financing. They must work together through sanctions on shadowy Western weapons dealers and external vested interests playing different sides. These players profit from the lucrative arms trade and the illegal markets, such as drugs and gold, that the jihadists control.

With dialogue and peer accountability as guiding principles, ECOWAS retains immense capacity as West Africa’s economic anchor during this reckoning.

What do you think?

1. At what point do rigid regional policies around democratic norms enable authoritarian backsliding rather than prevent it? Were ECOWAS sanctions a reasonable response or an overreach violating state sovereignty?

2. What responsibility should former colonial powers have to curb neocolonial influences when participating in multinational African institutions? Does France’s tangled history in the region justify accusations of interference and puppets?

3. Can the economic and ethnic integration that ECOWAS facilitated for nearly 50 years be sustainably preserved if political partnerships collapse? How might cross-border trade and minority protections fare? 

4. Should emerging external players like Russia face accountability for expanding military support and resource access amid democratic backsliding? What standards apply to non-Western partners?

5. If populations grow disenchanted under corrupt, unstable regimes, does ECOWAS lose legitimacy for failing to enable conditions supporting citizen welfare and rights? What role should public sentiment play in regional governance decisions? 

6. At what point do institutional credibility, principled stances and pragmatic flexibility require balancing during an intergovernmental crisis? How can ECOWAS reconcile unyielding positions with preventing further defections?

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