Ecowas Exit Tests Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger’s Ties with Neighbors

A small group of protesters hold Russian and Burkina Faso flags as they protest against Ecowas on October 4, 2022.

Summary:

  • Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger’s decision to exit the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has raised concerns about regional unity. The African Union has called for dialogue, emphasizing the importance of preserving Ecowas’ unity.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), previously considered one of Africa’s formidable regional blocs, faced a significant setback on Tuesday when Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger declared their departure from the 15-member organization. This regional equivalent of Brexit in West Africa has now drawn the attention of the African Union (AU). On Wednesday, the AU Commission emphasized the importance of preserving the “irreplaceable unity” of Ecowas and enhancing African solidarity.

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The trio, also known as the ‘coup belt,’ chose to exit Ecowas due to perceived neglect of their concerns by the organization. The AU Commission Chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, urged regional leaders on January 30 to facilitate intensified dialogue between Ecowas leaders and the three departing countries. He pledged to intervene in the crisis, pooling all available support to ensure successful “brotherly dialogue” without external interference.

The departure of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, collectively referred to as the Alliance of Sahel States, was prompted by frustration over Ecowas sanctions, which included trade blockades, asset freezes, and communication cutoffs. The AU responded by suspending them from its activities, with Gabon, Guinea, and Sudan also facing suspension for leading coups.

Some experts argue that the exit reveals Ecowas’ weaknesses, but it also demonstrates the three countries’ willingness to sacrifice gained privileges for independence. The U.S. criticized the move, emphasizing its potential self-defeating consequences, especially considering Ecowas’ historical role in resolving conflicts and fostering economic ties in the region.

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Notably, the departing countries may lose benefits such as visa-free travel within the Ecowas bloc. Analysts suggest that this move may isolate them and hinder economic cooperation, reminiscent of Mauritania’s return to Ecowas after a period of withdrawal.

Critics view the departure as a reversal of nearly five decades of sub-regional integration, potentially disrupting trade and services. The economic self-sabotage of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso in the short term could adversely impact citizens, and diplomatic efforts are being urged to salvage the situation.

A coalition of Civil Society Groups in Nigeria called for the reversal of the decision, emphasizing the need for regional unity. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar advised deploying diplomacy, working with the AU, to address and resolve the unfolding situation within Ecowas.

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