Local reactions to the withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from ECOWAS

Demonstrations in Niamey, Niger in support of the withdrawal from ECOWAS of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Screen capture from a YouTube video by Tv5monde

January 28, 2024 marked the beginning of a major diplomatic crisis at the heart of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as three of its member states—Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger—withdrew from the institution with immediate effect. The rupture has triggered an array of reactions across the region.

A few weeks before withdrawing from ECOWAS, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, all currently governed by military regimes and at the time under sanction by ECOWAS, had announced the creation of a military bloc called the Alliance of Sahel States (AoSS, or AES in French). Any remaining hopes of a diplomatic cohabitation between the 12 remaining ECOWAS countries and the those three states were dashed when the latter announced their withdrawal from the regional body.

Reactions from ECOWAS members

Reactions from political actors such as civil society in the remaining ECOWAS countries were swift and varied. In an article in the Ivorian news site Koaci, former Nigerian senator and human rights activist Shehu Sani was quoted as expressing regret at the decision by these military regimes, which, in his view, reflected a lack of understanding among the leaders. He expressed the view that:

Le retrait du Mali, du Niger et du Burkina Faso de la CEDEAO constitue un sérieux revers pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest. Cela signifie l’échec de la diplomatie et du dialogue. Nous avons perdu nos frères de sang africains à cause de nos amis conditionnels occidentaux.

The withdrawal of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from ECOWAS represents a serious setback for West Africa, and the failure of diplomacy and dialogue. We have lost our African blood brothers because of our Western partners and their conditional friendships.

Lansana Kouyaté, founder of the Republic of Guinea's Party of Hope for National Development, expressed similar sentiments. In the Médi1TV Afrique video below, Kouyaté said that the withdrawal of the three countries was the result of the sanctions imposed on them (the segment of the video with Kouyaté's comments begins here).

During a press conference held on February 10, 2024, Patrice Talon, the president of Benin, clarified his position with regard to the sanctions, which he says have penalised his country as well. In a video report on the Burkina Faso news channel BF1 TV, Talon said that, as Niger's neighbour, the sanctions have resulted in a loss of income for his country:

In an analysis published in the magazine Jeune Afrique, Guinean Amadou Sadjo Barry, a philosophy professor and researcher on the ethics of international relations based in Canada, expressed two divergent views on the question of whether the rupture between ECOWAS and the newly formed AoSS could have been avoided:

Oui et non. Oui, si les médiations de cette dernière avaient réussi à trouver un minimum de compromis durable autour du chronogramme du retour à l’ordre constitutionnel au Mali et au Burkina Faso, si elles étaient parvenues à dégager un consensus sur l’objectif des transitions, si l’AES n’avait pas vu le jour, et enfin, si le contexte d’insécurité régionale et d’instabilité globale était défavorable aux pouvoirs militaires.

Non, parce que les militaires et la Cedeao n’avaient pas la même compréhension de la mission et de l’objectif de la transition : le temps long de la refondation de l’État et de la lutte contre le terrorisme (envisagé par les militaires) s’opposait clairement au temps court du processus de retour à l’ordre constitutionnel (souhaité par la Cedeao ).

Yes and no. Yes, if the latter's mediations had succeeded in finding even a small measure of lasting compromise around the timetable for the return to constitutional order in Mali and Burkina Faso, if they had managed to reach a consensus on the objective of the transitions, if the AoSS had not seen the light of day, and finally, if the context of regional insecurity and global instability had been unfavorable to the military powers.

And no, because the military leaders and ECOWAS did not have the same understanding of the mission and objective of the transition: the long period of rebuilding the State and the fight against terrorism (envisioned by the military) was clearly opposed to the short timeline for the process of return to constitutional order (desired by ECOWAS).

Over in Togo, Paul Amegakpo, president of the Tamberma Institute for Governance (ITG) took a firm position with regard to ECOWAS having a large number of member states. He commented on the withdrawal of the three countries in Koaci:

Ce qu'il faut retenir, c'est qu'il vaut mieux une CEDEAO diminuée en nombre d'États membres qu'une CEDEAO qui tolère les putschs, la dictature militaire ou toute forme de dictature dans la gestion des affaires publiques de ses États membres.

The thing we must remember is that it is better to have an ECOWAS with fewer member states than an ECOWAS which tolerates putsches, military dictatorship, or any form of dictatorship in the management of the public affairs of its member states.

Citizens in AoSS countries caught between joy and worry

Au sein des l'Alliance des États du Sahel (AES), qui représentent maintenant plus de 71 millions d'habitants, la scission semble avoir l'assentiment d'une portion des populations. Au Burkina-Faso, la population estime que cette décision est en faveur du pays qui souffre des sanctions. Dans cette vidéo de la Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), les Burkinabé donnent ainsi leur avis:

In the countries of the newly formed AoSS, which comprise more than 17 million inhabitants, the split seems to have the consent of a portion of the population. In Burkina Faso, people believe that the decision was in the interest of the country, which is suffering as a result of santions. In this video from Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), several Burkinese voice their opinions:

Among Nigeriens and Malian, certain expressed mixed feelings of joy and worry. In a video report from France24, one satisfied Nigerien explained that:

La CEDEAO nous torture depuis longtemps mais aujourd'hui est un beau jour. Ils sont des traitres, c'est pourquoi l'Alliance des États du Sahel l'a quitté.

ECOWAS has tortured us for a long time, so today is great day. They are traitors, which is why the Alliance of State of the Sahel had to withdraw.

Another Nigerien speaking to the same news outlet expressed concern:

Sommes-nous vraiment préparer à quitter la CEDEAO? Parce que cette sortie engendre des conséquences et sommes-nous vraiment prêts à faire face aux conséquences?

Are we really prepared to leave ECOWAS? Because this departure will have consequences. Are we really prepared to face the consequences?

Malians living in Senegal shared the same hopes and fears as their Nigerien peers. Interviewed by France24, Malian trader Aboubacar Kanté rejoiced at the withdrawal:

Je suis très content car depuis pas mal d'années, la CEDEAO ne nous a rien apporté.

I am very happy because for quite a number of years ECOWAS has done nothing for us.

Talking to the same news outlet, Allassane, another Malian trader, worried about his status as a Malian resident in an ECOWAS country. But he remains hopeful that better solutions will be found:

La politique, c'est la politique mais nous, populations pouvons se gérer entre nous. Pour le reste, on croise les doigts que tout aille dans le bon chemin.

Politics is politics, but we, as people, have to manage the situation between ourselves. For the rest, you keep your fingers crossed that things will go in the right direction.

ECOWAS leaders are increasing efforts and meeting regularly in the hope of bringing the three countries back into the regional institution. Indeed, ECOWAS member countries derive several advantages from membership: free movement of goods and people; a vast regional market that facilitates trade among member countries; and, for the countries of the Sahel, access to the ports in coastal member states.

It is difficult to predict what will happen now. The meeting between Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé and Ivorian president Alassane Outtara on February 16 is proof of this. On February 24, 2024, in an extraordinary meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, ECOWAS heads of state took the decision to lift the heavy sanctions on Niger, and plan to rethink their approach to reinstating constitutional order in the four states led by military regimes: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Guinea. It remains to be seen whether the three countries of the AoSS will want to rejoin ECOWAS in this changeable context.

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