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Ecowas has struggled to handle a raft of military coups. U.S. Army Southern Europe Photostream/Flickr

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger want to leave Ecowas. A political scientist explains the fallout

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have sent Ecowas, west Africa’s main political union of 15 countries, a formal notice of their withdrawal from the bloc. The three countries are governed by military rulers who have overthrown democratically elected leaders since 2021.

The Conversation Africa’s Godfred Akoto Boafo asked political scientist Olayinka Ajala about the implications of the withdrawal.

Why are Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso withdrawing?

The three countries have given three main reasons.

First is what they call the “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions” imposed on them for truncating their democracies.

Second is the failure of Ecowas to assist them in their “existential fight against terrorism and insecurity”.

The juntas have also argued that Ecowas has deviated from the founding principles of the organisation and is now controlled by foreign powers.

In 2001, Ecowas adopted a protocol on democracy and good governance which included a mechanism for unconstitutional changes of government. Article 1a of the protocol maintains a “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”.

Ecowas cited this clause as its reason for suspending the three countries and for imposing sanctions against them.

Ecowas has made it clear that it won’t work with the regimes. Its statements make it clear that it has taken a strong stance because it wishes to deter military coups in other countries within the bloc.

The regional bloc is also clearly frustrated at the lack of interest the three countries have shown in returning to democratic rule. It has asked for a clear and definite transition timetable, especially for Mali and Burkina Faso.

What impact will the withdrawal have on Ecowas?

The main impact will be on trade and economic development. Ecowas is primarily an economic community and the loss of any member will affect trade and economic development.

The three countries collectively account for 8% of the US$761 billion Ecowas gross domestic product (GDP). In 2022, the total trade volume from the Ecowas region totalled US$277.22 billion.

The concern is that the exit of these countries could affect the flow of goods and services in the bloc.

Leaving the bloc could have other knock-on effects too:

  • The economic collapse of the countries. These countries have strategic importance, especially in food security. Niger is a key source of onions while Burkina Faso exports tomatoes to the sub-region.

  • This would lead to an exodus of citizens to other Ecowas countries, further threatening the stability of the bloc.

  • Concerns that the three countries will enter into bilateral relationships with countries that might not be favourable to other Ecowas countries. For example, there are already concerns about Niger’s alliance with Russia after it severed ties with France.

What impact will it have on each of the countries?

The main impact on the countries will be on the movement of people, goods and services.

Under Ecowas, members enjoy unrestricted movement of citizens within the bloc. Citizens of Ecowas countries can live and work in any country in the bloc. For instance, there are more than 5 million citizens of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger living and working in Côte d'Ivoire alone. Ghana, Togo and Republic of Benin also host large numbers of Nigeriens.

The citizens of all three landlocked countries would no longer be able to travel to other Ecowas states without impediments. Niger also shares a border of over 1,600km with seven states in Nigeria and 80% of its trade is done with Nigeria.

The sanctions imposed on Niger by Ecowas are already affecting citizens of the country. Hardship is likely to increase after the exit if Nigeria decides to police its borders.

Also, depending on how Ecowas agrees to relate to the countries in future, there could be restrictions on goods and services which would further affect the economies of these countries.

What impact will it have on security in the region?

The security arrangement might not be affected in the short term. But it could be in the long term. There is already limited security cooperation between the three countries and other Ecowas members. For instance, they have all withdrawn from the G5 Sahel, resulting in the collapse of the organisation.

Although the lack of security support from Ecowas was stated as one of the reasons for exiting Ecowas, a total collapse of existing security infrastructure would affect not only the three countries but also other relatively stable states such as Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo and Benin. The three states have joined forces to form the Alliance of Sahel States, but without support from regional groups such as Ecowas, they will struggle to curtail insurgencies.

Currently, Mali has over 1,000 members of Africa Corps (formerly Wagner group), supported by Russia. There are 100 in Burkina Faso. After months of Burkina Faso insisting it would not engage foreign mercenaries, the first contingent arrived in January 2024 and more are expected soon. Niger also recently agreed to military cooperation with Russia.

This indicates the three countries still require external assistance to combat insecurity. The problem is that Russia is fighting a huge war in Ukraine and might not be able to support the three countries as much as they would require. If the three countries fail to combat insurgence through the newly formed Alliance of Sahel States, the threat will spread to other countries in the bloc and beyond.

Ecowas leaders have indicated that they are willing to have a dialogue with the three countries. I think Ecowas granting some concessions to prevent them from exiting would be in the interest of the bloc and all the citizens of Ecowas countries.

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