A Shifting Landscape: Is ECOWAS Awakening to Regional Economic and Security Realities?

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By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Given the multidimensional difficulties facing the the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the most delicate being forging indivisible regional security which, at least, constitutes the basis for economic integration and development. The highly anticipated decision made by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to quit the organization poses challenges and resolving these fragile questions lead to instability.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have common historical and political backgrounds, as former French colonies struggled to maintain some kind of democracy and improve the economic situation for 80% impoverished population. However, the political leadership were unsuccessful in achieving their election pledges combined with multiple internal ethnic conflicts, deep-seated corruption and worse, poor strategic development policies.

In addition, rights abuse and cultural practices, to a considerable extent, negatively affect the current state of sub-standard development. While it remains largely underdeveloped and the greater part of the population impoverished, terrorist organizations are operating and have contributed to the frequent violence, extremism and instability in this vast region.

This resulted in military coup d’états as we have seen and heard all these years. Reports show that Burkina Faso has had several military coup d’états, the latest took place in Jan. 2022. The case of Mali (May 24, 2021) and Niger (July 26, 2023) witnessed similar political trends, and the three are now under military administration and share startling critical accusations of corruption and malfunctioning of state governance against previous governments. But the finger-end points concretely to France and generally to the European Union for gross under-development and large-scale exploitation of the countries in the West African region.

As part of their political initiatives, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger exited the anti-Islamist force in early December 2023, and withdraw from the international force known as the G5 that was set up to fight Islamists in the Sahel region. Now Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have formed their mutual defence pact. Their so-called Alliance of Sahel States (AES) was signed back in September.

Chad and Mauritania were part of the G5 force which was supposed to be made up of about 5,000 soldiers. The military-led interim governments of Burkina Faso and Niger vehemently criticized the G5 force for failing to make the Sahel region safer and consistently continued undermining the force as serving foreign interests instead of aiming for greater local independence and dignity. Later Niger scrapped all the European Union Civilian Capacity-Building Mission that was established in 2012, and that created growing political tensions between Niger and the EU after the July coup.

Meanwhile, Russia sees an excellent potential strategic commercial interest there – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger have appeared on its radar as a possible gateway into the entire Sahel region in Africa. The Russian Foreign Ministry has explained in a statement posted on its website, that its military-technical cooperation with African countries is primarily directed at settling regional conflicts and possibly halting the spread of terrorist threats and fighting the growing terrorism in the continent. Its strategy on Africa is reportedly looking into building military bases in the continent. In December 2023, Nigerien Prime Minister, Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, had already asked for the creation of a Russian military base during his working visit to discuss military and economic ties in the Kremlin.

Political Correctness

On January 30, the African Union (AU) issued an official notice, posted to its website, calling for dialogue between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and three member countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The AU, supporting ECOWAS endeavours to restore democracy, expressed deep regret about the withdrawal announcement and emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to preserve ECOWAS unity and strengthen African solidarity.

On the flip side, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger’s foreign ministries formally notified the ECOWAS Commission of their decisions to leave the bloc in written notices dated Jan. 29. According to the bloc’s treaty, member states wishing to withdraw must give a written one-year notice. So the move to quit the 15-member bloc could yet take time to implement, opening a door for negotiations.

In an official statement posted to its website, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, called for an intensified dialogue between ECOWAS leadership and the three countries. He conveyed the AU’s readiness to assist in the process. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger formally notified the ECOWAS Commission of their decisions to withdraw on January 29. According to ECOWAS treaty provisions, member states desiring to withdraw must provide a one-year written notice. This implies that the actual departure from the 15-member bloc could take some time, allowing room for negotiations.

The skyline willingness of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to dismember the organization underscored the prevailing instability in the region, where military forces are grappling with challenges posed by Islamist militants, especially following power seizures in various countries. The AU’s call for dialogue signals a diplomatic effort to address the situation and maintain regional cooperation despite the setbacks.

In response, however, the Authority of Heads of State and Government, its highest decision-making organ of ECOWAS, says it remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse.

The statement says it has been “working assiduously with these countries for the restoration of constitutional order. Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali remain important members of the Community and the Authority remains committed to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse.”

That however the rhetorical arguments in several media reports said ECOWAS insisted they remain as members. “The ECOWAS Commission remains seized with the development and shall make further pronouncements as the situation evolves,” the statement said.

The three countries – founding members of the bloc in 1975 – were suspended from ECOWAS with Niger and Mali facing heavy sanctions as the bloc tried to push for the early return of civilian governments with elections. Burkina Faso and Mali were scheduled to hold elections this year, according to agreements with ECOWAS, while talks with Niger have yet to start.

In September 2023, the three countries hardened their positions in recent months and joined forces in an “Alliance of Sahel States” and the regional bloc noted they were “under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to member states and peoples.”

Reactions and Economic Impact

Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali’s withdrawal from the bloc has sparked knee-jerk reactions and discussions. The bloc has imposed stringent sanctions, finding a peaceful solution to the deepening crisis, yielded little with no clarity on the next steps. Dialogue over restoring constitutional order has failed, as the situation stands, especially the English against the French, it could burst into a sharp regional destabilization as a whole.

Despite the most intractable conflicts which attract political sympathy, the withdrawal has inflicted considerable damage on the bloc’s image. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, are unprepared to dialogue (negotiate) and often disparage both the regional and continental organizations, but are seemingly tackling their security, political and economic visions in starkly different directions. Scholars have published critical reviews in the context of the emerging alternative world system, further emphasising the need to cooperate and bridge the widening gap, especially with the regional bloc. Some have questioned whether the 15-member West African organization can survive the split and the crippling attitudes of the interim military leaders.

Narratives further described ECOWAS’ poor coordination and weaknesses in handling appropriate issues relating the regional integration, security and economic development. Throughout these several years, ECOWAS has failed the entire West African region. It is manipulated by external powers and ordered by Washington and what is more executing instructions and directives from imperialist-minded powers who have, so far, imposed their own rules.

Leadership and Economic Transformation As the Way Forward

The way forward should not be invading these French-speaking countries as the Commissioner for Politics, Peace and Security at the ECOWAS had initially wanted. Strict sanctions may not also be the way out, rather invasion and sanctions would jeopardize the organization’s status, and unity in West Africa. Prioritizing militarization over economic growth is dangerously short-sighted. On the other side of the argument, the ambitions of leaders completely demonstrate utter disrespect for ECOWAS. This further threatened the continental unity and for which was established the African Union.

In turning around to soliciting foreign military assistance and forging closer partnerships with external players have to largely address development-oriented questions. On cultural levels, abandoning French as an official language is a trivial approach to existing challenges in the region. Succumbing to external pressures and measures is also incredibly daunting. Therefore, it is however crucial, within saying “African Problems, African Solutions” to portray the highest respect for sovereignty and the pursuit of peace. The fundamental issue here also connects the raising the welfare of the citizens through modern agriculture directed at ensuring food security, transforming the industrial sector. Both systematically create employment opportunities for the teeming youth. Improving transport infrastructure also supports the envisioned single continental free trade, allowing easier movement of people, goods and services.

West Africa has huge natural resources and human capital. Reviewing the economic and trade aspects of post-colonial relations with external powers is important now. An emerging multipolar world implies integration and a fairer system of relations, partners are treated as equals, rather than posing as beggars and a whimsical approach towards accepting free grains. With contradictions and complexities of the geopolitical changes offer more investment opportunities to capitalize on. Requesting for needed investment would ensure food security generate employment for the youth, and ultimately consolidate the economy.

As of 2023, Burkina Faso is currently suspended from ECOWAS and the African Union has an estimated population of 20.5 million. Its natural resources include gold, manganese, limestone, marble and phosphates. The vast arable land, yet to adopt mechanized agriculture, can completely ensure food self-sufficiency for the country. Mali and Niger were dismembered from ECOWAS and the African Union.  Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa, population of about 21.9 million, while Niger has a comparatively slightly bigger population of 22.5 million.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, considered among the poorest countries in the world, are landlocked. This constitutes one of the greatest disadvantages, that ECOWAS strengthening its sanctions, this time, ordering the close of neighbouring air routes in addition to borders to get them to observe and respect ECOWAS protocols.

Mali’s key industry is agriculture. Cotton is the country’s largest crop export and is exported west throughout Senegal and Ivory Coast. It previously relaxed the enforcement of mining codes which led to renewed foreign interest and investment in the mining industry. In addition,  Gold is mined in the southern region and Mali has the third highest gold production in Africa (after South Africa and Ghana).

Niger borders Nigeria and Benin to the south, Burkina Faso and Mali to the west, and then Chad, Libya and Algeria. An overview shows the same features in Burkina Faso and Mali. The average population is 22.5 million. Niger pursues a moderate foreign policy and maintains friendly relations with the West and the Islamic world as well as non-aligned countries. Until last year, it maintained a special relationship with former colonial power France. The economy of Niger centres on subsistence crops, livestock, and some of the world’s largest uranium deposits. In 2021, Niger was the main supplier of uranium to the EU, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia.

Landlocked Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali are located within the Sahel-Sahara, the vast semi-arid region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. It is as huge a land of opportunities as it is full of environmental headaches. It has abundant human and natural resources and indisputably offers tremendous potential for rapid growth, but there are also deep-rooted challenges – political and security – that are adversely affecting prosperity and peace. These countries, in a nutshell, need a well-constituted political structure and good strategic development policies together with modern technology to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as stipulated in the African Union Agenda 2063.

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