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Updated Jul 8, 2024, 12:24pm EDT
africa

West Africa bloc tries to dissuade junta-led breakaway states

Mali's Assimi Goita, Niger's General Abdourahamane Tiani and Burkina Faso's Captain Ibrahim Traore at the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) in Niamey, Niger Reuters/Mahamadou Hamidou
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The News

West Africa’s economic and political bloc has launched a formal push to convince three junta-led member states to shelve their joint breakaway plan, with Senegal’s president Bassirou Diomaye Faye appointed special envoy to the disaffected nations.

At a meeting in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Sunday, Ecowas chair President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria commissioned Faye to work “around the clock” in concert with Togo’s president Faure Gnassingbe to persuade Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to abandon their Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and remain Ecowas members.

They formed the AES as a defense pact last September, in the face of Tinubu’s threat to restore democratic rule in Niger through a military intervention. They declared their split from Ecowas in January. At the alliance’s first summit last weekend, Niger’s head of state Abdourahmane Tiani said their Ecowas departure is “irrevocable.”

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A breakup of the bloc could “disrupt the freedom of movement and settlement of people” and worsen insecurity in West Africa, warned Omar Touray, president of its commission.

The presidents of the 12 other Ecowas member states called for “a more vigorous” engagement approach anchored on “a forward-looking contingency plan” that accounts for “all eventualities in relations with the AES countries,” according to a communique issued after Sunday’s meeting.

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Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have mutual borders and are battling insurgencies by affiliates of Islamist groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Each is led by a military government following coups that overthrew elected civilian administrations, and has pared down defense partnerships with France and the United States while increasing engagement with Russia.

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The new group has been talking up a potential break from the euro-pegged CFA currency used by eight West African states but nothing concrete has been announced (meanwhile guidelines for joining a proposed Ecowas currency ‘Eco’ is expected by early 2025). For now, it will create an investment bank and a stabilization fund as part of a confederation treaty, to integrate their economies and be an alternative to a bloc “whose directives and instructions are dictated to it by powers that are foreign to Africa,” Tiani said.

But Tinubu, re-elected Ecowas chair until 2025 when the bloc will mark its 50th anniversary, hopes that dialogue could stir the AES leaders — whom he called “brothers” — towards reversing course.

Reuters/Marvellous Durowaiye
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Alexander’s view

Ecowas’s more measured outreach to Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger can be seen in the bloc’s use of the new alliance’s formal name in official messaging. It has become clear that the bombast of a year ago will only aggravate grievances, amplifying suspicion in those countries that Western powers are behind attempts to tell them what to do.

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In Senegal’s Faye, Ecowas has a fresh face whose youth and anti-colonialist sentiment could bode well for conciliation. He and Togo’s Gnassingbe “have the right contacts and are respected” in the AES countries, says Ulf Laessing, director of the Sahel Programme at German think tank Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

But a breakthrough is unlikely to come from these talks since the junta leaders “base much of their legitimacy on being critical of Ecowas, which they see as a French tool,” Laessing told me. “The AES with all the noise the countries make is pretty much the only ‘results’ these juntas have to show so they won’t be looking for an understanding with Ecowas.”

The bloc seems to acknowledge this already with its sights set on a forward-looking contingency plan. A cooperation agreement between AES and Ecowas now seems the most likely resolution, rather than a collapse of the former into the latter, Laessing believes.

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The View From Abuja

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger may seek concessions from Ecowas as pre-conditions for considering a return to the bloc, says Afolabi Adekaiyaoja of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja. The countries’ junta leaders might “use this opportunity to claim a longer transition period to avert any sanctions or subsequent issues if they return,” he said.

Another possible point of overlap in negotiations is the need for a more independent Ecowas that is “able to determine its path forward” by depending less on foreign aid and development funding, Adekaiyaoja said.

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Quotable

“Westerners consider that we belong to them and our wealth also belongs to them. They think that they are the ones who must continue to tell us what is good for our states. This era is gone forever; our resources will remain for us and our populations.”

— Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s head of state, during the AES summit.


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