Will the Sahel Military Alliance Further Fragment ECOWAS?

The unity of West African leaders will be tested as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger announced their withdrawal from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in late January. Since it was established in 1975, the West African bloc has been the pillar of inter-dependence and integration across one of the most diverse geopolitical spaces on the continent. ECOWAS did not buckle under the weight of the region’s history of political upheaval, namely military coups or attempts in Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Guinea-Bissau—to name a few—or even civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Instead, it became politically and militarily influential, which prevented wider instability and fractures.

However, since 2020, ECOWAS has been on the back foot against the tide of military coups in the Sahel, triggered primarily by a fallout over the response to the ongoing militant siege. Nigeria’s hegemony as the seat of ECOWAS also declined due to various internal security crises. So in that time, Mali’s colonel Assimi Goïta deposed two governments in a space of nine months as the army rejected a pro-France counterinsurgency approach; Guinea’s presidential guard overthrew Alpha Conde in September 2021 in response to public anger over his third term bid; Burkina Faso experienced two military coups in 2022 as public patience over insecurity worsened; while Niger deposed its pro-Western leader in July 2023, citing inadequate response by France to the militant violence. The decision by Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to leave will take a year to formally ratify and is a culmination of mistrust between the Sahel military rulers and ECOWAS. It also diminishes the prospects of a democratic settlement, especially as ECOWAS’s credentials face fresh scrutiny due to its lukewarm response to the postponement of Senegal’s presidential election initially planned for 25 February.

Growing Isolation

About 70 million nationals from the three Sahel countries, who have long benefited from free movement, trade, and other business opportunities within the subregion, now face an even more uncertain future. Sanctions in response to the coups severely reduced privileged economic and social access, which precipitated public hostility toward ECOWAS. The cost of basic commodities—including rice, cooking oil, and fuel—increased by more than 50 percent since August last year and it is expected that almost a half of Niger’s 25 million people are at risk of being food insecure, according to the World Food Program.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS appears to have exhausted all options in protracted negotiations to compel the Sahel’s military rulers to expedite elections. And the escalated threat of military intervention to reverse Niger’s 2023 coup hardened the stances of the three landlocked countries that swiftly formed a politico-military coalition, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), to cement power.

The juntas have taken advantage of popular discontent toward ECOWAS to amplify allegations that it is working at the behest of foreign powers—particularly erstwhile security ally France that backed economic and political sanctions—and to attack the institution for failing to support the fight against terrorism. Over the last four years, militant violence has increased nearly four-fold, according to data from the U.S.-based Armed Conflict & Location Data Project. This has been compounded by the expulsion of thousands of French, UN, and other Western forces (although the United States maintains 1,000 troops in Niger), and the collapse of the largely moribund G5 Sahel force.

A geopolitical contest has ensued as the AES ostensibly becomes Russia’s tool for diplomatic grandstanding. Moscow officially denied influencing the three countries to leave ECOWAS, but it has played a disruptive role in the region in the last decade, including being linked to a campaign-influencing operation in Ghana that fueled misinformation during the 2016 U.S. election. Russian mercenaries linked to the Wagner Group who are present in Mali and Burkina Faso have not lived up to expectations to halt relentless attacks by Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates. The mercenaries have instead been blamed for a growing list of atrocities against civilians, the resurgence of a rebellion in northern Mali, and a tense propaganda war, particularly with al Qaeda’s Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. The mercenaries have also taken control of Mali’s most lucrative gold mine in the northern Gao Region, propagating their exploitative model of providing security in exchange for minerals.

Rancour against regional and international partners has intensified the diplomatic isolation of the AES.

Window of Opportunity

The next year could be a window of opportunity for robust engagements between the three juntas and ECOWAS that would allow them to recalibrate expectations of an inclusive political process.

Niger intends to undertake national consultations on its transition after a deadlock with ECOWAS that proposed an 18-month period. After unilaterally ending a 2015 peace deal with Tuareg rebels in the north, Mali is embarking on an inter-Malian dialogue that could further delay elections that were meant to have taken place in February. Burkina Faso plans to change its constitution after Captain Ibrahim Traoré ruled out elections due to insecurity. Although it has not backed the decision by neighbouring Sahel states, Guinea is planning similar constitutional changes, which had been the issue that underpinned the military intervention in 2022, as it shrugs off ECOWAS pressure to restore civilian rule.

The subregion has a large youth population, which has underpinned widespread activism, boosted political competition, and sparked public engagement. However, poor security and social and economic prospects could further fuel illegal migration or prevailing militant and criminal activity. As such, the political exercises in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea will need objective oversight and technical support to restore confidence in judicial, electoral and other public institutions, which would encourage public participation. The guarantee of a transparent, inclusive transition in the four countries is uncertain as the respective juntas have repeatedly shown a lack of commitment to relinquishing power.

ECOWAS needs to rehabilitate its waning political weight given the last half decade has been blighted by rapid instability and questions about the legitimacy of some of the bloc’s leaders. This is a sharp contrast from its peak between 1993 and 2017, when ECOWAS halted devastating civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire, and successfully negotiated a transition in The Gambia where long-serving leader Yahya Jammeh had initially rejected to hand over the office to Adama Barrow.

When Mauritania left the bloc more than two decades ago in protest over its economic sovereignty, ECOWAS did not lose momentum and continued to strengthen partnerships across language, geographical and political divides. But the imminent loss of the Sahel nations has magnified acrimony and the struggle to contain a wave of political unrest in the region.

West African leaders have faltered in some of their responses to democratic decline, including internet restrictions aimed at quashing the momentum of opposition protests in Senegal, the nearly yearlong shutdown of Twitter following mass pro-democracy demos in Nigeria, and alleged brutal crackdown of opposition critics as Guinea’s Alpha Conde embarked on constitutional changes to extend his stay in power.

After the coup attempt in Sierra Leone in November 2023, ECOWAS reportedly offered asylum to key suspect, ex-president Ernest Bai Koroma, undermining the message by current chair, Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, that the attempts to take over power undemocratically would not be tolerated. This apparent double standard could inspire further military interventions.

The coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger were set off by years of mistrust in respective civilian-led governments, impatience in pro-Western security policies, and sociopolitical marginalization. It is unclear what the long-term plan is for the AES to sustain economic stability. Guinea defied border closures imposed by ECOWAS and gave the Sahel states access to its port, enabling Mali to receive Russian grain and fertiliser. Togo has been a bridge between the juntas and West African leaders. These channels could continue to be critical in future negotiations, as ECOWAS is keen to mediate the crisis. However, the risk remains high of greater fractures in the region—even across other political blocs whose unity is being challenged by wars and mistrust among members.

Beverly Ochieng is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.