Menu Close

Alliance of Sahel States faces uphill battle to counter Ecowas

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

After the coup, Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane, centre, spokesperson for the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) speaks during a televised statement on July 26, 2023. – Picture: ORTN-Télé Sahel / AFP

By Sizo Nkala

The military governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger changed the geopolitical contours of West Africa when they announced the establishment of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) on September 16, last year.

This came after the countries were suspended and isolated from the regional organisation, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the continental body, AU, after their respective militaries seized power and suspended the constitutional order.

In Mali, the military usurped power in May 2021, Burkina Faso had two coups in quick succession – the first being in January 2022 and the second in September 2022 – while the Nigerian military seized the reins of power in July last year (2023).

The announcement of the AES came as Ecowas, led by Nigeria, was flirting with the idea of sending a military force to restore the democratically elected government of the ousted Mohamed Bazoum. Mali and Burkina Faso committed to come to the defence of Niger if it came under attack by Ecowas forces.

The initially ad hoc defence pact was soon followed by a formal defence pact when the three countries signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter that legally gave birth to the AES in September last year. The charter enjoined the signatories to come to one another’s defence in the event of external aggression, insurgency and rebellion.

The trio did not stop there. On January 28, 2024, the three countries announced their decision to quit Ecowas, accusing the group of abandoning its founding values of pan-Africanism and being influenced by foreign agents which made it a threat to the member states.

In its response, the regional body said the trio were important members of the organisation and it was willing to welcome them back.

The three countries not only pulled out of Ecowas but also out of the G5 Sahel Alliance which also included Mauritania and Chad.

Formed in 2014, the alliance was earmarked to co-ordinate the efforts of the member states in combating the jihadist insurgency that was affecting the region.

Moreover, all three countries evicted the soldiers of their former colonial master, France, soon after the military took over. France’s critical stance towards the military coups contributed to the deteriorating relations with its former colonies. French troops had been stationed in the Sahel countries as part of security co-operation with France in a bid to tackle terrorism and insurgency which continue to affect the whole region.

The vacuum left by France will see countries like Russia step in to establish a sphere of influence in a key region. Russian private military company Wagner, now known as Africa Corps, has a presence in Mali and Burkina Faso where it provides security services in exchange for access to natural resources.

Niger and Russia have had high-level discussions on security co-operation which might see Africa Corps setting up shop in the country soon. Their engagement of Russian mercenary operations also serves to deter any attacks by the Ecowas standby force.

The military juntas seem to want to co-operate with one another beyond the collective defence pact. In February, the officials of the three countries agreed to begin the work of forming a Tri-State Confederation at a meeting in Burkina Faso to pursue common political, security and economic interests. The envisaged arrangement is part of preparations for life outside Ecowas.

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, all landlocked, are among the poorest countries in the world, with a combined gross domestic product of $53 billion (R964bn) characterised by economies dominated by the production of primary commodities.

Hence, the idea of forming a confederation is a way of establishing channels of economic co-operation through trade and investment to boost their respective economies in light of their isolation.

However, the mini-lateral arrangement is unlikely to last.

First, it is economically unsustainable. By choosing to withdraw from Ecowas, the three countries will be forfeiting the benefits accruing from the Ecowas Trade Liberalisation Scheme which operationalised the Ecowas Free Trade Area (FTA).

The landlocked and junta-ruled states will see their exports to other Ecowas member states become less competitive as they cannot benefit from preferential treatment terms under the FTA. Their efforts at economic diversification will be significantly set back. About 52 percent of Niger’s machinery exports went to Ecowas countries. The budding industry will probably fold as it will lose its competitive edge in the region. Niger also imports 70 percent of its electricity from Nigeria. The energy imports will become more expensive if the country ceases to be part of the FTA.

Moreover, their access to ports controlled by Ecowas countries will face additional costs and other non-tariff barriers. The costs of importing food will be passed on to the consumers, leading to growing food insecurity and hunger.

Thus, their withdrawal from Ecowas will probably precipitate a socio-economic crisis that will ferment political instability.

Second, the military governments will probably not last long in power. Ibrahim Traore’s regime in Burkina Faso has thwarted four or so coup attempts since seizing power in September 2022. It’s not certain that his regime will outmanoeuvre and overpower coup plotters. The possibility of counter coups is rife in all three countries where the ruling juntas have created constitutional vacuums.

Moreover, the respective juntas are self-defined transitional governments with plans to pave the way for democratically elected governments in the future. Hence, the ambitious political project of forming a confederation will last only as long the regimes of the three countries remain in place which casts its long-term future in doubt.

* Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.

** The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The African