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Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger form Alliance of Sahel States to advance collective defence

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Picture: Mahamadou Hamidou/REUTERS/Taken September 2, 2023 – Thousands of Nigeriens gather in front of the French army headquarters, Niamey, Niger, in support of the putschist soldiers and to demand that the French army leave. As an Ecowas military threat looms over Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have have formally declared that any act of aggression against one will be considered an aggression against all. The leaders of the three countries have come to power in popularly-backed coups amid mass anti-French anger and rising insecurity in the Sahel, the writer says.

By Tanupriya Singh

In a major advancement towards mutual co-operation, the governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have formed the Alliance of Sahel States (AES). The move was finalised with the signing of the Liptako-Gourma Charter, named after the tri-border region shared by the three countries, in Mali’s capital Bamako on Saturday, September 16.

“This alliance will be a combination of military and economic efforts between the three countries…Our priority is the fight against terrorism,” Malian Defence Minister Abdoulaye Diop told journalists.

The three countries have committed to “prevent, manage, and resolve any armed rebellion or threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty… privileging peaceful and diplomatic channels, and, if necessary, to use force to deal with situations [that] breach peace and stability”.

The formation of AES comes at a critical time in the Sahel region of West Africa. Mali has witnessed a resurgence of attacks by ethnic Tuareg rebels in its northern region, alongside violence by other armed groups. An armed insurgency by Tuareg rebels over a decade ago had led to France’s military intervention in Mali in 2013 under Operation Serval.

Over the next few years, the attacks spread to other parts of the Sahel, including Niger and Burkina Faso, with armed groups controlling an estimated 40 percent of the latter’s territory. Meanwhile, France expanded its military operations in the region with Operation Barkhane in 2014.

As violence continued to grow even after almost a decade of intervention, France’s failure to achieve its stated counter-insurgency objectives, not to mention the civilian casualties as a result of its airstrikes, fuelled mass public protests against the presence of French troops in Mali. Against this backdrop of popular anger, the country witnessed two military coups, in 2020 and 2021, finally bringing to power its current military leadership headed by Colonel Assimi Goïta.

Burkina Faso would soon follow with a military coup in January 2022 held in the wake of mass anti-French demonstrations. Just months later, the failure of the government to tackle growing insecurity led to a second coup, led by Captain Ibrahim Traore. The same year, France announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali after Bamako ended its defence accords with Paris.

In January 2023, Burkina Faso ordered the expulsion of French troops from its soil.

Meanwhile, both countries were suspended and heavily sanctioned by the regional Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). Confronted with a precarious security situation and unilateral punitive measures by their regional neighbours, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea (which had also undergone a military coup in 2021) began taking comprehensive measures to boost co-operation on a range of matters, especially defence.

Collective defence and mutual assistance

As Ecowas threatened a military intervention in Niger following the coup on July 26, Mali and Burkina Faso declared that any such action against Niamey would be interpreted as a declaration of war against the two. This has been formalised in the Liptako-Gourma Charter.

With the objective of establishing an “architecture of collective defence and mutual assistance,” the text declares that “Any attack on the sovereignty and integrity of the territory of one or more Contracting Parties will be considered as an aggression against the other Parties and will engage a duty of assistance and relief of all Parties, individually or collectively, including the use of armed force to restore and ensure security…”

“Aggression” also includes any attack on the defence and security forces of the three countries, “including when such forces are deployed in a national capacity outside the area of operation of the Alliance,” the text states. It also includes any attack against ships or aircrafts of the three parties.

Mali and Burkina Faso have dispatched official delegations since July to meet with Niger’s junta, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP). Moreover, both countries have also dispatched military aircrafts to Niger. Burkina Faso’s council of ministers has also approved legislation for the deployment of its troops to Niger.

Niamey has granted authorisation to both Burkina Faso and Mali for such a deployment in the event of a potential invasion.

At present, all three countries remain suspended from Ecowas. While the bloc has imposed sweeping unilateral measures against Niamey, including border closures against the land-locked country, Mali and Burkina Faso declared that they would not abide by the “illegal, illegitimate, and inhumane” sanctions against Niger’s people and authorities.

Burkina Faso proceeded to dispatch over 300 trucks carrying essential goods to Niger. Now, as part of the AES, the three members have resolved to not resort to threats or aggression against each other, and, importantly, to not blockade ports, roads, coasts or any strategic infrastructure.

The common defence pact has been signed as the situation remains tense in the region.

Ecowas will not use the transition “template” in Niger

On September 12, the CNSP announced the cancellation of a military co-operation agreement signed with Benin in July 2022. In a statement on national television, Niger’s leaders accused the neighbouring country of having authorised the stationing of “soldiers, mercenaries, and war materials” on its territory “in view of an aggression desired by France in collaboration with certain countries of Ecowas against our country”.

A few days prior, the CNSP also accused France of deploying its forces in several Ecowas member countries and unloading “large quantities of war material and equipment”, including aircrafts and armoured vehicles in Côte d’Ivoire and Benin in preparation for an aggression against Niger.

On August 3, Niger cancelled the existing military co-operation agreements with Paris, which also govern the presence of the 1,500 French troops in the country. France was given a month to remove its troops. They currently remain in Niger “in a position of illegality”, said interim Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine.

He, however, indicated that talks are being held for their withdrawal. France also confirmed that “exchanges” were being held to “facilitate the movements of French military assets”. Even so, while addressing the G20 Summit in India, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that France could redeploy its troops, but only at the request of ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.

Paris has also defied the CNSP’s demand to remove the French ambassador from the country.

Massive protests demanding the removal of French troops have continued in Niger. Thousands of people gathered in front of the French military base in Niamey for another demonstration on September 16.

Meanwhile, talks have been held between the CNSP and Ecowas as the intervention plan has faced resistance not only within the bloc, but also from other countries on the Continent. There is also steadfast rejection by people’s movements and progressive forces to any coercive actions against the people of Niger.

Uncertainty nevertheless remains. In an interview with French broadcaster France24 on September 15, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, stated that the possibility of an intervention was “still on the table”.

While Ecowas has agreed to plans for a political transition as presented by Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, which also led to the lifting of sanctions on Bamako, the bloc has firmly declared that it is not going to use these engagements as a “template” for Niger, denying any discussion on a transition.

This was reiterated by Embaló, who stated that “a transition is not acceptable” and that it was a “big mistake” on Ecowas’ part to lift the sanctions on Mali.

Tanupriya Singh is a writer at Peoples Dispatch and is based in Delhi.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch