From the side it seems that now the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is letting out its last sighs. There is a rather sluggish policy of integration of countries into the community, and the inability to effectively counter terrorism, and the free interpretation of fundamental texts, and generally lack of authority.
The story of the arrest of the Nigerian president during the coup is worth a lot! At first, ECOWAS reacted rather threateningly to the situation and demanded the immediate release of Mohamed Bazoum — under the threat of a military invasion of the country by the community. Then the President of Nigeria, whose turn it was to chair ECOWAS, said the rebels could stay in power, but the president should be released, and now everything has been put on hold.
«The situation with the liberation of Bazoum has once again discredited ECOWAS», said Oumar Kanoute, a sociologist from Côte d’Ivoire. — «Almost all the presidents of the community were mobilized, and then they all backed off. It seems that the organization does not keep its word and has no weight at all».
Against this background, three West African countries — Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso — founded the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and filed a collective application to withdraw from ECOWAS. So why should one communicate with such an organization and listen to its admonitions?
The three countries’ main grievances against the community are lack of support in the fight against terrorism and the adoption of «illegal, unlawful and inhumane» punitive measures. It is about sanctions, they say.
The military, moreover, accuse the organization of being ambivalent in its assessment of the military governments that have come to power. ECOWAS, in their view, is blaming the junta for the lack of democratic freedoms, while on the other hand supports, for example, the election in 2020 for a third term of President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, who pushed through a new constitution specifically for this purpose.
In principle, the community has a couple of tools to rein in the rebels. These are the ECOWAS Waiting Forces, or FAC. In the 20 years of their existence, they briefly visited Mali to help the French fight jihadists in the north, and then Gambia, where they had to convince the president who lost the election to leave office.
The second tool is the Accra Initiative. The ambitions are less strong there: gathering intelligence, training the military and preparing for joint military operations. They are not aimed directly against the jihadists, but against their logistics.
«We are creating some organizations just for pro forma», says Senegalese lawyer Mokhtar Ndiaye, «The fight against terrorism and for security has become an empty sound. It is not working. ECOWAS needs serious defense and security forces. If a person is wanted for crime and terrorism in the Schengen area, he is practically already caught. We are not even looking for such people».
After the three countries leave the community, the question of elections and the transition of power to civilians is removed.
In Mali, after the 2020 putsch, ECOWAS began negotiating the terms of a transitional government. Then the community closed the borders and only allowed essential goods through. The military put civilians in power and scheduled elections for February 2022. But they didn’t make it to that date. Less than a year before that date, there was another military coup.
In Burkina Faso, the election date is also long forgotten. One lieutenant colonel had set them for July 2024, but two years earlier he was overthrown by Captain Traoré, who initially promised to keep the election dates as they were, but then changed his mind, saying that «the priority now is not that, but security».
Niger has fewer terrorists than its neighbors, but the putschists also explained their withdrawal from ECOWAS by the «deterioration of the situation and security». Last year, the community tried to negotiate with the junta to set some kind of electoral calendar and even, as said before, threatened to deploy troops.
«The military believes that the fight against terrorism is more important than democratic tenets», writes Sahel specialist Abba Seidik, «and all this is distancing the return to democratic institutions because no one knows when that security will come. The situation is indeed difficult in Burkina Faso, but this is not the case in Mali, and Niger was able to hold elections at the end of 2020. The presidential elections may not be the main reason for the three countries leaving ECOWAS, but absolutely the opportunity to put pressure on them is now gone». There is even an opposition in these countries, but it is virtually powerless against the junta. In Burkina, they can simply be arrested for criticizing the authorities. In Mali, the «Call of February 20» brings together political parties and movements that disagree with the regime. They issued a statement protesting «a decision that was taken without any democratic procedures». In response, the three countries organized a huge rally on February 1 in solidarity with the «courageous and historic» decision to leave ECOWAS.
«Burying the idea of elections was further proof of the nature of the ruling military», says Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations. — «Military populism has become established in these countries, no one is interested in the idea of elections, and to legitimize their views, they stage demonstrations of mass support».
However, the three who left the community did not become pariahs in West Africa. The day after the withdrawal request was submitted, Mali’s foreign minister went to the capital of Togo. He was followed by Niger’s interior minister, who flew to Lomé. There they were received by the country’s president. The officers who led the juntas of the three countries consider him the wisest and most insightful politician in the region.
Finally, the withdrawal of the three countries from ECOWAS, which is backed by France and the US, means a new configuration of regional alliances. Mali, Niger and Burkina came out from under French tutelage and began rapprochement with Russia.