ECOWAS Hopes to Ease Tensions

Op-Ed by Emily Thompson

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is lifting most sanctions imposed on Niger over last year’s coup in an effort to ease tensions following a series of political crises that have rocked the region in recent months.

A no-fly zone and border closures were among the sanctions being lifted “with immediate effect”, the president of the West African regional bloc commission, Omar Alieu Touray, said on Saturday.

The lifting of the sanctions is “on purely humanitarian grounds” to ease the suffering caused as a result, Touray told reporters after the bloc’s summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

The summit aimed to address existential threats facing the region as well as implore three military-led nations – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso – to rescind their decision after they quit the bloc.

The three nations were originally suspended from ECOWAS following recent coups. In response, they declared their intention to permanently withdraw from the bloc, but now ECOWAS has called for them to return in an effort to smooth over differences.

The unexpected decision by Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to leave ECOWAS sent ripples of shock and concern across the region, marking a potential setback in years of efforts toward regional integration. This significant move, announced jointly by the governments of these three junta-led nations at the end of January, was rooted in their disillusionment with ECOWAS, which they accused of straying from its foundational ideals and posing a threat to its members. Their departure raises questions about the future of millions of people and the stability of regional cooperation.

The three nations articulated several grievances against ECOWAS, including accusations of imposing sanctions they deemed “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane, and irresponsible” in response to their governance methods. Furthermore, they criticized the bloc for failing to support them in their critical struggle against terrorism and insecurity, asserting that ECOWAS has veered away from its core principles and fallen under foreign influence. This clash of visions culminates from the 2001 ECOWAS protocol on democracy and good governance, which espouses a zero-tolerance policy for governments coming to or staying in power through unconstitutional means—a principle that led to the suspension and sanctioning of these countries by ECOWAS.

ECOWAS’s refusal to cooperate with these regimes underscores its determination to deter military coups and encourage a return to democratic governance within the bloc. Despite repeated calls for a definitive transition timeline towards democracy, particularly from Mali and Burkina Faso, frustration has mounted over the apparent lack of commitment from these countries to restore democratic order.

The ramifications of their withdrawal from ECOWAS are manifold and significant, particularly in the spheres of trade and economic development. As a primarily economic union, ECOWAS’s cohesive functioning and the economic well-being of its member states could be severely impacted. The departing countries, which together contribute to 8% of ECOWAS’s gross domestic product (GDP), play crucial roles in the regional economy, not just in monetary terms but also in food security and trade. The potential economic isolation of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are likely to have dire consequences, including economic downturns, the possibility of an exodus of citizens seeking stability elsewhere, and the risk of forming alliances that could undermine the strength of ECOWAS.

On a national level, the departure from ECOWAS threatens to disrupt the free movement of people, goods, and services—a cornerstone of the community that has fostered economic integration and cultural exchange among member states. This could be particularly problematic for landlocked Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which have historically relied on their ECOWAS membership to facilitate trade and mobility, especially with major partners like Nigeria.

Security concerns also loom large, with potential long-term implications for regional stability. Although the immediate security arrangements might remain unchanged, the withdrawal of these countries from collaborative frameworks like the G5 Sahel signals a worrying trend. The formation of the Alliance of Sahel States by these countries, in absence of support from ECOWAS, may not be sufficient to address the growing security challenges. The reliance on external military assistance, including controversial ties with Russia, underscores the precarious security situation and the broader implications for the region.

In light of these developments, it is important that Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger engage in dialogue and negotiation to mitigate the negative impacts of their rift with ECOWAS. Some experts advocate for concessions by ECOWAS to prevent the full withdrawal of the three countries, arguing that maintaining unity within the bloc serves the broader interests of all member states and the West African community at large.

It will take resolve and leadership to ease tensions and bring all the parties to the negotiating table, but the benefits are deeply important since it will affect over 65 million citizens living in these three countries. Their welfare and well-being trump all else and their leaders must take the public’s concerns and future prosperity into account.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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