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Intel Brief: New Alliance of Sahel States exacerbates insecurity concerns in the region


 


Date: 11/07/2024

Where: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso 

Who’s involved: Alliance of Sahel States (AES), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)



What happened?

  • On 06/07/2024, the military rulers of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso signed a treaty establishing a confederation called the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and formalizing their departure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The treaty was signed during a summit of the three military junta leaders in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The goal of the confederation is mutual defense in case of external aggression, armed rebellion, or any attack on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the parties. The breakaway confederation has a marked anti-ECOWAS and anti-French stance

  • The official formation of the new alliance between the West African military juntas took place a day before the opening of ECOWAS 65th ordinary summit in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, re-elected as ECOWAS chair during the summit, warned that the splitting of the juntas from the West African bloc puts ECOWAS at "risk of disintegration" and "political isolation." Senegalese President Faye was appointed by ECOWAS, along with the president of Togo, as a special envoy to negotiate and seek reconciliation with the governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. 

  • On 07/07/2024, the US completed the withdrawal of about 1000 military personnel from their air base in Niamey, Niger’s capital. The US is expected to complete the withdrawal of the remaining troops in the country by 15/09/2024, while Germany’s contingent will leave Niger by 31/08/2024. The Italian military maintains troops in the country, but a potential renewal will be discussed in September 2024. The withdrawal of US troops from Niger represents the loss of the last stronghold and ally for Western counter-terrorism in the Sahel States. Mali had already expelled French troops in 2022, while the withdrawal of French forces in Niger and Burkina Faso was completed in 2023. 

  • The creation of the Alliance of Sahel States and its mutual defense pact was initially announced on 16/09/2023, after the ECOWAS threatened to military intervene in Niger to restore constitutional rule and the deposed president following a military coup in July 2023. 

  • On 28/01/2024, the three West African junta-led countries simultaneously declared the withdrawal from the ECOWAS due to military and political pressure and the suspension from ECOWAS in the aftermath of their respective coups. Besides Niger's military coup in July 2023, which saw General Abdourahamane Tchiani self-proclaimed leader of the country, the Sahel region witnessed a wave of coup d’etat in the last three years, including the coups in 2020 and 2021 in Mali led by the current Malian President Colonel Assimi Goïta and the two coups in 2022 experienced by Burkina Faso, currently led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré. 


Analysis:

  • The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), established in 1975 as an economic coalition, evolved into a powerful regional political and economic union consisting of fifteen, now twelve, West African nations aiming to achieve "self-sufficiency" and economic cooperation among member states to raise living standards and foster economic growth. ECOWAS also aimed to promote regional peace, stability, and security through integration and cooperation among members and developing a peacekeeping force to address regional security issues such as terrorism and conflict. However, in recent years, increased regional instability, terroristic violence, and the bloc's inability to prevent military coups and restore democratic order have undermined ECOWAS' authority and credibility. The split of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and the establishment of the AES risks exacerbating greater regional instability and further fragmenting and weakening the already crisis-ridden ECOWAS. 

  • For ECOWAS, the exit of the AES member states, with their 72 million people, about one-fifth of the ECOWAS population, would undermine regional integration about the free trade area (FTA), trade routes, industrial diversification and supply chains, freedom of movement and the right to work across borders. Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, on the other hand, will face economic challenges and risk worsening their economic and financial condition, already damaged by the sanctions imposed on them following the coups. Being landlocked countries, their trade routes depend mainly on the coastal members of ECOWAS. Leaving ECOWAS will also mean leaving the FTA, resulting in the reintroduction of tariff barriers and increased transactions, making their exports less competitive and imported goods more expensive. Moreover, the AES country will no longer benefit from ECOWAS development programs to foster food security, water management, agriculture, and energy in the region. International observers warn of the risk of increased poverty, food security, and humanitarian crises in the countries. 

  • AES announced the creation of the Sahel Economic Alliance to promote the confederation's economic development and self-sufficiency. Moreover, these countries are rich in mineral resources, mainly gold sold to non-ECOWAS countries, which could at least partially offset the economic consequences of leaving the regional economic bloc. Also, the junta-led countries announced the creation of a mechanism to allow the free movement of people, goods and services within the AES zone and their own investment bank. It is still unclear whether AES will also leave the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA).

  • The withdrawal from ECOWAS will also imply growing political isolation for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger and diminishing chances for the restoration of democracy. The lack of political cooperation with the ECOWAS will likely affect the efforts of the bloc and Western efforts to address the regional security challenges, like armed groups, organized crime, and, especially, terrorism. The three junta-led states are among the most affected by violence and activities of Islamist groups, and ECOWAS leaders are concerned about the spillover of jihadist groups into neighboring countries as a result of the collapse of joint counter-terrorism strategies and the withdrawal of Western military forces from the AES members.  

  • The military juntas' estrangement from ECOWAS is also attributable to their strong anti-French and anti-Western stance. AES leaders have repeatedly accused the West African bloc of being "slaves" to France and acting on behalf of Western foreign powers rather than for regional interests. The expulsion of French forces and the more recent withdrawal of US contingents points at, besides counterterrorism implications, a geopolitical shift by AES in favor of non-Western powers seeking to expand their influence in the region. Russia has already consolidated its relations with members of the new alliance. Russia initiated military cooperation with Niger in 2024 and has openly supported Burkina Faso's military regime by deploying troops in the country. In addition, the presence in Mali of about 1,000 troops of the Russian private military group Wagner, which is responsible for atrocities against civilians, has been confirmed since 2021. 

  • The US withdrawal from Niger could further the West African country's relations with Iran and Russia to boost their nuclear programs. Niger accounts for about 7 percent of the world's uranium production, which has historically been supplied to France. Meanwhile, Russia’s Rosatom signed three cooperation deals in July 2024 with Mali’s military junta and discussed projects for a nuclear power plant. China is also expanding its influence and investment in the resource-rich Sahel region. For instance, in 2023, China invested extensively in Mali, which has one of the world's largest lithium reserves. 

  • Despite ECOWAS's efforts for reconciliation, it is unlikely that the three military-ruled countries will opt to return to the West African bloc. The regional insecurity spawned by the new configuration of West Africa is likely to exacerbate increased violence against civilians, widespread terrorism and extremism, and a dramatic humanitarian crisis. International observers are concerned about restricting citizens' freedoms by military juntas and fear a greater authoritarian orientation in the region, even in neighboring states. The Alliance of Sahel States could likely also significantly impact migration flows to Europe. The reintroduction of cross-border controls will disrupt the usual migration routes, and the military juntas, with their stricter approach against illegal migration, will no longer be part of the cooperation framework on migration negotiated by ECOWAS and the EU. 


Conclusion:

The withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, members of the newly forged Alliance of Sahel States, from the ECOWAS economic and political bloc is likely to have far-reaching impacts on regional and international stability and security. International observers are concerned that the new Sahel configuration will exacerbate a humanitarian crisis and a migration crisis, thus having repercussions for the European Union and migration routes. Moreover, the withdrawal of Western forces from the region increases the risk of expansion and strengthening of jihadist groups. ECOWAS reconciliation efforts with the AES are unlikely to produce any results. The weakening of ECOWAS, now made up of 12 member states, could also have ramifications for the influence and peacekeeping and counter-terrorism activities of its Western allies in the region, to the benefit of non-Western powers such as Russia, Iran, and China, already seeking to cement their ties with separatist military juntas. 




 

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