By deciding to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the military regimes of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger following coups d’état are taking the risk of compromising free movement and are pushing back the return of civilians to power. ECOWAS, a regional economic organization of fifteen countries, opposed the coups that successively brought the military to power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, imposing heavy economic sanctions on Niger and Mali.

In August 2023, it went so far as to threaten military intervention in Niger to restore constitutional order and free ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. Dialogue is practically broken between the organization and the regimes of Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey, who created the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and accuse their neighbors of acting under the influence of “foreign powers”, in firstly France, a former colonial power in the region.

Elections were in theory planned in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2024, supposed to ensure the return to civilian government, a prerequisite required by ECOWAS to lift its sanctions and restore these countries to its decision-making bodies. But supporters of military regimes want to extend the duration of transitions, citing the anti-jihadist fight. Niger’s new strongman, General Abourahamane Tiani, has not yet announced a transition timetable.

“The AES States anticipated a debate that was to come, that of the end of transitions. The exit from ECOWAS seems to put this question on the back burner,” said Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Sahel specialist at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS). “Ensconced in the palaces and in front of the delights of power, they [the leaders of the AES countries] want to linger in presidential chairs,” criticizes Le Patriote, the daily newspaper of the ruling party in Côte d’Ivoire.

The concern of nationals of the three countries

ECOWAS guarantees citizens of member countries the ability to travel without a visa and to establish themselves in member countries to work or reside there. The announcement of the Burkinabé, Nigerien and Malian withdrawal therefore arouses the concern of hundreds of thousands of nationals of these countries, individuals or traders.

The three landlocked countries of the Sahel and their main coastal economic partners such as Senegal and Ivory Coast are, however, members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA, eight countries), which also guarantees in principle “freedom of movement and residence” for West African nationals, as well as customs clearance of certain products and the harmonization of tariffs and standards, following the example of ECOWAS.

The consequences of a withdrawal could be more marked on the borders of Niger and Nigeria, countries not belonging to UEMOA. The West African economic giant represents more than half of ECOWAS’ GDP and is Niger’s leading economic partner in the region. The 1,500 kilometers of border which separate the two states are, however, poorly controlled and prey to attacks by armed groups. A significant portion of flows escape customs controls.

“Even if it is through smuggling, goods and people will return to Niger. You cannot separate Sokoto [northern Nigeria] from Konni [Niger], they are the same people,” assures Chaïbou Tchiombiano, secretary general of the Union of Traders, Importers, Exporters and Wholesalers of Niger.

“Legally, withdrawal without delay is not possible”

The regimes of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal “without delay”, but the ECOWAS texts provide that a request must be submitted in writing one year before. ECOWAS said on Sunday that it had not yet received such a notification. “Legally, withdrawal without delay is not possible. These States will have to find a form of agreement and negotiations will go in the direction of finding the means to make this withdrawal progressively,” estimates Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné.

As jihadist groups advance in the Sahel and to the margins of coastal states, “the region is fragmenting, becoming the object of stronger geostrategic competition, and this is not good news for stability,” warns the researcher.

The strong criticism formulated by these regimes and their supporters against the CFA franc, the common currency of the member countries of the UEMOA, could also lead the AES countries to leave this organization, and to renounce free movement goods and people while awaiting the emergence of an African continental free trade area, still at the project stage.