Over the weekend, the African political landscape took an unexpected twist when three West African nations- Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso- led by the military juntas, announced their immediate exit from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), their regional group. The trio claimed that the regional body has betrayed its members and people under foreign pressure. They blamed the regional body for not backing their fight against terrorism and insecurity and for imposing illegal, illegitimate, inhumane, and irresponsible sanctions. 

In 1975, ECOWAS, established a 15-nation bloc to promote economic integration among its members, which has faced difficulties in recent years in stopping the frequent coups in the region where people have expressed dissatisfaction with the poor distribution of natural wealth. The three states have all had military takeovers recently – Mali in 2020 and 2021, Burkina Faso in 2022, and Niger in 2023. ECOWAS has said it is unaware of the countries’ decision to leave the bloc. According to the body’s protocol, withdrawal takes up to one year to be finalized. “Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali are still important members of the Community, and the Authority is dedicated to finding a negotiated solution to the political deadlock,” it said. 

Ecowas is a 15-member regional trading block representing over 350 million people and generating a combined GDP of $720 billion. This potential withdrawal comes ahead of ECOWAS’s 50th anniversary next year, increasing the pressure on concerns about regional stability and economic integration. “Having this sort of development is not a very good sign when you’re so close to jubilee,” commented Ovigwe Eguegu, a Policy Analyst at Development Reimagined. Such a move could fracture regional economic community at a time when the region needs unity and collaboration more than ever.”

The potential withdrawal of the junta from ECOWAS poses significant challenges to cooperation on various fronts, with economic and human costs. On the economic front, both the Regional Investment Investment and Development Bank (RIDB) and the Ecowas Investment Development Bank (IEDB) have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Burkina Faso and Mali. EBID has approved about $250 million in projects for Burkina Faso and Mali, focusing on infrastructure, agriculture, and energy. Burkina Faso also boasts the second-highest number of employees within ECOWAS institutions. Their withdrawal would be detrimental to these individuals and their families, exacerbating regional unemployment. “It would be quite a challenge for some people who are going to lose their jobs,” said Ovigwe. Moreover, one of the major benefits of being an ECOWAS member state is the free movement of citizens within the bloc. Withdrawal could lead to stricter border controls, visas, and increased travel costs, hindering cross-border movement. This would mean further diverging tariff systems and service fees, which could significantly disrupt regional trade, and travel, impacting businesses and consumers across the bloc.

However, the big problem lies in the security domain of the region. The potential withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from ECOWAS raises major security concerns for the Sahel region, already grappling with terrorism, illegal migration, and proliferation of small arms and light weapons. In 2022, the tri-border region (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger) witnessed over 2,400 terrorist attacks, resulting in nearly 8,000 deaths. The region has one of the highest concentrations of SALW per capita globally, fueling violence and instability. Additionally, the region struggles with widespread illegal migration, with an estimated 1.5 million people crossing through the Sahel in 2023. Burkina Faso and Mali are crucial transit points for these migrants. The Sahel is also increasingly becoming a route for drug trafficking, particularly cocaine. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are transit points. “These countries pulling out are the Anchor states in the Sahel. We cannot have a proper regional security strategy and cooperation plan that does not involve Mali Burkina Faso and Niger. It will be very challenging for coastal countries like Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana to address a security challenge with these countries out and with fraught relationships between Ecowas and these countries, ” said Ovigwe.

Additional reporting by Ishioma Imokhai-Bello.

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