Ecowas at risk of collapse if Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger withdraw

The West African Union (ECOWAS) has warned that the formalisation of a separatist alliance by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger risks causing the alliance to collapse and lead to an erosion of security.

The head of the ECOWAS committee said the move was a major blow to the 50-year-old union and risked serious consequences if the decision was not reversed.

Earlier, military leaders from the three countries said on Saturday they were “irretrievably” turning their backs on the 15-nation ECOWAS and forming their own federation of states.

After a series of coups between 2020 and 2023, a military junta seized power and ECOWAS responded by imposing sanctions and demanding the early restoration of civilian rule.

Eco threatened to use military force but eventually backed down.

Some sanctions have since been lifted and the EU is trying to persuade the junta to drop its threats to withdraw.

Ecowas said the junta’s latest move could hinder freedom of movement for people across the region and undermine efforts to fight instability in the region, especially in intelligence sharing.

“Our region is on the brink of collapse,” Ecowas committee chairman Omar Aliu Touray warned on Sunday.

A statement released on Monday said he had been instructed to take a “more proactive approach” going forward, in which Ecowas expressed “disappointment at the lack of progress” and promised to “develop contingency plans with an eye to the future.”

The coalition appointed Senegalese President Bashir Diomae Faye as mediator in the crisis, a decision that was made at an ECOWAS summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Sunday.

Fay was highly regarded for his ability to lead a mission that was expected to face major challenges.

He is of the same generation as the three military leaders but much younger than others in the region and shares the junta’s criticism of the role of Western countries in the region, particularly France, the former colonial power of all four countries.

All three military-led countries have expelled French soldiers who were helping fight the jihadist groups and have turned to Russia for military assistance.

In a related development, the German Defense Ministry announced that German troops will end their operations in Niger at the end of next month after talks with the country’s military junta collapsed.

This comes after the US completed its withdrawal of troops from an airbase in the capital, Niamey, leaving only a single drone base in the central city of Agadez.

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, who was re-elected as ECOWAS chairman, stressed the need for new partnerships to overcome the political, economic and security challenges facing West Africa, particularly the Sahel region, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert.

On Saturday, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger signed a treaty to form a new federal “Union of Sahelian States.”

The three countries agreed to develop common institutions and infrastructure that can support the free movement of nationals among the three countries.

ECOWAS nationals are free to live and work in all member states, but if the three countries withdraw from ECOWAS, their nationals would lose that right unless a new arrangement is agreed.

West African leaders are concerned that jihadist groups could spread across borders in the Sahel into neighboring countries, with adverse effects on their own people and the security of the region.

The provinces run by the junta have been hardest hit by the Islamist insurgency, one of the reasons the army seized power.

Adama Gay, a former Ecowas communications director, told the BBC that the junta’s coalition was a “huge blow” to the organisation as all three were founding members of the organisation, which was set up in 1975.

However, he partially blamed ECOWAS for pressuring military-led countries to hold free and fair elections while several other countries are not “true democracies”.

“ECOWA should strive not to become an institutional laughing stock, because how can it do this when most other countries that claim to support democratic demands are not true democracies,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

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