Security implications of ECOWAS disintegration


By Rekpene Bassey


The note verbale issued from Ouagadougou, Bamako, and Niamey on January 28, 2024, resonated with unmistakable clarity, devoid of the intricate political sentiments that often cloak such declarations.

This document, marking the formal withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), underscores a significant shift in the regional dynamics.

Notably, Mauritania, a predominantly Arab-Islamic nation, had already withdrawn from the community in late 2000, amplifying the exodus of member states from the regional economic union to a total of four within 24 years.

The withdrawal of these nations must not be perceived in isolation but rather as symptomatic of broader governance, security, socio-political, and economic challenges pervading the sub-region. It is imperative to recognise that the grievances prompting these withdrawals remain largely unaddressed, raising concerns about the potential exacerbation of existing fissures and the looming specter of the bloc’s disintegration. Such a scenario carries dire security implications for the entire sub-regional community, necessitating urgent and decisive action.

Against the backdrop of these developments, it becomes imperative to revisit the establishment of ECOWAS, now spanning 49 years, in light of the unfolding realities in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the Sahel region.

The terse and seemingly mundane language of the withdrawal note belies the gravity of the situation, lamenting the departure from the lofty ideals of the organization’s founding fathers and the broader Pan-African ethos.

Central to the grievances articulated by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger is the perceived inadequacy of ECOWAS in supporting their efforts to combat terrorism and address prevailing insecurity.

The accusatory finger points towards ECOWAS for adopting a stance deemed irrational and unacceptable when these nations sought to assert control over their destinies.

The withdrawal is framed as a response to the failure of ECOWAS to align with the aspirations of their populations, signalling a rupture in the once-solid alliance.

However, the ECOWAS Authority swiftly countered these assertions, affirming its unwavering commitment to finding negotiated solutions to the political impasse in the withdrawing nations. Despite their exit, ECOWAS regards Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger as integral members of the bloc, leaving the door open for reconciliation and dialogue.

The current impasse within ECOWAS stems from the suspension of the Niger Republic in the aftermath of a military coup d’état that ousted President Mohammed Bazoum from office in 2023. The subsequent closure of Nigerien borders, threats of military intervention, and the drastic measure of cutting off electric supply by Nigeria underscore the severity of the crisis.

Such actions have led to untold hardships for the people of Niger and raised questions about the sanctity of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

The formation of the Alliance of the Sahel States, comprising Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in response to their perceived marginalisation within ECOWAS, further complicates the regional landscape. The suspension of Guinea-Bissau and the potential alignment of other nations, such as Chad, with the dissenting bloc, portend a fracturing of the once-unified front.

Of particular concern is the violation of the non-aggression protocol among member states, exemplified by the contemplation of a military invasion to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger. While the invasion did not materialize, its mere consideration underscores the fragility of regional security arrangements.

The repercussions of these developments extend far beyond diplomatic niceties, wreaking havoc on public health, industries, educational institutions, and the general well-being of the Nigerian populace. The blockade and severe economic sanctions imposed on Niger serve as a stark reminder of the human cost of political discord and regional instability.

Amidst this turmoil, it is crucial to revisit the foundational protocols of ECOWAS, particularly those about military cooperation and mutual defence assistance. These protocols, forged in the crucible of regional conflict and instability, have historically facilitated peacekeeping operations and fostered a semblance of internal peace and stability.

The Sahel region, dominated by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, remains a crucible of transnational crimes, including insurgency, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and arms smuggling. The efficacy of ECOWAS in addressing these challenges hinges on the collective resolve of member states to uphold the principles of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual assistance.

Undoubtedly, the security landscape in the Sahel region presents a multifaceted challenge of profound complexity. Islamic extremist organizations, including al-Qaida, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), have entrenched themselves within the Sahel, utilizing it as a fertile ground for recruitment, training, and the illicit movement of arms into sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, the security dynamics surrounding the Lake Chad basin compound these concerns exponentially. Shared by Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, this critical area grapples with a myriad of threats, from the adverse impacts of climate change to violent conflicts that precipitate socio-political and economic turmoil for its inhabitants.

The presence of terrorist factions such as Boko Haram and ISWAP further exacerbates the security challenges faced by communities in the Lake Chad region.

In light of these pressing security realities, the decision by certain countries to withdraw from ECOWAS, notably Niger, assumes heightened significance. The departure of these nations from the regional bloc not only disrupts the framework for collective security but also poses a significant setback in the concerted efforts to address the proliferation of extremist groups and other security threats across the Sahel and beyond.

In conclusion, the withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from ECOWAS underscores the urgent need for introspection and reform within the regional bloc. Failure to address the underlying grievances and restore confidence in the organisation’s ability to safeguard the interests of all member states risks further fragmentation and exacerbation of regional instability.

Strong, decisive leadership and a renewed commitment to the founding principles of ECOWAS are indispensable in navigating these turbulent waters and securing a brighter future for West Africa.


Rekpene Bassey is the President of the African Council on Narcotics (ACON). He is also a Security and Drug Prevention Professional
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