The New Clique

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Officials in the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria have a dilemma: On the one hand, they want to ensure prosperity, democracy and security in the region. On the other, they want to keep this powerful regional bloc intact.

So nowadays, they are wondering if they may have pushed too hard in urging the authoritarian leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – who seized power via recent military coups – to reinstitute democracies in their countries. The three countries have now threatened to pull out of the ECOWAS and create a new Alliance of Sahel States.

Leaders in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger said ECOWAS was criticizing their domestic records of governance and slapping sanctions on their economies while doing little to help the three governments combat al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups terrorizing their communities, reported Reuters.

More than half of all deaths due to terrorism in Africa occur in Burkina Faso and Mali, according to Global Terrorism Index figures cited in The World. In Niger, added the Washington Post, Islamist militants increased their attacks last year after the military ousted a democratically elected president, kicked French counterterrorism forces out of the country, and cast doubt on the country’s traditional cooperation with the American military.

In Deutsche Welle, analysts discussed how the three countries’ exit would weaken the currently 15-member ECOWAS bloc, which has long been associated with Western, particularly French, influence. The British, French, and American governments supported ECOWAS’s sanctions on the trio and their criticism of the coup leaders’ refusals to cede power, noted Al Jazeera.

ECOWAS states along the Atlantic coast want to work more closely with Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to prevent the “contagion” of jihadism and political disorder from spreading throughout the Sahel region, argued SOAS University of London professor Nicholas Westcott in the Conversation. Worse relations with the three countries could also cause instability among the Malian and Burkinabe migrants in the ECOWAS members of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal.

Russia, meanwhile, appeared to be filling the resulting power vacuum. As Newsweek reported, the Russian military is now helping Niger develop its combat readiness. The Russian mercenary group, Wagner, is active in Mali, which along with Burkina Faso has given Russian companies mining concessions in exchange for weapons and munitions, too.

“The (three countries’) exit highlights the growing ideological rift between the Western-allied elected governments and military-run countries that are seeking warmer ties with Russia,” Verisk Maplecroft senior political risk analyst Mucahid Durmaz told CNBC.

The weapons are vital to the three countries’ fight against Islamic terrorists. In Burkina Faso, for example, the BBC related how the junta forced conscription upon its citizens in its war on terror.

Captain Ibrahim Traore, leader of the junta there, defends conscription, saying that “individual freedoms (are) not superior to national freedom.” But Human Rights Watch noted that the junta is using conscription to punish critics and the threat of jihadists to crack down on dissent. Meanwhile, that’s a far cry from the values that the bloc has been trying to promote.

Still, the three states’ withdrawal from ECOWAS wasn’t very surprising, wrote World Politics Review. He noted how the bloc had imposed punishing economic sanctions on all three, including sealing their borders, freezing their accounts in West Africa’s regional bank, and banning air connections with them. Niger also saw its electricity supplies cut off by Nigeria. As a result, “it is easy to see why the standoff has now come to a head.”

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