Why Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger Exit from ECOWAS is no BREXIT

Ogunsakin Mustapha
13 Min Read

By Olu Jacobs

Comparisons are being made between the sudden exit of the military juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, and Britain’s official exit from the European Union on January 31, 2020.

On the surface, similarities can be found with Brexit, to wit: some small nation with a fraction of the GDP of the entire group leaves a Community of Equals and forfeits all the advantages of the economies of scale inherent in a single market where there is unhindered intra-community movement of goods and services, unencumbered by law or tariffs. 

As a pretext for leaving, the errant countries accused the Union of promoting unpleasant policies,  which were in fact part of the fundamental practices of the body and core mandate of the group, entrenched in its rules of procedure, and which have sustained the Union throughout the 49 or so odd years of its existence.

As a consequence of leaving a group that exerts stronger bargaining power as a block, the decampees run the risk of losing out on the group’s negotiating power and may no longer enjoy free trade with the other Member States.

But here the comparison ends. The UK at least held a referendum where its people voted to leave the EU. The trio of Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, Col. Assimi Goita, and Brig. Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani did not bother with such niceties. Having come to power through the force of arms, they were under no obligation to inform their people, much less seek their views, before the pompous announcement penultimate weekend that, “taking all their responsibilities in the face of history and responding to the expectations, concerns, and aspirations of their populations, they decided in complete sovereignty on the immediate withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger from the Economic Community of West African States.”

Moreover, Britain was not buffeted by terrorists on the verge of overrunning the country when it left the EU, nor did it need any help with its security architecture. On the contrary, it was the most powerful military force in the Union at the time, with a strong economy. Still, leaving the EU against popular expectations shook the global markets and caused the British Pound to fall to its lowest level against the United States dollar in 30 years. The following day, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, and economists suggest that Brexit may have irreversibly harmed the British economy despite its development level and reduced its real per capita income in the long term. 

One can therefore imagine the implications for Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, which together belong to the ten poorest countries in the world, abandoning the $702 billion economy that ECOWAS represents. These three are not only landlocked nations bedevilled by the twin plagues of recurring drought and terrorism; they are also hounded by sanctions, substantial populations of internally displaced persons who are near famine, and a losing battle with ISIS-Sahel and other violent groups. 

Burkina Faso, for instance, is ranked the fourth-worst terrorist-plagued nation in the world after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. It had 597 violent attacks across 10 of its 13 regions in 2022, leading to thousands of deaths and an estimated 1.6 million of its population being internally displaced. Mali‘s 4500 miles of porous borders with seven neighbouring countries have seen similar armed attacks, abductions, car jackings, IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs, rocket attacks, targeted assassinations, and armed-imposed blockades and ambushes. With their security services overwhelmed, they can hardly cope, as ISIS-Sahel, formerly known as ISIS-GS, and the al-Qa’ida-affiliated JNIM operate indiscriminately. 

The Global Terrorism Index recently reported that “the Sahel region now ranks as the world’s epicentre for terrorism,” with “Burkina Faso and Mali accounting for 52 percent of all terrorism-related deaths in Africa.” 

The situation is compounded by pervasive poverty, battles over decreasing resources, mass displacement of people as a result of climate change, and refugee problems caused by ubiquitous violence, which have collectively transformed the area into the epicentre of terrorism. Yet, although General Tchiani said the reason for his coup was to check the scourge of terror, the truth is that by 2022, his Niger, which the year before had the largest increase in terrorism deaths, had already turned a corner. President Bazoum was winning the war on terror so much so that 90 percent of deaths from extremist groups in the Sahel in 2022 occurred in Burkina Faso and Mali, which were ironically led by military juntas. 

The Niger coup therefore was more likely to worsen rather than reduce the scourge of terrorism, as history has shown, which was one reason ECOWAS was set against it and took the drastic measures to impose sanctions and invoke the protocol that allows it to deploy its stand by force to intervene if necessary in the event of an unconstitutional change of government in a member state. Another reason, apart from the need to halt the domino effect of this putsch on neighbouring countries, was because Niger had turned into a bastion of democracy in the Sahel and a bulwark against jihadist movements. 

With the coup, the nation lost all aid and military assistance. The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell promptly announced the “immediate cessation of budget support” and suspension of “all cooperation actions in the domain of security,” which translated to a loss of allocation of 500 million euros for improving governance, education, and sustainable growth in the country. The 27 million-euro military training mission (EUMPM) in Niger, in addition to the around 1,500 Barkhanetroops stationed in the country, also came to an end with the “immediate cessation of budget support” and the suspension of “all cooperation actions in the domain of security.” 

The US, which had two military drone bases and over 1,000 troops deployed in Niger and had just announced $150 million in direct assistance, also suspended its security cooperation and counterterrorism operations. 

For a nation that the World Bank estimates has about 10 million people, or around 40 percent of the population, enmeshed in extreme poverty and battling acute water scarcity, food insecurity, and high population growth, there is little doubt that Niger needs all the help it can get from ECOWAS. In total, the country, like the other two, relies on close to USD 2 billion a year in official development assistance, of which ECOWAS provides a sizable part and, more importantly, access to the huge regional market. Economic sanctions led to the closure of the bustling border between Niger and Nigeria, halting roughly $1.3 billion worth of annual trade. The United States imports from ECOWAS totaled $9.4 billion in 2022, up 38.8 percent ($2.6 billion) from 2021. 

This is the market that the three nations will forfeit. According to a report, Guinea’s 2008 coup and Mali’s coup erased a combined $12 billion to $13.5 billion from their economies over five years, which represented 76% of Guinea’s 2008 gross domestic product and almost half of Mali’s 2012 GDP.

The real goal of ECOWAS is to promote economic cooperation among member states in order to raise living standards and promote economic development. The regional group has also worked hard to address security issues by developing a peacekeeping force for conflicts in the region. The three juntas claimed they were taking their 75 million people out of the bloc because it had not helped them fight terrorism. That is clearly not true. For instance, ECOWAS sent thousands of soldiers to help Mali in 2013, when a jihadist onslaught almost overran it. ECOWAS members were in fact the leading troop contributors to a UN peacekeeping mission there until the junta sacked it last year.

Now we come to the real reason why the three coupists announced on Sunday, January 28th, that they were taking their countries out of the regional body. Clearly, it is to escape the pressure mounted by ECOWAS to return their nations to democracy. Mali and Burkina Faso were already set to hold elections this year as promised by ECOWAS, and Niger is under pressure to produce a short transition timeline for civil rule. 

Lashed by hunger, terror, and civil strife, the economies of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are stunted by what has been called a “multi-dimensional crisis where insecurity, humanitarian need, rapid urbanisation of the country, and the drastic effects of climate change—impacting access to food and water, which fuel intercommunal conflict—all converge.”

The earlier they return to the embrace of ECOWAS, the better. As a matter of fact, the West African regional body remains Africa’s most successful example of integration and economic, political, and security cooperation. People’s free movement throughout the region, underpinned by the visa-free system and a common passport, is one of ECOWAS’ key achievements, benefiting the region’s citizens. For landlocked countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, the Customs Union facilitates imports through the application of a single common external tariff.

For almost 50 years, ECOWAS’ rules and operating methods have shaped governance in its member states. 

In effect, the withdrawal of these countries, which together account for 15% of ECOWAS’ population but nearly half its surface area, is a blow to the regional body and potentially a disaster for the three landlocked countries. However, it is important for the reputation and the overall well-being of ECOWAS that the countries return to the fold. 

At the extraordinary session of the ECOWAS Mediation and Security Council at the ministerial level held on the 15th of February to discuss the three countries and the situation in Senegal, where the President had suddenly postponed elections, ECOWAS Commission President Alieu Touray said, “If there is a time for ECOWAS to stay together, this is the time… There is no challenge that ECOWAS cannot overcome.”

ECOWAS has always insisted that the modalities of their withdrawal are irregular, that such sudden departures are impossible to implement, and that they do not comply with ECOWAS’ governing treaty, which stipulates a one-year formal notification during which states asking to leave must respect their commitments to the bloc. 

Critics say the current situation presents an opportunity for ECOWAS to review its frameworks, policies, and practices to make the organisation more responsive to the development needs of its constituent states.

While doing that, it might not be a bad idea for some rapprochement that will enable reason to prevail and bring the three countries back into the fold of the regional bloc. Wise counsel will recommend this.

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