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Moscow is intent on filling the vacuum as three Sahelian military regimes worry Paris and Washington by cutting regional ties
Announcing their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) 'without delay', the juntas ruling Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali have sent a shockwave through the regional bloc, which was already struggling to persuade them to restore civilian rule.
The news came without warning on Mali and Niger's national television stations on 28 January. Ecowas headquarters in Abuja acknowledged the development, while affirming its commitment to finding a negotiated accord with these 'important members of the community'.
This has the potential to cause disastrous economic and social impacts in all three countries. It could lead to the imposition of tariffs on Sahelian exports of livestock to coastal markets, disrupt the cross-border supply of power to Sahelian states, and cause bureaucratic headaches for the Hausa trading barons in northern Nigeria and southern Niger.
It could even jeopardise the rights, work opportunities and economic security of the millions of Sahelians who work in the more prosperous economies to the south, such as Ivorian cocoa and coffee plantations, or ports, markets and construction sites from Dakar to Lagos.
The move follows the formation in Niamey on 16 September by the prime ministers of all three countries of the Alliance des États du Sahel (AES), a collective security pact which, if it becomes more than a defiant political gesture, could have devastating consequences in the region.
Only one state, Mauritania in 2000, has ever withdrawn from Ecowas. The rules specify that members must give a year's notice of intent to leave, but since the juntas have already dismissed as 'illegitimate' the sanctions Ecowas imposed on them for deposing civilian governments, these formalities will mean little.
An Ecowas mission was set to visit Niamey on 25 January, but when a technical issue prevented its arrival, the Nigérien regime chose to view this as a snub, even though it had itself unilaterally postponed the previous talks date.
Some analysts believe the withdrawal declaration is a ploy by the junta leaders to get sanctions lifted. Niger had been in serious talks with Ecowas about a compromise 15-18-month transition to civilian rule, although it has yet to agree terms for the release of the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum from confinement.
Many are viewing the regional dispute through a global prism. France has been battered by local criticism and forced to pull its troops out of all three states, while Moscow has been steadily advancing its pawns.
Mali has hosted some 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries since 2021, and Russia has recently been broadening its regional engagement (AC Vol 64 No 14, Did Moscow hotline end the UN mission?).
Burkina's leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré was guest of honour at July's St Petersburg Russia-Africa summit, and the monitoring group All Eyes on Wagner has reported a steady trickle of bilateral military visits between Moscow and Ouagadougou ever since (Dispatches 17/10/23, Junta is latest to sign Russian nuclear pact).
In November, uniformed men, thought to be a Russian close protection team for Traoré, were reportedly staying at the Lancaster hotel in the Ouaga 2000 district. The same month brought the appearance, at least online, of the Africa Corps, a new military/commercial formation designed to seamlessly merge all the functions of the Wagner Group with the Russian state in the wake of the death last August of its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Ties with Niger are also deepening. deputy defence minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov went to Niamey in December, and Nigérien prime minister Lamine Zeine has just returned from a tour of Russia, Iran, Turkey and Serbia.
Some countries are being fought over. One of Russia's closest African security clients, the Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, appears to be decreasing reliance on the Kremlin by refreshing diplomatic relations with France and accepting a United States offer of military training.
And the US has also been working hard to hang on to its drone bases in Niger, nudging General Abdourahamane Tiani's junta towards an accommodation with Ecowas that would facilitate continuing American defence collaboration (AC Vol 65 No 2, What hope for the juntas' promised elections?).
There have some reports that Washington has donated motorbikes and a few all-terrain vehicles to Burkina's gendarmerie after officials won an internal debate in the US administration to continue the supply of non-lethal security support for the struggle to tackle jihadist groups.
The US is also stepping up its diplomacy, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Abidjan and Abuja to provide reassurance of Washington's continuing strong support of Ecowas in the Sahel crisis.
The EU is also reaching out. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking at the 29 January launch of the new Africa initiative launched by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, argued that the destinies and interests of Africa and Europe are more aligned than ever before as she signed a new agreement with the African Investment Bank as part of the €150 billion Global Gateway Africa-Europe investment programme (AC Vol 64 No 2, Grand ambitions, little money).
The three AES states are also the focus of interests in the Maghreb. Algeria has always seen itself as a key mediator in the Sahel, but relations with Mali turned sour after Algiers warmly welcomed the leaders of the Tuareg armed groups that Bamako's forces had expelled from Kidal (AC Vol 64 No 24, Much ado about Kidal).
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune compounded the insult, as seen from Bamako, by granting an audience to the prominent Malian imam Mahmoud Dicko, a frequent critic of the junta.
Colonel Assimi Goïta's regime last week furiously declared that Mali is 'not Algeria's back yard' and unilaterally abrogated the 2015 Algiers peace accord with the former Tuareg separatists.
Morocco, Algeria's great rival, took advantage of the upset in regional relations by inviting all three AES countries, and Chad, to December talks in Marrakech on deepening trade ties and exploring their use of its Atlantic ports, which would circumvent Ecowas sanctions. It looks like another agile move by Rabat, in contrast to Algeria's lumbering statist structures, to extend its influence and trade, and perhaps keep open a channel of discreetly pro-Western contact with the Sahelian regimes.
But it is difficult to gauge the influence of outside actors in Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey, where opinions inside the juntas are diverse.
Despite his tough public rhetoric, Nigérien premier Zeine is thought to have argued against leaving Ecowas. Nigérien trade unions, worried about public sector salary arrears, would be relieved if the regime did reach a deal to lift the sanctions – imposed by both Ecowas and the institutions of the West African CFA single currency bloc – which are biting hard.
In Burkina, the military remains divided. Early in the new year, the former chief of staff of the gendarmerie, Lieutenant-Colonel Evrard Somda, was abducted by armed men who surrounded his home, in what some think is evidence of a falling out between security force leaders. The mood remains tense in Ouagadougou, amidst regime rumblings about externally funded coup plots.
The Goïta regime in Mali appears less jittery, its popularity bolstered by the success of the campaign against the northern Tuareg groups. But there is little tolerance for critics, and it has opened moves to shut down Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et l'indépendance (SADI), the political party of the exiled veteran radical Oumar Mariko, who in November accused the regime of committing war crimes in the north (AC Vol 63 No 7, Goïta's junta cracks down mercilessly & Vol 64 No 24, Junta falls out with its fanbase).
Some religious leaders, such as Chouala Bayaya Haidara and Bandiougou Traoré, have been arrested after speaking out. And Tabital Pulaaku, the main Peulh (or Fulani) community association, has reported an upsurge in the killing by 'traditional hunters' of Peulhs – often accused of sympathy for jihadism – in central Mali.
But there are public figures who are proving more compliant, such as former prime minister Moussa Mara, who has called on his compatriots to unite in helping the transition regime.
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