New Confederation Unites Sahel Amid West African Rift

In a historic summit, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger move further away from ECOWAS, cementing their break with the regional bloc through the establishment of a new confederation.

Published July 08, 2024 - 00:07am

4 minutes read
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The military-led governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have announced their alliance within a new confederation, marking a decisive shift away from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This decision aligns with their ongoing estrangement from the West African bloc, which has imposed sanctions and expressed disapproval of their military coups.

On Saturday, during their inaugural summit in Niamey, Niger's capital, the leaders of the three countries — Mali's Colonel Assimi Goïta, Niger's General Abdourahmane Tchiani, and Burkina Faso's Captain Ibrahim Traoré — formalized their commitment to deeper integration. According to the summit's closing statement, the leaders stressed that a pivotal step toward deeper integration among member states was necessary. They ratified a treaty establishing the 'Confederation of Sahel States'.

The confederation aims to facilitate a closer coordination in foreign and security policy, the free movement of people and goods, and the creation of a shared investment bank. The leaders of the three nations underscored that their countries had definitively turned their backs on ECOWAS, with the President of Niger's military government, Abdourahmane Tchiani, emphasizing the need for alternatives that avoid foreign domination.

The relationship between ECOWAS and Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger has been fraught with tension, particularly since Tchiani's coup on July 26, 2023, which led to economic sanctions imposed by ECOWAS and military intervention threats aimed at reinstating the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. Though sanctions were lifted in February 2023, relations remain strained, with calls for dialogue from some regional leaders, including those from Senegal and Mauritania.

The establishment of this new confederation stems from shared grievances regarding ECOWAS and its perceived alignment with French interests, a sentiment especially strong given France's colonial history in the region. The three nations argue that ECOWAS has failed to adequately support their counterterrorism efforts. Despite international missions that have been present for years, the Sahel remains besieged by Islamist militant groups.

This new formation also comes on the heels of a growing shift in international affiliations. Following the coups, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have progressively distanced themselves from their former foreign partners and gravitated more towards Russia. This reorientation saw the expulsion of French troops and the critical scrutinization of other Western presences, including a recent indication from Berlin that talks on maintaining a German military base in Niamey had faltered.

The three leaders further declared an intention to build a common sovereign society that would stand independent of artificial regional conglomerates and foreign powers. This was demonstrated through the November 2023 launch of the 'Sahel States Union', which originated as a defense and mutual assistance agreement.

The confederation now seeks to bolster not only their strategic military collaboration but also aims to intertwine their economies further through shared resources in agriculture, water, energy, and transport. Additionally, there were discussions on fostering the use of local languages in public and private media to strengthen cultural ties.

The summit's timing is notable, with a parallel ECOWAS meeting scheduled to address the impacts and responses to the trio's withdrawal from the bloc, effective January 2023. The 15-member ECOWAS, deeply interlinked economically and politically, faces significant challenges in managing the exodus of these three nations, particularly as they form a separate entity with potentially divergent policies and alliances.

The internal dynamics of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, all governed by juntas following coups from 2020 to 2023, reflect broader regional shifts. Elections, either postponed indefinitely or significantly delayed, present a complex picture of political stability and future governance structures. This proposed confederation, emphasizing mutual support regional initiatives, represents a significant reconfiguration of power within West Africa and a rebuke to previous colonial and current international frameworks.

In early March 2023, a joint force combating terrorism was announced by the three countries, signaling a commitment to confront the violent extremism plaguing the region. The understanding that military, economic, and cultural unity can fortify their stand against armed groups underscores their collective strategic vision.

It remains to be seen how this confederation will navigate its path amidst ongoing regional and global geopolitical currents. Still, the definitive move away from ECOWAS and towards an independent union marks a historic pivot with wide-reaching consequences for West African unity and international relations.

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