ECOWAS Split Spells Trouble for Democracy in West Africa

In Brief

ECOWAS Split Spells Trouble for Democracy in West Africa

Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have left the most important West African regional bloc due to escalating tensions over their democratic decline, leaving room for Russia to assert itself in the region.

What is ECOWAS and why does it matter?

A group of protestors hold the flags of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and signs in support of ECOWAS withdrawal.
Demonstrators wave flags of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger and a poster reading “No to ECOWAS” during a rally in Bamako, Mali, to celebrate the three countries leaving the bloc. Ousmane Makaveli/Getty Images

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is arguably the most successful model of regional governance in Africa. Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, the bloc was established in 1975 to deepen economic integration across West Africa. Three decades ago, about 90 percent of trade in sub-Saharan Africa was dominated by non-African economies; today, the share of regional trade has more than doubled, largely due to regional organizations including ECOWAS. By 2024, the body consisted of fifteen members representing more than 400 million people in “all fields of economic activity, particularly industry, transport, telecommunications, energy, agriculture, natural resources, commerce, monetary and financial questions, social and cultural matters,” as its mission states.

Why did Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger decide to leave ECOWAS?

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In a joint statement on January 28, the three countries, all founding members of ECOWAS who have seen military takeovers in the past three years, announced they were leaving the bloc because it had “drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of pan-Africanism.” They also claimed that, having fallen “under the influence of foreign powers,” ECOWAS has “betrayed its founding principles” and “become a threat to member states and peoples.” Finally, the three countries expressed disappointment that the organization had not helped them tackle the festering Islamist insurgencies in their countries.

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Whatever the merits of these accusations, it seems undeniable that the three countries are unhappy about condemnation from ECOWAS and Western powers over their recent coups, and the political and economic sanctions that have led to their diplomatic isolation.  

A map of West Africa showing that most countries in the region are ECOWAS members

How does this move affect their relationship with neighboring member states and international actors? 

The withdrawal does not bode well for the countries’ relationships with other ECOWAS states. It is the latest escalation in a growing fracture that has opened up in the wake of a series of military coups. Between 2020 and 2023, the three countries, along with Guinea, all experienced military takeovers. ECOWAS responded by suspending and then sanctioning all four countries, including a commercial no-fly zone and a freeze on all assets held in ECOWAS central banks. The United States, the European Union, and several other Western countries also suspended aid or applied sanctions. In retaliation, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger formed a breakaway “Alliance of Sahel States” in September 2023.

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The move will likely deepen antagonism between the three states and Western countries, which have seen their influence diminish as various Sahelian states have sought diplomatic alternatives. France, the region’s former colonial overlord, was pressured into removing its troops from the three countries in 2022 and 2023 and, likewise, U.S. counterterrorism activity in the region has dwindled since Niger’s July 2023 coup.

The most likely beneficiary is Russia, fronted by the Wagner Group mercenaries, which have been courting the three countries. Moscow can be expected to exploit the growing wedge with security and other forms of support for the renegades. The division within ECOWAS is a significant opportunity for Russia, which has always been eager to undermine democracy by recruiting converts to its authoritarian model. There are also indications that Chad and Guinea could be interested in drawing closer to Russia’s orbit.    

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What will this three-state alliance mean for the future of democracy and security in West Africa?

The exit from ECOWAS does not augur well for democracy in the three countries. ECOWAS leadership had hoped that the countries’ suspension and diplomatic pressure to set a timeline for elections would pave the way for a return to democracy. Instead, leaving ECOWAS frees the countries from their obligations to the body and relieves them of the demand to transition to civilian rule, though technically they are mandated to abide by the group’s provisions one year after giving notice of withdrawal.

The security implications are more difficult to gauge. All three countries have been grappling with decades-long insurgencies and UN peacekeeping missions have yet to achieve stability. Last December marked the end of MINUSMA, an unsuccessful UN peacekeeping mission in Mali that spanned ten years. It remains to be seen whether collaboration with Russia, which has already deployed an initial contingent of troops to Ouagadougou, the Burkinabe capital, will be successful where UN peacekeepers and French troops have failed.    

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