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Avoiding ‘Sahelexit’: ECOWAS has played its card right

The persistent wave of military coups within the ECOWAS region has unveiled a new and unexpected development with the emergence of what I term “Sahelexit”…

The persistent wave of military coups within the ECOWAS region has unveiled a new and unexpected development with the emergence of what I term “Sahelexit” – the potential exit of Sahel military junta-led countries from ECOWAS. This term encapsulates the recent formation of a mutual defence pact by three military junta-led countries in response to ECOWAS’s threat of military intervention to restore democracy in Niger.

Initially announced in September 2023, the formation of this defence pact took on heightened significance with the subsequent decision, announced on January 28, 2024, by these countries to formally withdraw from ECOWAS. This move has amplified the importance of the Sahel Alliance, which aims to foster economic and monetary union among its member countries, thereby reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the region.

The Sahel nations’ choice to withdraw from ECOWAS draws parallels to the widely discussed departure of Britain from the European Union (EU), famously known as Brexit, although their motivations and methods differ significantly. While both instances reflect concerns regarding sovereignty, the comparison diverges in their democratic processes. Brexit transpired through democratic channels, involving the active participation of the electorate, whereas Sahelexit was orchestrated through authoritarian means, devoid of the involvement of the affected countries’ populations.

ECOWAS member states attained their membership status by ratifying the Lagos Treaty of 1975 and its subsequent revision in 1991, which was formally adopted in 1993. As outlined in Article 91 of the Revised Treaty, any member country seeking to withdraw from ECOWAS retains the right to do so by issuing written notice at least one year in advance. Therefore, the decision of the Sahel Alliance members to withdraw aligns with the established legal framework, provided they formally notify the appropriate ECOWAS body.

Importantly, the article does not specify any additional criteria for withdrawal, such as the requirement for population consent. Upon submission of their withdrawal notice, the Sahel Alliance members will officially cease to be ECOWAS members by the conclusion of January or early February 2025, contingent upon the date of submission of their written notice.

There are two possible explanations for the Sahelexit. First, it reveals the true intentions of the military juntas governing the three countries involved. Their decision to withdraw from ECOWAS indicates a reluctance to relinquish power to civilian authorities anytime soon. Promises of restoring civilian rule appear to be nothing more than empty rhetoric.

For instance, Mali’s military junta initially pledged to restore civilian governance by March 2024. Similarly, Burkina Faso’s junta committed in October 2022 to a 24-month transition period, suggesting a return to civilian rule by the end of 2024. In contrast, Niger’s junta has extended its timeline, promising a return to civilian governance within three years, stretching until 2026.

Among these pledges, only Niger’s junta extends beyond the one-year time frame before their withdrawal from ECOWAS takes effect. This raises questions about the sincerity of the juntas’ commitments. If their intention is indeed to restore civilian rule, why make decisions that could potentially be reversed once they relinquish power? This discrepancy warrants further scrutiny, as it suggests the possibility of hidden agendas or ulterior motives behind the juntas’ actions.

Another plausible explanation for the potential Sahelexit is that it may be a strategic ploy orchestrated by the military juntas to exert pressure on ECOWAS to relax the sanctions imposed on them. This view gains credence given ECOWAS’s assertion that it has not received any formal written notice from the Sahel Alliance members regarding their intention to withdraw, as mandated by the ratified Revised ECOWAS Treaty.

Instead, the juntas simply announced their immediate withdrawal, directly contravening the treaty to which they are all signatories. This inconsistency raises doubts about the sincerity of their withdrawal and suggests the possibility of ulterior motives behind the abrupt announcement.

ECOWAS’s recent decision to lift sanctions on the Sahel Alliance members can be viewed as a calculated strategic move for several reasons. Firstly, maintaining the participation of these countries within the organisation offers a more constructive path, particularly in facilitating their transition back to civilian governance. The departure of these nations carries the inherent risk of sparking disruptive regional dynamics, which could have adverse effects on peace, security, and development.

Secondly, the imposition of stringent sanctions by ECOWAS poses the risk of further alienating the populations of these countries, thus exacerbating negative sentiments toward the regional bloc. As public opinion within the Sahel Alliance members’ nations continues to shift against ECOWAS, convincing them to rejoin the organisation after transitioning to civilian rule becomes notably more challenging.

Unlike Brexit, ECOWAS’s prompt response to Sahelexit has the potential to effectively contain its impact. However, the delicate security and development challenges faced by West Africa suggest that the region could face substantial setbacks if Sahelexit were to occur. The departure of Sahel countries from ECOWAS may even exacerbate interstate conflicts, a scenario unfamiliar to the region thus far.

ECOWAS opting for negotiation is a commendable step taken for the survival of ECOWAS and the peace and harmony of the region. By fostering collaboration and dialogue, ECOWAS and its member states can navigate this challenging situation and uphold stability and progress in the region.


Usman PhD is the coordinator and Senior Fellow Africa Studies Circle, Asia Middle East Centre for Research and Dialogue (AMEC)

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