Land area under ECOWAS, which is condemned by West Africa’s popular movements as an agent of French imperialism, has been reduced to less than half after their withdrawal
In a televised statement on Sunday, January 28, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Their exit has shrunk the regional bloc, condemned by West Africa’s popular movements as an agent of French imperialism, to less than half its previous size, given the relatively vast expanse of Mali and Niger in the region.
Reduced from 15 member states to 12, ECOWAS has nevertheless said that the three countries, against whom it was set to go to war last year, “remain important members,” although it had already suspended and sanctioned them.
The “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions in violation of its own texts… have further weakened populations already bruised by years of violence… by… remote-controlled terrorist hordes,” said the joint statement of the three countries.
First to be suspended and sanctioned was Mali, where in 2020, the government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, widely perceived by their populations as a puppet of their former colonizer France, was overthrown by a military coup that enjoyed mass support.
Following another coup in 2021, Col. Assimi Goita formed a transitional military government with popular support, including from the trade unions and the mass protest movement against the domination and military presence of its former colonizer France. Its popularity was consolidated as mass celebratory demonstrations cheered in the streets of Mali’s capital Bamako when Goita’s government ordered the French troops out in February 2022.
A month before, in January 2022, a similar set of events had been set into motion with a military coup against the government of Roch Marc Christian Kabore in neighboring Burkina Faso, which was also in the throes of mass anti-French protests.
Following another coup in September that year, Captain Ibrahim Traore formed a popularly supported transitional military government which followed in the footsteps of Mali and ordered the French troops out in January 2023.
Only months after the withdrawal of French troops from Burkina Faso was completed in February 2023, another popular military coup followed in neighboring Niger on July 26. Its President Mohamed Bazoum, who had invited the French troops ordered out of Mali into Niger, was ousted by General Abdourahmane Tchiani.
The ECOWAS not only suspended Niger and imposed sanctions on the largest country in the bloc, but also threatened a military invasion if Bazoum was not restored to presidency.
The West African Peoples’ Organization (WAPO) condemned this ultimatum by ECOWAS as “a maneuver by colonial France and Great Britain, under the hegemony of American imperialism, to resort to armed intervention under the guise of restoring democracy and human rights in Niger.”
Thousands took to the streets in Niger to demonstrate in support of the transitional military government, which ended the defense agreements with France on August 3 and ordered the withdrawal of French troops.
Initially refusing to withdraw its troops and its ambassador from Niger on the grounds that it will only deal with the ousted government of Bazoum and does not recognize the military government, France backed the military invasion threatened by the ECOWAS. However, many of its member countries were faced with domestic opposition on the streets as well as in the parliament.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with the strongest military in the bloc, its President Bola Tinubu, chosen as the chairperson of ECOWAS just over two weeks before the coup, could not secure the approval of the Senatefor the military invasion. It called on Tinubu’s government to instead focus Nigeria’s armed forces on securing its own territory from Boko Haram’s insurgency. The African Union (AU) also clarified that it does not support the planned military invasion by ECOWAS.
In the meantime, Mali and Burkina Faso extended support to Niger, and declared that an attack on it would be regarded as an attack on their own countries. Agreeing to mobilize the militaries of all three countries if anyone were attacked, the trio went on to form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) in mid-September.
Later that month, France, which was also facing increasingly angry mass protests as a regular feature outside its base and embassy in Niger, retreated from its earlier position and announced the withdrawal of its troops, which was completed in December. The G-5 Sahel coalition partnering with France’s failed military campaign against insurgencies in the Sahel also came to an end that month.
Following the lead of Mali, which had already withdrawn from this coalition in May 2022, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal from G-5 Sahel in December. “The organization is failing to achieve its objectives. Worse, the legitimate ambitions of our countries, of making the G5 Sahel a zone of security and development, are hindered,” its joint statement said, adding “independence and dignity is not compatible with G5 participation in its current form.”
With three of the five countries of the coalition having withdrawn, the remaining two countries who are not ECOWAS members, namely Chad in central Africa and Mauritania in the continent’s northwest, dissolved the coalition on December 6.
France had up to 5,500 troops in the Sahel at the peak of Operation Barkhane, which started in 2014 and ended in 2022 in failure as the violence by Islamic insurgencies it was fighting increased multifold in this period. This deployment, anchored in the G-5 Sahel, has been reduced to about a thousand troops in Chad, which is ruled by a French-backed military junta. However, the future of its grip on power appears uncertain as an anti-French protest movement is growing here too.
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Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have all alleged that on being forced to withdraw, France is backing the very terrorist groups it had purported to be fighting over the last decade, after spawning them across the Sahel by participating in NATO’s war destroying Libya in 2011.
Their statement announcing exit from ECOWAS also mentioned “remote-controlled terrorist hordes,” where the adjective insinuated alleged French involvement. The statement also added that “under the influence of foreign powers”, the regional bloc of ECOWAS “has become a threat to its member states”.
ECOWAS has insisted in response that it “remains determined to find a negotiated solution to the political impasse.” Such a statement, in the given context, can also be read as a reiteration of its determination to continue pressuring the three countries, including by penalizing its citizens with sanctions, to force a compromise with the French-backed political elite within.