Should we see this as a new departure for relations between ECOWAS and the military juntas in West Africa?

Or a new step towards inexorable disintegration?

Meeting at a summit on Saturday, February 24, in the Nigerian capital, the Economic Community of West African States announced the lifting of the heavy economic and financial sanctions imposed against Niger after the military coup of July 26 2023, marking the abrupt end of Mohamed Bazoum's presidency.

Published on Sunday, the organization's press release also stipulates the end of economic and financial sanctions against Guinea, whose financial transactions with its member institutions it had banned, as well as an easing of restrictions imposed on Mali, "on the recruitment of citizens" within ECOWAS institutions. 

For the West African organization, the lifting of these punitive measures, used until now as a lever of pressure, reflects a change of approach aimed at promoting dialogue and avoiding the breakup of the bloc.

Its detractors see it as an admission of weakness, a month after the joint announcement of the withdrawal of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from the West African organization, which had the effect of an earthquake in the region. 

Political about-face

On July 30, 2023, four days after the coup d'état perpetuated by the Nigerien presidential guard, ECOWAS condemned what it then considered as an


attempt" at a putsch, demanding the immediate release of President Bazoum and the restoration of the constitutional order.

It had imposed a battery of drastic economic sanctions including the closure of its borders with the country, the exclusion of its commercial flights, the freezing of its transactions and its assets within the zone, the suspension of all financial aid as well as the travel ban on soldiers involved in the coup as well as their families.

To increase pressure on the ruling junta, Nigerian head of state Bola Tinubu, current president of ECOWAS, threatened military intervention in August to restore President Mohamed Bazoum to power.

Niger, Mali and Burkina had warned that such an intervention would be interpreted as a declaration of war.

It ultimately never took place.

And if the organization continues to demand the immediate release of Mohamed Bazoum, it describes him for the first time in its recent press release as "former President of the Republic", no longer demanding his return to business.

“Unproductive” sanctions

On Saturday, in the introduction to the summit, Bola Tinubu half-heartedly acknowledged a strategic failure.

“We must review our approach to the return of constitutional order in four of our member countries,” he said, referring to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea, all four led by military juntas. 

After months of an unsuccessful standoff, the organization finally announced on Saturday the removal of the heavy economic restrictions taken against Niger.

Previously imposed twice against Mali, these measures allowed the organization to obtain commitments regarding the electoral calendar, although this has since been postponed.

By the own admission of ECOWAS members, the sanctions imposed on Niamey have not produced any of the expected results.

“Despite the multiple efforts deployed (…), former president Mohamed Bazoum remains in detention and no transition plan has been developed by the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Fatherland (CNSP) which runs the country,” deplores the organization in its press release.

“The lifting of these measures stems from an observation: they have proven to be unproductive,” analyzes Ornella Moderan, associate researcher at the Dutch Clingendael institute, specialist in conflicts in the Sahel.

"These sanctions did not allow any political gain for ECOWAS but they very severely affected the Nigerien population. Their impact was even stronger and more violent than in Mali, which although landlocked, still benefited from access to ports of Guinea and Mauritania and some regional air connections. Added to this is the cost in terms of image for ECOWAS. Because as previously in Mali, they have accentuated the anger of a significant part of the national population but also regional against him."


'Celebration day in Niger': the lifting of regional sanctions rejoices the population (2024) © AFP / France 24

ECOWAS in a defensive posture

To justify the lifting of sanctions, ECOWAS members cited humanitarian reasons, citing "the period of Christian Lent and the approach of the blessed month of Ramadan", as well as "requests" formulated by personalities and associative actors. regarding the situation in Niger.

Some also read this decision as a form of embarrassment linked to the regional context.

Regularly accused of practicing "double standards" by castigating military coups but turning a blind eye to the democratic abuses of elected presidents, ECOWAS has not taken sanctions, or even condemned, the postponement of the The presidential election of February 25 in Senegal, although decreed as "contrary to the Constitution" by the Constitutional Council.  

Finally, the lifting of sanctions against Niger comes almost a month after the announcement of the departure of this organization from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, on January 28.

The three States, united since mid-September within the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), a common defensive alliance, have decided to slam the door on ECOWAS, which they accuse of having "become a threat to its States members and its populations whose happiness it is supposed to ensure.

Also read: Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso leave ECOWAS: “buried” democratic transitions

An announcement discussed at length during the Abuja meeting and which arouses concern among the leaders of the regional organization.

“Together, these three countries represent 17.4% of the region's 425 million inhabitants. Even if they represent 10% of the region's GDP, their departure will lead to a reduction in the size of the ECOWAS market,” warn -they in their press release, saying they were "concerned by the socio-economic, political, security and humanitarian consequences of this decision".

“The lifting of sanctions announced on Saturday illustrates a total turnaround for ECOWAS,” explains Ornella Moderan.

“We are far from the image of regional policeman that the organization still had in August 2020, at the time of the first coup d'état in Mali. Today the AES countries, despite their structural fragilities, have gained the upper hand and managed to push ECOWAS into a defensive posture. We have the feeling that the West African organization is now in a process of reconquest vis-à-vis these countries, which has little chance of succeeding "This would require a change of regime in these States or a profound modification of the parameters of ECOWAS, which would abandon its political role to confine itself to the purely economic sphere." 

ECOWAS says it is determined to “convince the three member states to remain in the Community”.

The three countries, which had presented their departure as an irreversible decision, have not yet commented on these announcements.

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