West African leaders’ summit opens as coup-hit countries form alliance

The formation of Sahel alliance by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger overshadows ECOWAS summit, set to open in Abuja.

Omar Touray, president of the ECOWAS Commission, left, and Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara
Omar Touray, president of the ECOWAS Commission, left, and Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara arrive for the ECOWAS meeting in Abuja, Nigeria on February 24, 2024. [File: Gbemiga Olamikan/AP Photo]

A West African leaders’ summit has opened a day after the military rulers of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger forged a new alliance severing ties with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The ECOWAS summit is being hosted in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, after several West African leaders called for a resumption of dialogue with the three coup-hit Sahel countries, which signed a new defence pact on Saturday during a summit of their own in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced the pact, known as the Alliance of Sahel States, last September. It allows them to cooperate in the event of armed rebellion or external aggression. The three countries withdrew from ECOWAS in January after the regional bloc’s tough stand against the coups.

Reporting from Abuja, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said the timing of Saturday’s announcement by the Sahel alliance was aimed at showing the three countries can do without the regional bloc.

“But some analysts say Mali and Niger in particular could face difficulties if all member countries of ECOWAS decide to isolate the two landlocked countries,” he said.

“Right now, the military leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger seem to have momentum on their side and they are scouting the global community for support. ECOWAS has a lot of work ahead before it can bring these three countries back into the fold, if at all they agree to do that.”

Speaking at the summit on Saturday, Niger’s General Abdourahamane Tchiani called the 50-year-old ECOWAS “a threat to our states”, adding that the three countries aim to create an alliance free of foreign influence for their people.

ECOWAS lifted sanctions on Niger in February in an attempt to mend relations, but little progress has been made. The bloc had imposed sanctions following the July 2023 coup that brought Tchiani to power.

Burkina Faso had its coup in September 2022 and Mali in August 2021.

Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a media assistant to the Nigerian president, told Al Jazeera that much has been achieved in the past year despite the souring relations between ECOWAS and the Sahel alliance.

“The handling of the fragile situations in these countries – even though perhaps not ideally what we would want – has helped to de-escalate tensions, but at one point, tensions were really high and things could have gone south,” he said.

As the Sahel region shifts towards allying with Russia, the United States is set to complete its withdrawal from a key base in Niger on Sunday, which it had built to combat armed groups that pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

About 1,000 US military personnel were set to withdraw from Niger’s Air Base 101.

Following the coups in West Africa, the breakaway countries have had increasingly strained relations with the West, condemning influence, particularly by former colonial ruler France. French troops left Mali completely in 2022, and they completed their withdrawal from Niger and Burkina Faso last year.

Impact on fighting armed groups

Amid the political and military shifts following the coups, the armed groups continue to pose a considerable danger to the whole region.

Kabir Adamu, a security consultant, told Al Jazeera that Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will still need support from the rest of the region.

“If they decide to operate on their own or try to isolate other ECOWAS countries, or other countries within the Sahel, these [armed] groups will continue to exploit these gaps that will be created and of course, continue to impact a heavy toll on both the security forces and the citizens of the three countries.”

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which tracks violence in the region, more than 8,000 people were killed in Burkina Faso in 2023, and gains against armed groups largely backslid in Niger.

In Mali, it said, military forces were working with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries and had been involved in “indiscriminate killing” of civilians.

Source: Al Jazeera