West Africa: faced with the desire to leave the Sahelian juntas, ECOWAS is looking for a solution

Will the new Senegalese President Bassirou Diomaye Faye and his Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko be the thread and the needle that will reconnect the ties in a torn West Africa or the explosive and the detonator that will explode what remains closely? of half a century of regional construction?</p>While the young Senegalese head of state traveled on Tuesday April 7 to Ivory Coast, the other French-speaking power in the area, to give a speech celebrating the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS) as “a formidable integration tool” that “we will benefit from preserving”, the man who was his political mentor announced on Sunday evening his next “tour” in the quartet of juntas – Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger –, breaking with the regional order

West Africa: faced with the desire to leave the Sahelian juntas, ECOWAS is looking for a solution

Will the new Senegalese President Bassirou Diomaye Faye and his Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko be the thread and the needle that will reconnect the ties in a torn West Africa or the explosive and the detonator that will explode what remains closely? of half a century of regional construction?

While the young Senegalese head of state traveled on Tuesday April 7 to Ivory Coast, the other French-speaking power in the area, to give a speech celebrating the Economic Community of West African States ( ECOWAS) as “a formidable integration tool” that “we will benefit from preserving”, the man who was his political mentor announced on Sunday evening his next “tour” in the quartet of juntas – Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger –, breaking with the regional order.

An initiative which is part of the local diplomacy established by the new power in Dakar, keen to "talk to everyone", while in January, the military in command in Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou announced the immediate departure of their country from ECOWAS, raising fears of the disappearance of an organization whose two pillars, free economic movement and then the promotion of democracy, are fractured by tensions between regimes.

Building on its triumphant election on a sovereignist program and a promise to break with previous regimes, the duo at the head of the Senegalese executive has the assets to serve as an intermediary with a putschist bloc, in resonance with the themes it defends. Especially since time is running out to prevent disintegration.

“The juntas refuse the outstretched hand”

The sub-regional organization has a period of twelve months to approve the exit of one of its members after they have notified their decision. Faced with this prospect, rescue operations are increasing. At the end of April, around thirty political figures from the region met in Abidjan to reflect on the survival of the organization.

After two days of "retreat", the ECOWAS council of elders called on the three dissident countries "to reconsider their position", considering a "high-level" mediation, composed of former Nigerian presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Yakubu Gowon or even the Senegalese Abdoulaye Bathily, to visit the authorities of these countries soon.

“The idea is to go to each capital to meet the leaders and deliver a simple message to them: the return to constitutional order and the maintenance of the unity of ECOWAS,” explains a regional diplomatic source. We are hopeful that once they have their schedule set, they will come back to us. Especially since the adventure of separation turns out to be hazardous for these landlocked countries which are very economically linked to the sub-region. »

However, the chances of success of such an initiative already raise serious doubts. “ECOWAS has always been open to discussion. The tone hardened for a time when Nigeria threatened military intervention in Niger to restore President Mohamed Bazoum. But the juntas refuse the outstretched hand because, leaving ECOWAS is a way of escaping any commitment aimed at returning power to civilians,” warns Rahmane Idrissa, researcher in political science at the African Studies Center of the Leiden University, Netherlands.

An embryonic alliance in the Sahel

An analysis shared by an Ivorian diplomat who considers that “these countries are mainly looking for pretexts not to organize elections. Ideology here is just an illusion.”

The fact remains that for the West African institution, and even more so for the heads of state who lead it, there is an urgent need to counter the influence of the juntas supported by Russia, now united within the Alliance of States of the Sahel (AES). Although embryonic, the latter has caused some cold sweats among certain current presidents, as in Senegal during the recent pre-electoral unrest.

“The Senegalese army remained unshakeable. However, his intervention in the conflict was wanted on the side of certain putschists in the Sahel. Evidence of contacts between officers of the Senegalese army and Nigerien and Malian counterparts were intercepted by the Senegalese general staff,” reveals Francis Laloupo, associate researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

“Although being a club of juntas without established institutions, the AES remains a political fact which carries the intoxicating idea among certain African elites that they embody true sovereignty,” adds researcher Rahmane Idrissa. Driven by these regimes, these hotheads could find support where before they would have been simply marginalized. »

A different situation in Central Africa

Beyond the borders of ECOWAS, in Central Africa, it is in Gabon that we must look for the reasons for the concern of leaders who have most often clung to power for decades. When, in the summer of 2023, General Brice Oligui Nguema overthrew Ali Bongo, ending half a century of family rule, the heads of neighboring states of Cameroon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea may have feared a response which would take away their twilight regime.

“The fall of Ali Bongo was that of the heir sitting uneasily on his throne. However, some leaders feared that this coup would create a precedent because they themselves have heirs who suffer from a deficit of legitimacy,” explains Benoît Olembele, who specializes in supporting transitions within a French-speaking institution.

However, “the Sahelian phenomenon has little risk of occurring in Central Africa,” judges Francis Laloupo. The regimes in place have been able to integrate their senior officers into a co-management of power. They are collaborators and they have access to resources. This very clever combination is also found outside this area, particularly in Togo.”

Just one year shy of its fiftieth anniversary, ECOWAS now only has to highlight the people's attachment to the free movement of goods and people within the borders of its fifteen member states. “I don’t sense a desire to reintroduce the model. Centrifugal forces prevailed over the desire to be together,” judges an Ivorian diplomat, driven by the hope that the weariness of the Sahelian populations in the face of economic difficulties will be the best advocate for regional integration and open elections to all.