The number of significant political events across the African continent has increased dramatically recently: not even a month after the signing of the sensational Memorandum of Understanding between Ethiopia and Somaliland, another news story has already taken centre stage. Thus, on 28 January, the military Governments of three Sahel States – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – announced their decision to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with immediate effect. It should be borne in mind that any political changes in the Sahel zone may be of fundamental importance for Russia’s interests as the latter seeks to continue deepening military and economic co-operation with the states of the region, since it is in Mali and Burkina Faso that Russian influence has recently increased more than ever before. Thus, understanding the current transformations and prospects for further development of the situation is one of the central elements in building Moscow’s foreign policy strategy in the region. In this article, we will examine possible projections of the decisions of the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger on Russia’s interests in West Africa.
Prerequisites: a brief overview
The year of creation of ECOWAS, an organisation born out of the spread of pan-African cooperation and regional integration, is considered to be 1975, when the founding States signed the founding Lagos Treaty, slightly amended in 1993 under the Cotonou Agreements. In general, from the outset, ECOWAS was conceived as an organisation designed to promote the economic development of the region, including the gradual transition to economic union; political and military objectives do not appear in the Community’s list of goals, nor in the list of objectives to this day (Art. 3). However, in 1993, the text of the Lagos Treaty was amended, including Article 4 on the fundamental principles of the organisation, which, among other things, referred to the maintenance of regional peace, stability and security and the need for non-conflict coexistence among member states.
The events that heralded the current ECOWAS rift can be traced back to August 2020, when Mali’s military arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. In response, the African Union and ECOWAS suspended the country’s membership, and the leaders of the latter insisted on imposing tough sanctions on Mali. Later, similar events, accompanied by a similar ECOWAS response, took place in Burkina Faso (September 2022) and Niger (July 2023). As a result, the succession of military coups and ECOWAS’s extremely harsh policies towards the Sahelian Troika have had a number of important consequences: 1) The severe economic and humanitarian consequences, as well as the illegality of some of the sanctions imposed, have created a hostile sentiment towards ECOWAS among the elites and the general public in the Sahelian states; 2) The threat of military force against the coup plotters in Niger by ECOWAS (mainly represented by Nigeria) has contributed to the creation of a Triple Alliance of Sahelian states to counter threats from both armed groups and neighbours; 3) Increased demand for security services has fuelled the intensification of military-industrial trade and military co-operation between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, on the one hand, and Russia as a “security exporter”, on the other; 4) Finally, against the background of rapprochement with Moscow and the West’s general support for ECOWAS policies, the long-standing discontent with the actions of Paris and other First World countries as such has gradually evolved in the Sahel countries into a more or less formalised agenda based on the rejection of neocolonialism.
A split in ECOWAS: What should Moscow expect?
Although the ECOWAS spokesperson stated that the decision of the Sahel troika governments is currently only an intention that has not been legally formalised but publicly announced, the split within the organisation is already an established fact. As noted earlier, for Russia, which has considerable influence in Mali and Burkina Faso and is likely to expand its presence in the region by deepening ties with Niger, the conflict between the Sahel troika and ECOWAS is an element of the political context that would be reckless to ignore. In fact, in the context of the Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey démarche, a whole palette of more or less likely scenarios emerges, ranging from non-conflict coexistence between the two organisations to a direct confrontation between ECOWAS and the “defaulters”.
Leaving the analysis of the long-term consequences of the decision of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to be studied in detail in a separate article, it seems possible to make a few remarks and forecasts characterising the most probable, in the author’s opinion, scenario.
So, first of all, it is necessary to understand that the withdrawal of the “Sahel troika” from ECOWAS de facto took place during 2020-2023 following the imposition of sanctions and suspension of membership in response to military coups, and the creation of the Triple Alliance of Sahel states a few months ago marked the confrontational nature of relations between the two associations. Thus, today we are witnessing a formalisation of the previously established state of affairs, albeit accompanied by a natural “visualisation” of fault lines. It is logical to assume that in the absence of qualitative changes in the positions of the parties, an escalation of the conflict is extremely unlikely: having not decided to conduct a military operation in the summer of 2023, ECOWAS, moreover, will not take such a radical and risky step now, since the military governments have only consolidated their positions over the past time.
Secondly, from the point of view of Russia’s interests in the region, the next, in fact final, step towards breaking up, at least for a while, the Sahel troika with ECOWAS does not imply significant threats. Russia’s relations with Mali, and subsequently with Burkina Faso and Niger, were bilateral from the very beginning and were not based on building co-operation with ECOWAS, which undoubtedly remains Moscow’s partner, like many other regional associations on the African continent. However, it is the ties established with Bamako and Ouagadougou that are of strategic importance for the Russian side. By acting primarily as a “security provider” Russia does not lose out in a situation where the governments of the “Sahel troika” countries have to rely on their own forces: the demand for Russian support will only increase.
Finally, speaking about the prospects of maintaining good relations between Russia and ECOWAS, it should be taken into account that for the Nigerian government, which is the informal leader of the organisation, Moscow’s increasing influence, including through the expansion of its military presence, is a challenge that Abuja, however, has to put up with. At the same time, it would be premature to talk about a sharp increase in tensions between Russia and the Community: the dependence of a number of states on Russian grain supplies, internal problems, and the low level of foreign policy activity of a number of member states all limit the space for political conflict.
Ivan KOPYTZEV – political scientist, research intern at the Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Institute for International Studies, MGIMO, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”