What Turmoil in ECOWAS Means for Nigeria and Regional Stability
What Turmoil in ECOWAS Means for Nigeria and Regional Stability
A man holds a sign reading: 'Down with France down with ECOWAS' as supporters of Niger's National Council for Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) gather at the general Seyni Kountche stadium in Niamey on August 26, 2023.
A man holds a sign reading: 'Down with France down with ECOWAS' as supporters of Niger's National Council for Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) gather at the general Seyni Kountche stadium in Niamey on August 26, 2023. AFP
Q&A / Africa 18 minutes

What Turmoil in ECOWAS Means for Nigeria and Regional Stability

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have left ECOWAS, the regional bloc that sanctioned them after military officers seized power in each. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Nnamdi Obasi assesses the import of these events for West Africa’s security architecture and Nigeria’s influence therein. 

What happened?

A string of coups in the central Sahel continues to reverberate in West Africa. On 28 January, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – where military officers seized power in a series of putsches beginning in 2021 – announced that they were exiting the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional development body created by the Treaty of Lagos in 1975. ECOWAS is a fifteen-country organisation with a mandate to promote economic integration (including through its 1979 Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment). Over time, that mandate was expanded to include resolving conflicts and maintaining peace; and then fostering democracy and rule of law (including through its 2001 Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance) in all West Africa. It has arguably been the most effective of several such blocs on the continent, and its cohesion in turn became a core strength of the African Union (AU) when it was formed out of the Organisation of African Unity in 2002. 

ECOWAS has been at loggerheads with the trio of military regimes in the Sahel for some time, particularly since the July 2023 putsch in Niger, which was the last in the series of coups that brought officers to power. Immediately after that takeover, anxious to bolster its norm of constitutional rule, the bloc slapped sanctions on Niamey, the toughest penalties it has ever imposed on a member state. Following resolutions by bloc leaders, the other ECOWAS member states (excluding Burkina Faso and Mali, as well as Guinea, which experienced its own coup in 2021) closed their borders with Niger, suspended financial transactions and froze its assets, demanding that the junta restore the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, to office. Niger’s more prosperous neighbour, Nigeria, also cut off its supply of electricity, which Niger had relied on to meet about 70 per cent of its domestic needs. ECOWAS pointedly threatened military intervention, ordering mobilisation of its Standby Force, to get Bazoum reinstated if all else failed. 

The new regime in Niger, together with its counterparts in Burkina Faso and Mali, reacted strongly to these pressure tactics. The Burkinabé and Malian military authorities vowed to come to the Nigeriens’ aid should ECOWAS follow through with military action. In September 2023, the three regimes upped the ante by creating the Alliance of Sahel States, a formal mutual defence pact. Amid rising opposition to a military operation, especially among the Nigerian populace, talk of ECOWAS intervention began to wane. 

But tensions remained. On 1 December 2023, the foreign ministers of the three Sahelian countries suggested they would form a confederation. This move signalled their resolve to seek new means of multilateral collaboration, culminating in their momentous decision to leave ECOWAS. 

In their joint withdrawal statement, issued on 28 January, the military rulers of the three countries listed four specific grievances against ECOWAS. First, they alleged that ECOWAS had “moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and pan-Africanism”. “Under the influence of foreign powers”, they went on to say, the bloc had “betrayed its founding principles” and had “become a threat to its member states and its populations whose happiness it is supposed to ensure”.Secondly, the Sahelian states accused ECOWAS of failing to assist them in their “existential fight against terrorism and insecurity”, a reference to their struggles to defeat jihadists that have resulted in thousands of civilians and combatants killed, as well as over two million displaced. Thirdly, they lamented that when their embattled countries “decided to take their destiny into their own hands, ECOWAS adopted an irrational and unacceptable posture in imposing illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions in violation of its own texts”. Finally, they charged that the ECOWAS sanctions had “further weakened populations already bruised by years of violence”. 

The announcement of [Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger's] withdrawal from ECOWAS ... could have far-reaching diplomatic, security and economic consequences.

The announcement of the three countries’ withdrawal from ECOWAS, an unprecedented event that could have far-reaching diplomatic, security and economic consequences, sent shock waves through West Africa. It set back member states’ efforts, spanning nearly five decades, at achieving an integrated regional market and collective economic development, as well as advancing democracy and good governance. It also jeopardised multilateral initiatives to tackle transnational security challenges, particularly jihadist insurgencies, banditry and organised crime. Furthermore, it deepened rifts between the bloc’s Western-leaning elected governments (led by Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana) and its four military-run countries. Of the latter, three (ie, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – but not Guinea) have recently terminated their longstanding defence pacts with France and/or scaled down security partnerships with the European Union and the U.S. These three countries have increasingly turned instead to Russia as their security partner of choice. 

Responding to the withdrawal notice, ECOWAS lifted virtually all sanctions on the breakaway states on 24 February, urging them to return to the bloc and committing to dialogue as the path to resolving disagreements. It also entrusted three of its members – Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone – with responsibility for negotiating Bazoum’s release from detention in Niamey. ECOWAS said it lifted the sanctions on humanitarian grounds – as Crisis Group had previously urged it to do. But the about-face was partly also a tacit acknowledgement that the Sahelian states’ pullout had raised disconcerting questions about the bloc’s future. The military authorities have paid little attention to these ECOWAS overtures – and there is no indication as yet that they are rethinking their decision to leave. 

These events are especially salient for Nigeria, which is the largest country in ECOWAS and the site of its headquarters. Many Nigerians, especially in the far northern states bordering Niger, who have commercial, cultural and even familial affinities with Niger, have welcomed the lifting of sanctions, which were hurting their livelihoods as well. But diplomats and analysts in Abuja have also quietly expressed concerns that the attempts to placate the generals may have set a dangerous precedent, weakening the bloc and adversely affecting Nigeria’s position therein.

Why is ECOWAS so important to Nigeria?

Nigeria is heavily invested in ECOWAS. Along with Togo, Nigeria was the driving force behind the bloc’s 1975 founding. (Both countries, incidentally, were then under military rule.) As it accounts for half of West Africa’s population and 67 per cent of its gross domestic product, Nigeria has long been the dominant power in the bloc. It provides more than 50 per cent of the funding for the ECOWAS Commission, the bloc’s top administrative and executive body. It has also been the lead contributor to ECOWAS peacekeeping operations. It hosts, in Abuja, its federal capital, three of the organisation’s key institutions, namely the Commission headquarters, the ECOWAS Parliament and the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. 

A strong ECOWAS helps undergird Nigeria’s status as a power not just in West Africa but on the continent as a whole. It is a force multiplier for Abuja and a mainstay of the region’s security architecture. In its heyday, spanning the 1990s and 2000s, ECOWAS sent peacekeeping missions that helped end armed conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau (with significant Nigerian participation in the first two cases) and helped restore democracy in The Gambia. The African Union and foreign powers tended to defer to ECOWAS to manage crises in the region. The withdrawal of three member countries is therefore a major setback for Nigerian interests – doubly so as it happened while the organisation was under the rotational chairship of Nigeria’s president, Bola Tinubu. Nigeria’s former vice president Atiku Abubakar described losing the three Sahel countries as “a serious diplomatic meltdown”.

What are the strategic implications of this “meltdown” for Nigeria?

The split in ECOWAS poses a challenge to Nigeria’s strategic interests in West Africa. A weakened ECOWAS shrinks Nigeria’s immediate sphere of influence. Growing economic relations between each of the breakaway countries and Russia (spanning development of mining, transport, infrastructure, energy, agriculture, information technology and more) suggest a tilt away from ECOWAS and its Western partners, and Moscow’s growing military footprint in the region is an additional concern. Abuja may have to contend with neighbours – whether they remain under military rule or not – that are aligned more with Russia’s geopolitical project of countering Western influence than with West Africa’s goals as identified by ECOWAS, such as promoting regionwide development, democracy and peace. Furthermore, the loss of clout in the region could erode the support that Nigeria needs in its quest for permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council, though that prospect looks far down the road at the moment.

The three Sahelian countries’ exit from ECOWAS could also hurt regional cooperation in curbing the activities of jihadists, bandits and transnational crime syndicates.

The three Sahelian countries’ exit from ECOWAS could also hurt regional cooperation in curbing the activities of jihadists, bandits and transnational crime syndicates, worsening insecurity, especially in northern Nigeria. In particular, by deepening Niger’s rift with Nigeria, the withdrawal could diminish bilateral security cooperation and curb operations of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which has been helping counter the jihadist insurgencies in the Lake Chad basin. Niamey has given no indication of intent to quit the MNJTF. But should it decide to pull out, Nigeria’s forces would be under greater pressure, according to a former commandant of the Nigerian Army School of Legal Studies, retired Brigadier General Godwin Anyalemechi. 

Nigeria’s souring relations with Niger, with which it shares a more than 1,500km border and close economic ties, could have other implications as well. In 2022, trade between the two countries was about $226 million, according to International Trade Centre data. But since August 2023, this volume has shrunk significantly, following the closure of the border and suspension of flights between the two countries, due to both Abuja’s enforcement of the ECOWAS sanctions on Niger and Niamey’s reciprocal measures on self-defence grounds. The removal of sanctions notwithstanding, Niger’s exit from ECOWAS could prevent commerce between the two countries from fully bouncing back, as traders will now have to pay duties on imports, with adverse repercussions on livelihoods in the border states and beyond.

The deterioration of relations between Abuja and Niamey also jeopardises – and could eventually scuttle – two important projects: a 284km railway connecting the two countries’ second-largest cities (Kano in Nigeria and Maradi in Niger); and the ambitious 4,100km Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline that could deliver as much as 30 billion cubic metres of Nigeria’s natural gas to Europe each year.

How have these events played out in Nigerian politics?

The bloc’s loss of three member states is a major disappointment for President Tinubu, who saw the crisis as both an opportunity to assert himself as a statesman and reinforce ECOWAS’s credentials as an enforcer of constitutional rule in the region. 

On 9 July 2023, just before Niger’s coup, Tinubu became chair of ECOWAS at the organisation’s summit in Guinea-Bissau. In accepting the post, he pledged to put a premium on peace and security and promised a hard line against military seizures of power, declaring: “We will not allow coup after coup in West Africa again. … We must not sit in ECOWAS as toothless bulldogs”. Tinubu was a strong supporter of firm action to reverse the coup in Niger, asking the Nigerian parliament to approve a “military build-up and deployment of personnel for military intervention to enforce compliance of the military junta in Niger should they remain recalcitrant”. At the emergency meeting of ECOWAS heads of state in Abuja on 30 July 2023, Tinubu forcefully stated that “there’s no more time for us to send a warning signal. It’s time for action”. He later backtracked, claiming that he was the one holding back ECOWAS and other unnamed forces from invading Niger. It seems clear, however, that circumstances compelled him to back down. Burkina Faso and Mali had pledged to defend Niger, raising the sobering spectre of war between ECOWAS states and the Sahelian allianceTinubu also faced unforeseen, but overwhelming domestic opposition to the idea of a foreign military operation.

The turmoil in ECOWAS, along with the rapid switch from confrontation to appeasement of the military rulers, have raised concerns among many Nigerians about Tinubu’s leadership of the bloc. His initial threat of military action against the Nigerien military authorities (widely seen as hasty and ill-advised); his imposition of crippling sanctions that boomeranged in northern Nigeria; his inability to reverse the coup in Niamey; and then his failure to avoid the split in the regional bloc not only highlight the bloc’s institutional limitations but also call his judgment into question. 

Nigerian analysts who spoke with Crisis Group attribute Tinubu’s mismanaged response to the Niger coup to various factors. First, they say, was his apparently limited knowledge of the centuries-old relations between the peoples of the two countries: he comes from Lagos in the far south, and therefore may not have been especially attuned to northern Nigeria’s historical ties with Niger; he had not put his foreign affairs team together at the time of the putsch in Niamey; and he seemingly did not consult northern leaders widely. Furthermore, Usman Bugaje, former chairman of the House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs and former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s special envoy to Sudan (2000-2003), said the imposition of sweeping sanctions and threat of military action against Niger reflected a lack of understanding of “the situational problems” behind what he characterised as a “coup of liberation” from France that had significant popular support. When it came to Nigeria’s own politics, Tinubu did not give enough thought to the domestic implications of sanctions and the threat of military intervention.

The second factor, they say, was Tinubu’s eagerness that Western powers view him as the champion of democracy in the region. Some analysts assert that, in this respect, he may have been acting out of self-preservation. Elected with the smallest mandate of any Nigerian president since the country returned to democracy in 1999, and with his election then still under unfavourable scrutiny by international observers and dogged by legal challenges at home, Tinubu may have been trying to shore up his legitimacy. But his tough stance may also have been genuinely rooted in his own pro-democracy background: he participated in the National Democratic Coalition that campaigned against the late General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship, leading to his exile, in the 1990s

Paris was particularly aggressive ... in its response to the Niger coup.

Still a third element, Nigerian analysts say, was alleged influence from France. Paris was particularly aggressive (and counterproductively so) in its response to the Niger coup especially. Its very vocal support for ECOWAS’s hard line against the Nigerien coup leaders fuelled a narrative that ECOWAS under Tinubu’s leadership was being railroaded into an avoidable conflict with a neighbour, at the behest of Western powers. On 31 January, a group of six prominent, mostly northern-based civil society organisations sent a letter to Tinubu saying: “The current trajectory of ECOWAS under your leadership raises serious concerns. … [It] creates the perception that ECOWAS might be implementing a script influenced by external, imperialist interests, particularly from former colonial powers like France. This is really troubling”. Former chairman Bugaje concurred“There are reasons to suspect that there is a lot of overwhelming French influence in our foreign policy. … People have reasons to suspect that there is more than just the ECOWAS interest in this matter”. 

This suspicion has deepened due to Tinubu’s repeated sojourns in Paris (at least four) since his election in February 2023, including his first international trip as president. On at least two of these occasions, he apparently visited France for medical care, though no official explanation was offered. Officials at Nigeria’s foreign ministry say Nigerian-French relations have grown stronger under Tinubu’s administration, but there is no evidence of a shift in foreign partnership from Nigeria’s traditional friends in the U.S. and Britain toward France. (Nigeria’s foreign policy elite are generally wary of France, due to its support of the secessionist Biafra in the late 1960s, its opposition to formation of ECOWAS in the 1970s and its continuing hegemonic influence over its former colonies in West Africa.) Yet Tinubu’s repeated visits to Paris, and official silence about the purpose of some of the trips, have helped create the impression that he is taking instructions from France. 

Tinubu’s miscalculation in responding to the Niger coup may not have cost him much domestic support, since foreign policy is not a major issue for the citizenry, but it has certainly earned him no praise. On one hand, in northern Nigeria, many analysts attribute his initial hard line on the Niger coup to his not reaching out to knowledgeable northern leaders who would have offered him better guidance. On the other hand, in the south, analysts say ECOWAS’s inability to follow through on its early threat of military intervention has made Tinubu (as the bloc’s current leader) appear weak. Worse still, beyond Nigeria, Tinubu’s failure to act has sent a signal that he and ECOWAS can bark but not bite. Some worry that the perception of an enfeebled ECOWAS under Nigeria’s leadership could embolden military adventurers in other West African countries as well as the Russia-backed Africa Corps, the successor to the notorious Wagner Group mercenaries in the region.

What does the ECOWAS turmoil reveal about Nigerian power and influence?

The tumult in ECOWAS is, at least in part, a reflection of Nigeria’s diminished influence in West Africa. Nigeria’s influence has been slipping for over a decade, as the country has grappled with the security challenges and economic malaise that emerged under the presidencies of Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan (2007-2015) but were significantly aggravated during the eight years of Muhammadu Buhari’s lethargic presidency (2015-2023). 

Buhari’s government struggled on multiple axes. It was unable to lay out, and rally the bloc to, a strategic vision for regional development and security, being preoccupied with, if not overwhelmed by, several domestic security challenges, including the jihadist insurgency in the North East, banditry in the North West, herder-farmer tensions, especially in the North Central zone, and deepening insecurity associated with the Biafra secessionist agitation in the South East. Embattled at home, Nigeria also sometimes pursued its own priorities with apparently scant regard for collective interests. It only reluctantly conceded to working with ECOWAS members Niger and Benin, along with Cameroon and Chad, in forming the MNJTF to deal with the jihadist group, Boko Haram. From August 2019 to December 2020, it closed its land borders with neighbours – Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger – in a bid to curb smuggling of produce, firearms and refined petroleum products. The closure, which did little to reduce contraband, violated an ECOWAS agreement guaranteeing freedom of movement, in both letter and spirit, hurting the economies of nearby countries and sowing mistrust. 

When Tinubu, in accepting the ECOWAS rotating chairmanship in July 2023, declared that “Nigeria is back”, it was an admission that the country had been largely absent from regional leadership. Yet Tinubu’s closeness to France, which many in Francophone West Africa view with deep suspicion, has exacerbated the trust deficit among Nigeria’s neighbours.

What is the way forward for Nigeria and for ECOWAS?

Luring the departees back into the ECOWAS fold – while a very tall order – is important for several reasons. A broken ECOWAS will erode decades of economic, political and security efforts in West Africa. Economically, though the three Sahelian countries represent only 17.4 per cent of the region’s population and 10 per cent of its $761 billion gross domestic product, their pullout will reduce ECOWAS’s market size. As the ECOWAS Commission indicated, the three countries’ exit might also halt projects worth more than $500 million the bloc has undertaken as well as another $321.6 million worth of projects being pursued by the region’s financial institutions. Politically, the trio’s departure could tempt other member states embroiled in disputes with the bloc to also quit; meanwhile, their estrangement from the bloc could prolong undemocratic rule in these countries and encourage military authorities in others, namely Guinea, to stall in restoring constitutional order. From a security standpoint, a lasting split will make regional multilateral and bilateral security cooperation in tackling common challenges – jihadist insurgencies, banditry and transnational organised crime – much more difficult, if not impossible.

ECOWAS has said it will continue to look for a negotiated path forward, although the three Sahel states seem uninterested in talks. On 17 February, at the AU summit in Addis Ababa, Tinubu promised the breakaway countries that: “If you come to the table to discuss important matters in good faith, you will find Nigeria and ECOWAS already sitting there waiting to greet you as the brother that you are”. On 24 February, ECOWAS heads of state and the ECOWAS Commission reiterated their readiness to parley. The AU Commission has pledged to facilitate negotiations. These are welcome first steps, and although the three Sahel states have declared that their exit from ECOWAS is irreversible and shown no sign of readiness to come back into the fold, the regional bloc should persevere in its reconciliation efforts, making every responsible effort to create conditions that might encourage the three countries to respond in kind. 

The Nigerian government ... should redouble diplomatic efforts to persuade [Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger] to return to the negotiation table.

First, the Nigerian government, working closely with the ECOWAS Commission, should redouble diplomatic efforts to persuade the three countries to return to the negotiation table. It could do so by engaging credible non-state actors (traditional and religious leaders, eminent personalities including the ECOWAS Committee of the Wise, women leaders and civil society groups), as emissaries to the central Sahelian countries that withdrew from the bloc. Given its special historical relationship with Niamey and the price it would pay should the split endure, Nigeria should devote particular effort to healing its rift with Niger. 

Secondly, Nigeria and the ECOWAS Commission should initiate a process for addressing the grievances that were laid out by the breakaway countries, as highlighted earlier. At a minimum, it should commit to reviewing the organisation’s programs and activities comprehensively, so as to reassure member states that they are properly aligned (or realigned) with the bloc’s fundamental mandate to strengthen economics, boost infrastructure and support livelihoods. It should also commit to stepping up assistance to the central Sahelian states in fighting jihadist insurgencies and terrorism, including by showing a new sense of urgency in mobilising the regional bloc’s long-proposed counter-terrorism force. 

Thirdly, ECOWAS member states need to demonstrate better understanding of popular sentiment in the region’s Francophone countries, particularly citizens’ widespread displeasure with the post-colonial relationships with France, which they increasingly view as exploitative and unacceptable. ECOWAS should publicly acknowledge the need for fairer and more equitable economic relations between its Francophone members and Paris, looking for opportunities to make clear that the bloc charts its own course. Member states should work to dispel the widespread notion that ECOWAS is guided by France and other Western powers, a view that is gaining followers, even in Anglophone member countries. 

Fourthly, while ECOWAS leaders are rightly concerned that coups are endangering democracy in West Africa, they should rethink their approach to helping regional states resist military takeovers. While they should retain the sanctions against abrupt termination of democracy, as provided for in Article 45 of the bloc’s governance protocols, other tools are also needed. In particular, they need to lay greater emphasis on preventing and, where appropriate, sanctioning constitutional and, electoral transgressions, as well as serious human rights abuses that often create fertile ground for coups, rather than relying so heavily on post-coup punitive measures. 

Finally, talks about reconciliation will succeed only if both sides make concessions, and the three breakaway states very much have a role to play. For the sake of regional comity and security (including their own), and out of respect for their own citizens’ civil and political rights, they should take seriously the olive branches that ECOWAS extends, look for ways to repair neighbourly relations and return to constitutional rule by the earliest dates practicable. To clear hurdles ahead of the more substantial negotiations necessary for possible reconciliation, the military rulers in Niger should release the ousted president, Bazoum, from detention unconditionally. To facilitate this release, they should meet with the three countries that ECOWAS has entrusted to negotiate for Bazoum’s release – Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone –and agree with them on allowing him to go into exile to any country within the bloc, until constitutional rule is restored in Niamey. 

What happens if reconciliation efforts fail?

While there is every reason to try to heal ECOWAS’s rift with the three departed states, success is likely to remain elusive. Most diplomats and analysts in Abuja seem convinced that the estranged nations have already gone too far and that, at present, their return to the bloc looks very unlikely

If ECOWAS is ultimately unable to persuade them to come back, then it will be important to consider alternatives that serve some of the same objectives. One approach might be to seek agreement with the Alliance of Sahelian States upon a framework for calibrated disengagement from the bloc and, subsequently, peaceful cohabitation. Such a framework would need to articulate procedures and timelines for relocating ECOWAS agencies and staff now based in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Perhaps even more importantly, the framework should clarify the status of citizens of the two blocs, in terms of their rights to movement, work and residence in the other bloc, prohibiting mass expulsions. Through such an effort, the leaders of both ECOWAS and the Alliance might find ways to mitigate the harm to the region’s security and economy that their rift has already caused. 

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.