Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso military leaders sign new pact, rebuff ECOWAS

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By Al Jazeera

THE military leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have hailed a newly signed treaty as a step “towards greater integration” between the three countries, in the latest showing of their shift away from traditional regional and Western allies.

During a summit in the Nigerien capital of Niamey on Saturday, the three leaders signed a confederation treaty that aims to strengthen a mutual defence pact announced last year, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES).

The signing capped the first joint summit of the leaders – Niger’s General Abdourahmane Tchiani, Burkina Faso’s Captain Ibrahim Traore, and Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goita – since they came to power in successive coups in their bordering West African nations.

It also came just months after the three countries withdrew from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc in January.

Speaking at the summit on Saturday, Tchiani called the 50-year-old ECOWAS “a threat to our states”.

The West African economic bloc had suspended the three countries after their respective military takeovers, which occurred in July 2023 in Niger, September 2022 in Burkina Faso and August 2021 in Mali.

ECOWAS also imposed sanctions on Niger and Mali, but the bloc’s leaders have held out hope for the trio’s eventual return.

“We are going to create an AES of the peoples, instead of an ECOWAS whose directives and instructions are dictated to it by powers that are foreign to Africa,” Tchiani said.

Burkina Faso’s Traore also accused foreign powers of seeking to exploit the countries. The three nations have regularly accused former colonial ruler France of meddling in ECOWAS.

“Westerners consider that we belong to them and our wealth also belongs to them. They think that they are the ones who must continue to tell us what is good for our states,” he said.

“This era is gone forever. Our resources will remain for us and our populations.”

For his part, Mali’s Goita said the strengthened relationship means an “attack on one of us will be an attack on all the other members”.

Shifting influence

Reporting from Abuja on Saturday, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris noted that the three military leaders met just a day before ECOWAS was set to have a meeting in the capital of Nigeria.

Efforts to mediate the countries’ return to the bloc were expected to be discussed, Idris said.

“Many people believe that the meeting in Niger was to counter whatever is coming [from] ECOWAS and to also outline their position: That they are not returning to the Economic Community of the West African States,” he explained.

Idris added the newly elected president of Senegal, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, recently visited the three countries in an informal capacity in an effort to mend the ties.

“However, it’s not clear whether or not he’s got a positive response,” he said.

Adama Gaye, a political commentator and former ECOWAS communications director, said the creation of the three-member Alliance of Sahel States has “weakened” the economic bloc.

Still, Gaye told Al Jazeera that “despite its real-name recognition, ECOWAS has not performed well when it comes to achieving regional integration, promoting intra-African trade in West Africa and also in ensuring security” in the region.

“So this justifies the feeling of many in West Africa – [the] ordinary citizenry and even intellectuals – [who are] asking questions about the standing of ECOWAS, whether it should be revised, reinvented,” he said, urging the bloc to engage in diplomacy to try to bridge the rift.

Violence and instability

The Niamey summit also came a day before the United States is set to complete its withdrawal from a key base in Niger, underscoring how the new military leaders have redrawn security relations that had defined the region in recent years.

Armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have jockeyed for control of territory in all three countries, unleashing waves of violence and spurring concern in Western capitals.

But following the recent coups, the countries’ ties to Western governments have frayed.

French troops completed their withdrawal from Mali in 2022, and they left Niger and Burkina Faso last year.

Meanwhile, US Air Force Major General Kenneth Ekman said earlier this week that about 1,000 military personnel would complete their withdrawal from Niger’s Air Base 101 by Sunday.

The US is also in the process of leaving a separate, $100m drone base near Agadez in central Niger, which officials have described as essential to gathering intelligence about armed groups in the region.

While pushing out former Western allies, the military leaders in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali have increasingly pursued security and economic ties with Russia.

However, it remains unclear if the new approach has helped to stem the violence that has plagued the countries, which are home to about 72 million people.

In 2023, Burkina Faso saw a massive escalation in violence, with more than 8,000 people killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) tracker.

In Niger, slight gains against armed groups largely backslid following the coup, according to ACLED.

Meanwhile, an offensive by Malian forces and Wagner mercenaries saw “elements” of the Russian-government-linked group “involved in the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of civilians, destruction of infrastructure, and looting of property, as well as triggering mass displacement”, ACLED said.

About three million people have been displaced by fighting across the countries.