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A flag map of Burkina Faso (image: courtesy of Pixabay)

Last December, three West African countries decided to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) a regional political and economic union of 15 West African countries, founded in May 1975 in Lagos, Nigeria with a Pan-African vision. Collectively, that entity comprises an area of 5,114,162 km² with an estimated population of over 424.34 million.

The aim of the organization is to ensure the free movement of people and goods and also to encourage the establishment of important practices and policies like economic self-sufficiency, good education, proper health care as well as principles of democracy, the rule of law and the practice of good governance. the Economic Community of West African States has specialized agencies such as the West African Health Organization (WAHO), the West African Monetary Agency (WAMA), and many others, to help the institution to fulfil its mission.

A series of military coups occurred in West Africa between 2020 and 2023, starting in Mali, and gradually reaching Burkina Faso and Niger. Other French-speaking countries experienced military take overs but the coups that were followed by drastic breaks from the former colonial power, France, are those that occurred in the three countries mentioned above. They were real social movements that embodied the concern, aspirations and preoccupations of the masses. Certain features are common to these three countries: they are all facing terrorist attacks; each of them is a former Sahelian French colony; and are classified among the poorest countries in the world. They all struck up a solid cooperation with Russia after booting France out. Those at the forefront of these political changes that affected the geopolitical dynamics of the world assert that the collaboration with Russia represents a win-win situation. Weapons are purchased from Russia, not acquired as a gift, and if Russian companies want to operate mining companies in Africa, the usual taxes and costs have to be paid.

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A flag map of Mali (image: courtesy of Gordon Johnson)

An examination of the general situation in West Africa, over the years, reveals that ECOWAS has failed, to a large extent. The organization’s attitude is contrary to what is stipulated as its missions and duties. The practice of democracy and good governance was never its concern and that explains the preponderance of rigged presidential elections and other scandalous scenarios that have marred the political scene in many West African nations. Real democracy is quasi-nonexistent. One frequently reads political comments that posit, with enough proof, that dictators who openly and blatantly violate[ed] the tenets of democracy were presidents within the ECOWAS sphere. Some such heads of state are often referred to as “those who bayonet their own people”. Another factor that weakens the West African institution is the large number of coup makers who rule over nations: rough military presidents pose as civilians and get elected as democratic leaders within ECOWAS. Likewise, wealthy civilians perfectly plan and finance coups that overthrow and, often, kill their rivals or leaders who do not approve of their ideology. The principle of mutual support or aid is ignored, as it is now; no military assistance has been provided to any of the countries that are currently being severely hit by terrorists; no aid has been allocated by ECOWAS to the millions of displaced persons within ECOWAS. Neither is the rule of law a reality within ECOWAS. Citizens are harassed or maltreated in any attempt to cross into a neighbouring county and the gaping corruption is the anti-thesis of the rule of law.

These weaknesses of the organization were pinpointed several years ago by Captain Thomas Sankara, who was president of Burkina Faso in 1984, during the 7th conference of the heads of state and governments in Lomé, Togo. He surprised others with a speech that recommend resisting the former colonizer turned imperialist, over time, and stressed the link between economic development and the fight for economic liberation. That speech was a “big first” that advocated against the traditional pro-western talks that implicitly asserted the submission of West African states to the European powers. Coincidentally, 40 years after that speech, Captain Ibrahim Traoré the current president in Burkina Faso put into practice what Sankara preached in Lomé in 1984. Moreover, two other military rulers in countries that share borders with Burkina Faso are Traoré’s staunch allies in this denunciation of ECOWAS. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger decided to leave ECOWAS, after they coalesced into a three-nation union called the Union of Sahelian States (AES).

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Flag map of Niger (image:courtesy of Pixabay)

These three countries, individually, recognized and appreciated the power that they represented by unification. They each had enormous diverse mineral and other natural resources, big and vibrant markets, and the common feeling of patriotism and anti-subjugation, and were committed to the application of self-sufficiency and the freedom to choose one’s allies. It, therefore, was not surprising when each of those countries chose to establish strong cooperation with Russia. Presidents Traoré, Goita and Tchiani, respectively of Burkina, Mali and Niger, are confident that the newly emerged union, the AES, is working to restore the vision of patriotism in their societies, and a conviction that nothing remains as it was before. The people are convinced that their countries are endowed with enough to guarantee their survival. Consequently, terrorists should not be allowed to take over any part of these countries. Certain sources have noted that the AES has already solved the challenge of the new common currency, once the economy and finance ministers and other influential personalities of the three countries met several times. Reliable sources report that all the technical aspects that accompany the creation of such a union are being taken care of.

The main concern remains the impact on the average citizen in the AES as they circulate outside of that space. Of course, the leaders of the new union posit that the union is a Pan-Africanist body (we are leaving ECOWAS but we remain Pan-Africanists) but how will that translate, concretely, on the terrain? If AES is said to be self-sufficient at all levels, how will the other or remaining countries of the ECOWAS fare without AES? How easy will it be for AES citizens to reside and work in other countries? Most of the efforts are now geared towards appeasing people and urging them in this new onward march. Some degree of silence remains around such details and people are told not to worry an inch. The procedure in such a separation from a coalition is to write a letter voicing the intention of breaking away, and to wait for a reply which might take about a year. The country members of AES have written a letter to ECOWAS and no response has been received as yet. Many historic events occurred in West Africa in the last four years and more seem to be on their way.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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