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With ECOWAS exit, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger leave democratic transition in limbo

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The announcement that Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso will withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) “without delay” has put an abrupt end to fractious talks on organising elections and reinstating civilian rule. With their emphasis on restoring “national sovereignty” and driving out terrorist groups, the three West African countries’ military governments have made it clear that organising elections is not their primary concern.   

Since successive coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been trying to get the countries’ military leaders to commit to holding elections to reinstate civilian governments.  

Despite the heavy sanctions imposed, fractious negotiations between the three West African countries and ECOWAS have failed to produce tangible results. In their joint withdrawal announcement on January 28, the interim leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger criticised the West African regional organisation for its lack of support in the fight against terrorism and for adopting “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane” punitive measures. Their exit marks the end of negotiations regarding each country’s electoral timetable, which the military governments had shown little inclination to put in place. 

In Mali, the first country to be affected by the wave of coups that has spread across West Africa in recent years, talks initiated by ECOWAS on the duration of the transition period have seen many twists and turns. Following the August 2020 coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, ECOWAS imposed an economic embargo, closing its borders with the country while maintaining deliveries of essential goods. The military then installed a civilian government committed to holding elections within two years, scheduled for February 27, 2022. However, a second putsch in May 2021 shattered this promise. 

Speaking to FRANCE 24 months after the second coup, Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga described the February 2022 deadline as unrealistic. “It is better to have a few more weeks, even a few more months” than to have another post-electoral crisis, like the one that led to the fall of President Keïta, he said.   

Since then, the length of the transition period has changed several times. At the end of December 2021, following a “national consultation”, Mali’s interim President Assimi Goïta proposed extending it by five years. This was later reduced to two years under pressure from ECOWAS. Before announcing their withdrawal from the West African regional organisation, the Malian authorities had again postponed the presidential election, scheduled for February 4, 2024, for “technical reasons”, without giving a new date. 

Prioritising fight against terrorism  

The electoral timetable established for Burkina Faso has also been consigned to oblivion. Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in January 2022, had pledged to hold elections in July 2024 until he himself was overthrown by the young Captain Ibrahim Traoré in September 2022. Traoré initially said that he wanted to respect this timetable, but then changed his mind. “It’s not a priority, I’ll tell you that clearly, security is the priority,” he said, when asked about holding elections a year later.  

In Niger, which has been less affected by terrorist attacks by groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, coup leaders have also justified their actions by citing the “deteriorating security situation”. 

Read moreNiger coup brings France’s complicated relationship with its former colonies into the spotlight

Following the July 2023 coup, ECOWAS once again entered into negotiations with a military junta to establish an electoral timetable. It threatened the new leaders with military intervention in order to re-establish constitutional order, but failed to bring them to heel.   

“These military regimes’ approach, which consists of prioritising the fight against terrorism over the question of democracy, effectively puts the return to constitutional order at risk, because no one knows when security will return,” said Abba Seidik, a journalist specialising in the Sahel. “It’s true that the situation in Burkina Faso is particularly difficult, but what about in Mali, where the authorities have regained control of Kidal [a town in northern Mali]? Or Niger, where it was possible to hold a presidential election at the end of 2020? Not all situations are identical. Although elections may not have been the primary reason why the three countries withdrew from ECOWAS, it is worth mentioning that [their exit from the group] removes any possibility of applying pressure in this area.” 

Military populism 

The three countries’ decision to leave ECOWAS is further evidence of the regional organisation’s failure to negotiate a return to civilian rule, said Thierry Vircoulon, a Sub-Saharan Africa expert at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). 

“The commitments by Mali and Burkina Faso’s military governments to hold elections were part of a dialogue with ECOWAS that had already failed,” said Vircoulon. “The elections were already doomed and leaving ECOWAS is just the latest proof of this. These countries practise a form of populist militarism; they have no intention of facing up to election results and are organising popular mobilisations to legitimise themselves.” 

“Regional partners and the international community continue to press them to hold elections – as does a silent segment of their population, which we should not forget,” said Seidik. “But these people are living in a society where freedom of expression has been considerably curtailed. In Mali, critical positions expose people to online lynching campaigns, and it is even worse in Burkina Faso, where we have seen that people can be arrested for criticising the authorities.” 

In Mali’s capital Bamako, very few people spoke out against the decision to leave ECOWAS. The February 20 Coalition (Appel du 20 février), which includes opposition political parties and civil society movements critical of the transitional authorities, issued a press release, denouncing a decision “taken without any form of democratic debate”.  

Meanwhile, the military leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – united under the banner of the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact established in September 2023 –organised “large mobilisations of support” on February 1 to celebrate a “courageous and historic” decision. 

In an interview with former RFI journalist Alain Foka shortly after the ECOWAS exit, Burkina Faso’s interim leader Traoré declined to commit to an election timetable. “There must be a minimum of security so that, if there is an electoral campaign, people can go anywhere in Burkina Faso to explain their ideas,” he said, before touting the army’s accomplishments. “You have to know how to awaken patriotism in a people, to give them confidence, to know that their homeland is the only thing they have left,” he added. “That’s what we’ve managed to do.”

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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