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West Africa’s Brexit Moment Could Fuel Regional Turmoil

The recent withdrawal of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso from ECOWAS puts the very existence of the 15-member economic union at risk. To prevent instability from spreading across West Africa, the bloc’s leaders must expand its military capabilities and impose sanctions on autocratic rulers.

PRETORIA – On January 28, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso announced their withdrawal from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), from which all three had been suspended following the military coups that overthrew their democratically elected governments. This represents the greatest crisis the bloc has faced since its establishment in 1975.

The three military juntas, which announced a new defense pact in September, accused ECOWAS of being “under the influence” of foreign powers and – citing the bloc’s failure to support their war against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – posing a “threat to its member states and people.” All three governments also complained about ECOWAS’s “irrational and unacceptable” economic sanctions against them.

Over the past few years, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have been fighting foreign-backed jihadists across the tri-border area, where militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced an additional 4.2 million while taking control of vast territories. Now, the withdrawal of these three landlocked Sahelian countries from ECOWAS threatens to disrupt trade and mobility even further, undermine democratic governments, and erode Nigeria’s credibility as a regional power.