By Nick Bythrow

Abstract: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has had a major role to play in military and economic developments across West Africa since Omar Tchiani’s coup in Niger. ECOWAS’ decision to suspend Niger from the union has resulted in accusations that their decisions are influenced by French interests. These allegations are tied to increased anti-French sentiment in the nation following cooperation between the two countries in combating jihadi extremism in 2022. The sanctions ECOWAS has imposed on Niger have also impacted the entire region economically due to how reliant other countries are on Niger’s resources, especially food. Economic hardship has sown further seeds of discontent with ECOWAS in the region, bolstered by accusations of European influence. While ECOWAS continues to present itself as a peacekeeping economic union, their future responses to Niger will need to be scrutinized as to whether they benefit West African or European interests more.

On July 26, 2023, Niger experienced its fifth successful military coup since gaining independence from France in 1960. Soldiers stormed President Mohamed Bazoum’s residence in Niamey. Bazoum was detained, and in his place, General Omar Tchiani became Niger’s new leader. Since then, Niger has faced increased tension with France and heightened economic hardship as it becomes a center of conflict within West Africa. The role of ECOWAS in the events has come under particular scrutiny. As it approaches its 50th anniversary, questions are asked whether the organization is able to address regional challenges autonomously from external, particularly French and US, influence.

In the past few decades, West Africa has been at the intersection of multiple complex processes. Though diverse in size and economic structures, ECOWAS countries face consistent challenges regarding socio-economic development, poverty, and capital flight. These issues have had a negative impact on human development in the region. At the same time, Sub-Saharan Africa–and the Sahel region in particular–grew into central areas of interest in the Global War on Terror. Countries there were framed by the US and its Western allies as susceptible because of endemic governance issues. US and French interventions have vastly focused on security and counterterrorism above all else. Despite recent narratives of African growth, external interventions in the last three decades have prioritized authoritarian counter-insurgency over development issues. With this context, the movement of “France d’engage” can be classified as a rejection of what many movements see as securitized forms of intervention via neocolonialism. This rejection is directly tied into questions surrounding ECOWAS and its prioritization of West African interests.

Established in 1975, ECOWAS is an economic union containing 15 West African member nations. It was formed at a time when South-South economic integration was being promoted as a solution for collective self-reliance. At the same time, French neo-colonial economic and political presence is strong. Several ECOWAS members still adopt the franc as their official currency, limiting their monetary sovereignty. ECOWAS also contains countries endowed with incredible mineral and agricultural resource wealth, such as Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria. Yet many of those countries' populations also experience extreme poverty and deprivation, and usually fall in the medium low or low human development rankings.

ECOWAS also acts as a peacekeeping organization, taking action when a country within the group experiences political unrest. This has resulted in the suspension of multiple member nations over the years due to coups and other forms of political conflict. By July 2023, prior to the coup in Niger, Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso were suspended from ECOWAS. Burkina Faso was the latest to be suspended in January 2022 because of their own military coup.

Niger has experienced a similar fate within ECOWAS following Bazoum’s detainment and Tchiani’s takeover. By July 30, ECOWAS suspended Niger from the union, a form of economic sanctioning that also suspended commercial transactions between Niger and ECOWAS countries. Following this, Tchiani and his militants were given an ultimatum: reinstate President Bazoum within a week, or force would be used against the new regime. The deadline for the regime to comply came and went. By August 10, ECOWAS had ordered a standby force opposing the Niger coup. At the time of writing, this force continues to await orders from ECOWAS.

However, ECOWAS faces challenges beyond Niger because of the coup. On August 8, prior to ECOWAS’ declaration of a standby force poised for Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso declared solidarity with Tchiani’s coup. The former ECOWAS nations also warned that foreign intervention would be viewed as a declaration of war. This threat has become more prominent over the last month, as the EU prepares sanctions against Niger in line with ECOWAS’ own. However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell believes that, if the Niger coup is to be resolved, African leadership will be necessary. Which indicates ECOWAS must become a key force in resolving this political crisis.

In the midst of conflict between current and former ECOWAS countries, the economic union has been accused of coordinating with France to retake control of political power in Niger by reinstating Bazoum as President. On August 5, the French foreign ministry backed ECOWAS’ actions against the Niger coup. Then, on September 10, Niger’s Colonel Amadou Abdramane accused ECOWAS of working with France to amass troops in countries still part of the economic union. France themselves have 1,500 troops stationed in a Niamey military base, where thousands protested calling for their removal. France’s former control over Niger has no doubt sown historical seeds of discontent for the French military throughout the nation. So too has distrust in ECOWAS, who citizens of Niger now view as a possible puppet of Global North interests. As tensions continue to rise between Niger and ECOWAS, the economic union may need to find support from international allies like France. However, doing so could result in ECOWAS becoming a conduit for European action, instead of an organization meant to keep West Africa politically and economically aligned.

By September 24,  Macron announced the removal of France’s ambassador from Niger, alongside the nation’s military withdrawal by the end of 2023. While this has pleased many in the region, who have celebrated the departure of the French ambassador, it doesn’t close the door on possible international intervention through a partnership with ECOWAS. The organization could still be employed as a tool for European influence, even without France’s direct presence in the country.

Suspension resulting in food & economic insecurity

By suspending Niger, ECOWAS has also played a role in increased economic difficulties throughout the nation. Due to ECOWAS sanctions, the people of Niger have to rely on food within the country to stay fed. But, with food scarcity creeping in, some are unable to afford the ever-rising prices. In a video from DW News, customer Boubacar Abdoulaye expresses hope the new military regime will force shopkeepers to lower their food prices. However, even with the rising food costs, rice farmers claim all their profits are now being spent to maintain irrigation pumps.

The economic impact of ECOWAS suspending Niger has also been visible in neighboring nations. Local businesses in Nigeria depend heavily on cross-border trade with Niger, as 75% of Nigeria’s total value of exports come from Niger. Nigeria relies on trade with Niger to get livestock, other animal products, and corn. The price of all these resources have since increased across Nigeria due to ECOWAS sanctions. Nigeria’s reliance on trade with Niger means their lack of interaction will impact both countries’ ability to feed their people.

Another ECOWAS member, Ghana, is facing an onion shortage, driving up the price of the common West African vegetable. This is because Niger is a major exporter of onions in the region, as well as beans and millet. Due to the ongoing sanctions, some experts have raised concerns that West Africa could face an accelerated food crisis: onions and beans may only be the start. In early July, the World Food Program reported decade-high food shortages in West and Central Africa. With ECOWAS’ recent sanctions against Niger, food insecurity is likely to become an even more prominent issue in the region over time. This coupled with accusations of ECOWAS’ alliance with France underscores how seeds of major distrust for the union are being planted across the region.

Economic hardship overall in West Africa is likely to worsen as forces beyond ECOWAS directly respond to the coup. On August 23, Niger authorized troops in Burkina Faso and Mali to enter the country to defend it against any possible outside forces. By August 31, the Cabinet in Burkina Faso had approved troop deployment to Niger, wanting to defend the new regime against any possible threats. Defense Minister and Colonel Major Kassoum Coulibaly was quoted as saying Burkina Faso’s decision was made in the interest of counterterrorism. If Burkina Faso sees ECOWAS as a terrorist threat like Coulibaly’s statement indicates, then escalated conflict in the region appears likely.

Niger has been making even more moves in the region as of late too, ending a military deal with Benin on September 13. During a televised event, the military junta explained their decision stemmed from Benin’s status as an ECOWAS nation. Given the conflict between Niger and ECOWAS–alongside the impacts it’s had on the nation–Niger’s decision to cut military ties with Benin won’t be the final conflict the two groups engage in.

One of the core strengths of regional organizations like ECOWAS is their potential role in creating platforms for African solutions to African problems. The crisis in Niger has put that role to the test, given the multiple crises in the region and constant external pressures. The long-run credibility of ECOWAS will depend on its ability to maintain autonomy in West Africa rather than become viewed as an arm of European imperialism - as some in Niger already see.

Article or Event Link
Oct 14, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

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