Why Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso Are Leaving ECOWAS

On January 28th, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger jointly announced they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS. This is a regional economic and political union of most countries in West Africa. Citizens enjoy free movement across borders of ECOWAS member states and many of its members share the same currency.  ECOWAS also seeks to uphold democratic norms, and each of these three countries are led by military juntas.

Now, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are setting up rival entity, called the Alliance of Sahel States.

Joining me to discuss the significance of this joint decision to exit ECOWAS is Ornella Moderan, a researcher and practitioner who’s been working in the Sahel and West Africa for nearly 15 years. She is currently a Research Fellow with the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. We kick off discussing the role of ECOWAS in West Africa, particularly the important, albeit imperfect, ways it seeks to uphold democracy in the region. She then explains why these countries left ECOWAS and what this decision means for the region, for Africa and for the world at large.

In the excerpt below, Moderan explains what the move by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso says about global trends around democratic backsliding and strongman politics.

Edited for clarity

Ornella Moderan: So trying to reframe this in a much more global light, I think, as you mentioned, this is a symptom of democratic backsliding in West Africa, but also more globally. And it’s also a symptom of the return of what I would call strongman politics — the notion that a good leader is very masculine, very aggressive, security-oriented, a kind of Putin, really. And it’s no wonder, I think, that countries in the Sahel, starting with Mali but increasingly Burkina Faso as well, are getting closer and closer to Russia — either to the Russian state as such or to private military companies like the Wagner Group.

I think another global trend that is playing out in the region and is a correlate of this strongman politics is the backlash against gender equality as well. This is something that is affecting societies in the region and not getting nearly enough attention, if you ask me.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Well, can you explain that a bit? What’s the connection you see between gender equality and the strongman politics that you’re seeing in those three countries?

Ornella Moderan: It’s part of the backlash against gender equality and inclusion as key liberal values, globally. This plays out through things like massive reversals in women’s rights. The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US would be an epitome example of that. Opposition to women’s rights, however, should not be seen as something random or anecdotal. It is actually one of the fundamental common traits between the figures of strongmen politics. You know, individuals like America’s Trump or Russia’s Putin or Hungary’s Viktor Orban have this point in common.

Similarly, in the Sahel — and even more so in the Sahel — where the social standard for gender equality is already quite low. In fact, the rise and return of strongman politics go hand-in-hand with a disqualification of women’s rights, which are perceived and presented as a “Western agenda” and therefore a neocolonial agenda.

The full transcript is available to newsletter subscribers. 

The full podcast episode is freely available.