Sanctions backtracking aimed at de-escalating tensions

Ecowas, chaired by Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, has lifted sanctions against some of the military juntas in West Africa. Picture: AFP

Ecowas, chaired by Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, has lifted sanctions against some of the military juntas in West Africa. Picture: AFP

Published Mar 3, 2024


Dr Sizo Nkala

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) announced that it was lifting the economic and financial sanctions it imposed on the three suspended and military-ruled member states, namely Mali, Niger, and Guinea. Burkina Faso, another of the military-ruled Sahel states, is conspicuously missing from the announcement.

The new developments were communicated after the Ecowas Extraordinary Summit convened on February 24. The three countries were slapped with economic, financial, and diplomatic sanctions following the military coups that took place between 2020 and 2023. Mali was on the receiving end individual, group and institutional sanctions which effected a moratorium on the appointment of Mali citizens to the Ecowas institutions.

Earlier tougher economic and financial sanctions including the closure of borders and airspace were lifted on the country in July 2022 after the military leadership and Ecowas came to an agreement on the elections timetable which would facilitate the restoration of civilian leadership. The economic sanctions had Mali default on $300 million of debt payments as it could not access the regional market and was banned from the regional central bank. Guinea faced the wrath of sanctions following the military seizure of power in September 2021. The sanctions included the suspension of all financial transactions between Guinea and Ecowas financial institutions, the freezing of assets and imposition of travel bans on the members of the military junta led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. The July 2023 coup in Niger was also followed by the swift imposition of sanctions which entailed the closure of borders with Ecowas states, declaring a no-fly zone in Niger, suspension of commercial transactions, suspending electricity supply from Nigeria and travel bans and asset freezes for the junta leaders.

The sanctions precipitated an instant food and energy crisis in the poor desert country which imports the bulk of food and energy needs from Nigeria and Benin. In the days following the coup, Ecowas even handed a one-week ultimatum to release the deposed president Mohamed Bazoum who has been detained with his family in the presidential palace since he was ousted. The Ecowas Commission President Omar Touray said that the lifting of the sanctions was done strictly on humanitarian grounds and confirmed that individual sanctions against junta leaders still remain in force.

The lifting of sanctions comes almost a month after Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso decided to withdraw their membership from the regional body and form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES). The leaders of the new tripartite alliance lamented the “inhumane, irresponsible and illegal” sanctions imposed on their countries by Ecowas. The sanctions were used as measure to compel the military regimes to fast-track the transition to civilian rule in their respective countries.

However, they have clearly failed to achieve their objective as the military regimes in the sanctioned countries seem to be determined to hold on to power. They have been constantly shifting goal posts with regards to election timetables. Mali’s military rulers postponed elections slated for February 4 this year in September last year citing unexplained technical reasons. No new date was announced for holding elections. Niger’s junta government has not submitted a new election plan after Ecowas rejected its three-year transition plan in August. Guinea, which declined to be part of the newly formed Sahel Alliance and has not denounced its Ecowas membership, has been more co-operative with regards to planning for elections scheduled for December 2024. However, there has been a worrying lack of transparency in the election plans. The military leaders’ insistence on having a census and holding a constitutional referendum before elections makes it highly unlikely that the elections will go ahead as scheduled in December. This is especially so considering that a draft constitution to be presented at the referendum is yet to be produced. The sudden dissolution of the interim government on February 20 makes the prospects of holding elections even dimmer.

Perhaps by lifting the sanctions Ecowas is trying to de-escalate tensions and make room for diplomacy and negotiations. It may also be a decision motivated by the need to keep Ecowas intact following the move by Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to revoke their membership of the organisation and form a new one. While the economic impact of the three countries’ withdrawal may not be catastrophic as they only produce 8% of the region’s GDP, having an organisation of hostile countries at its doorstep would be a geopolitical nightmare for Ecowas which would also undermine its efforts to stem the tide of terrorism in the Sahel region. At the same time, lifting sanctions without democracy having been restored in the military-ruled countries makes the regional body appear to be lacking firm resolve. If the military juntas could not be hard-pressed to restore civilian rule by the toughest possible sanctions regime, they surely cannot be mollycoddled to do the same through diplomacy. If there are any onlookers planning their own coups in other countries in the region, they will be encouraged by the regional body’s latest stance. It seems Ecowas is moving towards the normalisation of relations with the juntas and accepting them into its fold.

*Dr Nkala is a Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL