Can Senegal’s Faye play peacemaker and help a splintered divided ECOWAS?

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Nearly a year ago, West Africa seemed alarmingly on the verge of war. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was threatening “military intervention” in Niger if the leaders of the country’s July 26 coup did not immediately relinquish power and free President Mohammed Bazoum.

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After the military government in Niamey failed to respond, ECOWAS activated a standby force, raising alarm bells across the region as citizens began to protest the move.

Burkina Faso and Mali – Niger’s fellow military-led neighbours who were already suspended from the bloc – joined with Niamey to form the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and pledged to defend against any attacks, threatening to widen the conflict.

Tempers then calmed, but only slightly. ECOWAS backtracked, instead slapping crippling sanctions on Niger, blocking its land and air borders, cutting off electricity supply from neighbouring Nigeria, and freezing commercial transactions. On January 29, the AES states jointly declared their exit from the ECOWAS, sending shockwaves through the regional bloc that was already seen as weak.

Since, ECOWAS leaders have been scrambling to get the AES back into the bloc by lifting sanctions on Niger; but that has, thus far, failed to appease the alliance before a January 2025 deadline, when the divorce will be official. The bloc’s fracturing, experts have said, could roll back more than five decades of regional diplomacy, disband military cooperation amid rising insecurity in the region, and cripple economic ties.

As both sides standoff, Senegal’s recently elected President Bassirou Diomaye Faye has attempted to play a “soft” peacemaker, urging ECOWAS to respect states’ sovereignty, and prompting military government leaders to accept dialogue.

“I am nobody’s mediator,” Faye, who does not have an official ECOWAS mandate to resolve the crisis, clarified during a tour of the AES countries in May. But the region’s multiple crises, he pointed out, require collective effort. “We must join forces to tackle common challenges such as terrorism, climate change, and poverty,” he said.

Faye is particularly well placed to reconcile the bloc because he was not yet in office last year when ECOWAS threatened to invade Niger and enjoys goodwill from the military trio, Olakounle Yabi Gilles, head of the West Africa Citizen think tank (WATHI), told Al Jazeera.

“He enjoys credibility already given the special circumstances around his election.”
Faye’s peace mission
Faye, 44, was sworn in on April 2, following one of Senegal’s most tumultuous elections. Outgoing President Macky Sall had delayed general elections in a move widely seen as an attempt to cling to power, forcing ECOWAS to hold emergency meetings during which leaders pressured Sall to stick to a set election timetable. Faye and his ally Ousmane Sonko, who is now prime minister, won a landslide in the March elections.

In May, Faye paid respects to his much older counterparts in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, and touched on the sore topic of ECOWAS’s impending breakup, pointing out the need for unity to tackle mass immigration, insecurity and democratic rollbacks in the region as AES members have pushed back election dates.

“Your wisdom and your democratic values should be an asset … and my youth and determination can also be an asset,” Faye told President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria, the current ECOWAS chair, in Abuja. “I am convinced we can open a window of opportunity to discuss.”

Tinubu, who led the initial charge to invade Niger but met unexpectedly strong resistance domestically, urged Faye to “meet those other brothers to persuade them to come back to the fold”.

However, experts have said there are significant challenges for Senegal’s president, a new face in regional diplomacy. AES leaders have pledged to push ahead with their plans. In March, the countries’ military chiefs said a joint force was in the works to combat armed groups in the tri-border region of Liptako-Gourma.

Protesters in Mali
A supporter of the Alliance Of Sahel States holds a placard reading ‘down with ECOWAS, long live AES’ during a rally to celebrate Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger leaving ECOWAS, in Bamako on February 1, 2024 [Ousmane Makavli/AFP]
In April, after Faye touched down in Mali and held talks with the interim president, Colonel Assimi Goita, he told reporters that Goita was rigid, but “not totally inflexible” on ECOWAS. He reported a similar atmosphere after speaking to Burkina Faso’s military leader Captain Ibrahim Traore in Ouagadougou. “We must not be discouraged,” Faye told reporters in Bamako.

Analysts have said the peace mission is important to Faye and his fiery Prime Minister Sonko because they share the same views on former colonial power, France.

“Sonko has personal relations with some AES leaders,” said Alioune Tine, founder of Dakar-based think tank Afrikajom Center. “They are all of the same generation and also share sovereignist ideas.”

Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou have already cut or downgraded ties with France since 2022, sending back more than 4,000 troops and recruiting Russian mercenaries amid a surge in violence by ISIL (ISIS) and Al Qaeda-linked groups that control swaths of territory. In May, Sonko also raised the possibility of shutting French army bases in Senegal which housed about 350 troops.

Senegal’s historical peacemaker role is also a factor influencing Faye’s push, Gilles of WATHI added.

“Senegal has always enjoyed a role of mediator, especially in The Gambia,” he said, referring to when Dakar led the ECOWAS military mission that deposed Yahya Jammeh who refused to step down after his election loss in 2017.

It’s that big brother role that Faye is trying to revive, Gilles said, as Abuja founders.

When the 16-country ECOWAS was created in 1975, it aimed to boost economic integration. But as it strengthened, its mandate broadened to include peacekeeping and enforcing the rule of law. Mauritania’s unexplained exit in 1999 makes current membership 15.

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In its heyday, ECOWAS proved a formidable force, experts note. Nigerian-led ECOWAS troops were pivotal in taking back rebel-held territories and ending the devastating civil wars that racked Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, representing what is widely seen as the first effective regional security initiative on the continent.

But a recent wave of military coups in the region, internal insecurity and politico-economic instabilities in dominant member states like Nigeria have decimated ECOWAS’s strength and shrunk its influence, experts have said.

It was that age-old glory, some speculate, that a then-newly elected President Tinubu of Nigeria appeared to want to revive last year when he led the charge to invade Niger.

Tinubu himself was a freedom fighter during Nigeria’s coup era. When he accepted to chair ECOWAS on July 9, 2023 – days before the Niger coup – there had been five coups in the region since 2020. He promised to shed the bloc’s “toothless bulldog” image, but his actions backfired.

Not only did Tinubu meet uproar on the homefront as Nigerians baulked at the thought of war amid a biting economic downturn, but the fact that ECOWAS eventually backtracked further made it look like a dog without bite, wrote Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group.

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Analysts have said ECOWAS looks set to be on the back foot in the looming split. The AES countries combined contribute a small 8 percent of ECOWAS’s $761bn gross domestic product, but they have a population of more than 80 million – about a quarter of the bloc’s total. Continuing transnational security pacts are also at risk, including the Multinational Joint Task Force of Nigeria and Niger, which is fighting the armed group Boko Haram.

Nigeria, in particular, would be hit hard. Abuja is a lead contributor to ECOWAS’s peacekeeping missions and hosts the ECOWAS Administrative headquarters, Parliament, and Court of Justice. For decades, Nigeria’s power in ECOWAS has helped cement its influence not just in the region, but on the continent as a whole.

Economic and familial ties with AES member Niger means Nigerian border communities were some of the worst affected during last year’s crisis and would be again if the split becomes permanent.

The AES, meanwhile, may suffer fewer economic consequences, analysts said. All three are part of the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), a francophone community for countries that share the common CFA currency. Like ECOWAS, the countries – Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – also enjoy low trade tariffs and free movement, meaning any visa or trade restrictions from ECOWAS could be bypassed fairly easily. Landlocked Niger, which is dependent on Nigeria for electricity and agriculture exports, could be the only exception.

Despite Faye’s best intentions, the AES states have few incentives to rejoin ECOWAS, and thus, their bullish stance. In May, Mali and Burkina Faso extended their transitional governments by three and five years respectively. Already, the alliance has said it does not recognise ECOWAS’s one-year policy for exits and claims its January withdrawal was immediate.

“But that should not be seen as a failure of Faye’s mediation skills or as a lack in his leadership qualities,” Gilles of WATHI pointed out, noting that the odds were not in Faye’s favour.

The way forward would be for ECOWAS to keep the door open to the AES countries, especially in the long term, and anticipate when democratic transitions may happen, analysts said.

To do so, some have suggested ECOWAS keep staff who are AES nationals, and invite the alliance to important meetings. ECOWAS defence chiefs met in Abuja on June 27 to mull over plans for a region-wide “counterinsurgency” force but AES countries shunned invitations to the meeting.

“The position of ECOWAS now should be: Let’s accept, let’s keep the door open, and let’s not confuse the politics of one temporary government with the larger interests of the citizens of those nations,” Gilles said.

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