• Sunday, April 21, 2024
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BusinessDay

On Russian influence in the Sahel and ECOWAS exit

The majority of us find it difficult to see any need in investing precious time and resources in inculcating these values in our children.

Last week, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso announced they were leaving the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A move that comes as a setback for both the continent and the bloc, which has promoted economic integration in the region for decades. While the three nations were part of the founding members, the military governments have said it was a “sovereign decision” to withdraw from the bloc. They accuse ECOWAS of falling under foreign influence, betraying its founding principles, and posing a threat to member states and their populations. They added that the bloc had failed to help them tackle the jihadist violence in their countries.

For anyone who cares to read between the lines, there is a brewing geopolitical crisis in West Africa demanding a strategic and collective response to prevent further escalation. Not too long ago, we saw how military coups erupted in the Sahel states one after the other. In 2020, it was Mali, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger last year. In the bid to restore democratic governance to these countries, ECOWAS suspended and urged them to return to democracy, but as our people will say, the dog that will go astray will not heed the hunter’s whistle.

This is the situation with these three junta-led nations. Unfortunately, their actions will have implications for their people and the region because aside from being landlocked, they do not have the resources or wherewithal to isolate themselves and their increasing reliance on Russia for military support and economic aid, in exchange for access to their gold reserves, marks a significant geopolitical shift.

This unprecedented move since ECOWAS’s inception in 1975 could further destabilise the region, with violence spreading to relatively peaceful states such as Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast.

ECOWAS has stated that the three countries had not formally notified the institution of the withdrawal and emphasised its commitment to finding a negotiated solution to the political impasse. However, the exit of these nations could escalate tensions and further weaken the West African region, which has already been struggling with democratic retreats and insecurity. As a vast semi-arid region extending along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the Sahel has become a terror hotspot around the world, accounting for 43% of world terrorism deaths in 2022.

Read also: Niger’s junta embraces Russia, leaving Nigeria watching nervously

This unprecedented move since ECOWAS’s inception in 1975 could further destabilise the region, with violence spreading to relatively peaceful states such as Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast.

What can we do to save this dance on the brink?

Under the ECOWAS treaty, a member state’s withdrawal requires a year’s notice, at the end of which such a state shall cease to be a member of the community. There is still no clarity on when the withdrawal will take effect, and how it will affect the freedom of movement and goods to these landlocked nations, which rely on ECOWAS ports to import and export. But we know for sure that this will put their economies and their people at risk.

The situation presents ECOWAS with the challenge of engaging these nations diplomatically, amidst growing Russian influence. According to the Blood Gold Report, In Mali, Russian mercenaries are compensated generously by the junta, highlighting the complex dynamics at play. The report presented a US Intelligence finding that cash payment of US$10.8 million is paid to the mercenaries per month, as they rely on a few international mining companies for the majority of their tax revenue. Canada’s Barrick Gold – the country’s top taxpayer – paid US$206 million to the junta in the first half of 2023 alone.

Read also: What Nigeria can learn from Russia’s gas strategy

This arrangement raises concerns about the sustainability of such partnerships and their impact on regional security and economic stability. For the next 12 months at least, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger will have to continue to stay in the bloc until the withdrawal officially comes into effect. We expect this to potentially complicate border management and affect the livelihoods of their populations. More than that, this development poses a significant threat to the African vision of regional integration.

The western governments need to recognize these events as Russian hybrid warfare in Africa and respond strategically and quickly before it festers beyond repair. As a whole, the AU needs to unite against this cancerous situation in West Africa and not leave it up to ECOWAS alone. It is urgent that all hands be on deck for a peaceful resolution to this problem.

While it seems like Ibrahim Traoré, Assimi Goïta and General Omar Tchiani are having the time of their lives with Moscow’s support, they are digging a hole for their people and engaging in actions that have negative consequences in the long term for the region. No matter how long this music plays, it will end.