From ECOWAS and G-5 Sahel Force to Alliance of  Sahel States: Russianisation versus African Solutions

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Nigeria’s President, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, GCFR, opened the 2-Day African Counter-Terrorism Summit on Monday, April 22, 2024 in Abuja, Nigeria. The summit, which has the solid backing of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), focused on ‘Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Institution Building to Address the Evolving Threat of Terrorism,’ in Africa. As chief Ajuri Ngelale, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, noted, ‘the objective of the summit is to enhance multilateral counter-terrorism cooperation and reshape the international community’s collective response to terrorism in Africa, while emphasizing the importance of African-led and African-owned solutions. The summit will provide a platform to review the nature and severity of the threat of terrorism on the continent.’

The holding of the summit was a welcome development for many reasons. It was held following the declaration of France and the United States as countries non-grata in the military cooperation domain in Niger Republic, Nigeria’s immediate neighbor with which bilateral ties are warmest and no case of territorial dispute. Due to ECOWAS’ policy of zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change of government, Nigeria-Niger’s warm ties have been seriously damaged. Secondly, the support of the United States and France for the ECOWAS policy of non-acceptability of unconstitutional change of government in the ECOWAS region created enmity between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, on the one hand, and France and the United States, on the other. The enmity has led to the withdrawal of French troops, as well as the announcement of the withdrawal of the US troops from Niger Republic. Thirdly, the departure of the French and American troops creates an opportunity for the Russians to replace them but which France and the US do not want to condone, hence their encouragement of the policy of Africa’s solution to Africa’s problems. But is terrorism more of an African problem than Euro-American problem? Is the movement of some countries from the ECOWAS to the G-5 Sahel Force, and then to the Alliance of Sahel States not because of international terrorism? Can Africa’s solution compete with the ongoing Russianisation in Francophone West Africa?  

Regional Bodies: Decline and Incline of Membership 

ECOWAS is Economic Community of West African States that comprises two Lusophone, five Anglophone, and eight Francophone, members. It should not be confused with the defunct Communauté économique de l’Afrique de l’ouest (C.E.A.O.), meaning West African Economic Community, and the membership of which was restricted to six Francophone countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). The six countries were encouraged to come together by France in order to act as a counter-weight to Nigeria’s influence in the West African region, in particular, and Africa, in general. France was, and is still, perceived to be a major obstacle to Nigeria’s foreign policy and strategic calculations in Africa. Put differently, France presents herself as a power in Africa, while Africa is considered the cornerstone and centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy.

In fact, France has been considered by Professors Rafiu Ayo Akindele and Bola A. Akinterinwa to be another Nigeria’s immediate neighbor by geo-political propinquity. In this case, France has a policy of preventing Nigeria from being able to influence the Francophone countries against French interests in West Africa, in particular, and Africa, in general. In the same vein, Nigeria does not want France to be able to use her immediate neighbours, in particular, and Francophone Africa as a whole, against Nigeria’s interests in the West African region and Africa. This is the bottom line of the so-called Anglophone and Francophone rivalry in intra-West African politics. In which way has this rivalry or misunderstanding accounted for the decline and incline of membership of the ECOWAS, especially in the context of the withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger from the ECOWAS? 

The G-5 Sahel Force Conjointe (in English, G-5 Joint Sahel Force which is simply generally referred to as the G5S), is a regional, intergovernmental organization set up in Nouakchott, Mauritania, during the summit of Five Sahel countries in 2014 to promote development and security. It was set up as an institutional framework to foster development and security among the Member States: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. However, the G5S is seriously challenged by terrorism and violent extremism that has also been aggravated by problems of weak governance, climate change, and deepening under-development. 

In response to these challenges, the United Nations came up with an Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and the G-5 Sahel Priority Investment Plan. In fact, the United Nations deployed a stabilization plan in Mali (MINUSMA). Like the UN, France came up with Operation Barkhane, a European Task Force, Takuba, in 2020, under the French Command. The European Union set up a training mission in Mali and two civilian missions in Mali and Niger the G5S itself has deployed about 5,200-strong counter-terrorism (Joint Force) to patrol their porous borders. 

And more interestingly, the G5S not only indicated its desire in 2020 to establish a 3,000-strong force to assist, but to no avail, the Niger Republic also specifically requested in March 2022 that Nigeria should assist in mounting another military force to combat the terrorists. There is nothing to suggest that Nigeria has positively responded. The non-response may be due to the fact that Nigeria is already taking an active part in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). Whatever is the case, all these efforts have not succeeded in containing violent extremism and inclining terrorism and the reasons are not far-fetched.

As noted by the International Peace Institute (IPI) in the relief, published on 12 April, 2022, the various external forces in the Sahel have different objectives: ‘reducing refugee flows into Europe, degrading Jihadist groups, improving local security forces, promoting multilateralism through the UN, reinforcing the EU’s security identity, and strengthening partnership with allies such as France and the United States.

As good as these motivations may be at the level of external forces, terrorism has been nonetheless deepening, prompting very deep anger at the level of the local people. The anger of the people has been to the extent that Operation Barkhane troops in a convoy became victims of mob and stone attacks in late 2021 in Burkina Faso and Niger. Besides, four American soldiers were also killed in Niger in 2017.

What is noteworthy about the G-5 Sahel group is that it enjoys the solid backing of France like the C.E.A.O. did enjoy. The strength of the G-5 group, however, began to wane as from 15 May, 2022 when Mali withdrew its membership from the organization. The Alliance was further weakened with the withdrawal of Niger and Burkina Faso on 3rd December, 2023. And perhaps most disturbingly, the Alliance moved nearer to its demise on 6th December, 2023 when the two remaining members, Chad and Mauritania, pointed to the imminent dissolution of the Alliance. One possible rationale for the gradual withdrawal of membership is the growing animosity vis-à-vis France, who is no longer seen as a helper, but as an exploiter.

It is useful to note that membership of the G-5 Sahel alliance is drawn from the West African region and Central Africa region with the membership of Chad. Additionally, it should be recalled that Mauritania was an original member of the ECOWAS but withdrew its membership of it in December 2000. Again, Mauritania came back to seek the status of an associate membership of the ECOWAS in August 2017. When Mauritania left the ECOWAS in 2000, it sought the membership of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in North Africa, but the AMU has not been functioning well to the extent that Morocco is now desperately seeking membership of the ECOWAS, in spite of belonging to the North African region. The foreign policy thinking in Nigeria is that Morocco is seeking to join the ECOWAS to be able to play the perceived destabilizing role of France and undermine Nigeria’s regional influence. 

It is against this background of conflicting interests of the external forces, on the one hand, and those of the local people, who are more interested in neutralizing terrorism in their region, on the other hand, that the G5S has no good future, that the withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger from the ECOWAS remains problematic, and that, most critically, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s convocation of a summit on security should be seen and understood as a desideratum.

Regarding the Alliance of Sahel States, it is the re-awakening of the three former members of the G-5 Sahel Force: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger all of whom, not only now have France as a common enemy, but also have announced the withdrawal of their membership from the ECOWAS. Interestingly, but disturbingly, their declaration of France and the United States as unwanted, at the level of military cooperation to fight against jihadist terrorism, has created a good opportunity for Russia to lay a new and stronger foundation for Russianisation in the West Africa region, especially that the United States has already announced its readiness to dismantle its drone military base in Niger and check out of the country. 

In this regard, how does Nigeria deal with this new development? The 2-day summit hosted by Nigeria last week Monday and Tuesday in Abuja came up with suggested African solutions to Africa’s problems. In this case, is violent extremism and terrorism peculiar to Nigeria or to Africa? If it is not peculiar to Nigeria and Africa alone, can Nigeria or Africa come up with extraordinary and miraculous solutions that supersede the international collective wisdom, as well as neutralize international terrorism and violent extremism? Has Russia more magical approaches than Western Europe, or the international community in addressing the challenges of violent extremism and international terrorism?

International, Russian of African Approach?

Without any whiff of doubt, the absence of both France and the United States from Niger, a very strategic partner to them in terms of exploitation of the country’s uranium and as a military base for the US drone assaults on terrorists and insurrectionists, cannot but create a vacuum that must be filled by any interested power. In this regard, Russia is currently making strenuous effort to establish and re-establish diplomatic missions in Africa in an attempt to strengthen Russian influence in the continent. 

For example, Russia wants to open diplomatic missions in South Sudan, Niger and Sierra Leone, while it is also re-opening its embassy closed down in 1992 in Burkina Faso. And true enough, for the purposes of coordinating on a more serious note, Russia has established what is now known as Moscow’s House of Africa which is designed to serve as a hub for Russian-African relationship in all ramifications.

              In this regard, can strengthening of Russian ties with Africa imply an end to international terrorism and violent extremism in Africa, especially in the Sahel region of West Africa? One major dynamic of violent extremism and terrorism is bad governance, political chicanery that is predicated on fraudulent democracy, constitutionally-protected election banditry, and presidential sit-tightism in Africa. Can this dynamic put a stop to extremism and terrorism? In the very context of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger’s withdrawal from the ECOWAS, the G-5 Sahel Joint Force and the establishment of a new regional group, the Alliance of Sahel States, can there really be any good solution other than to address the root causes? Can Africa’s solutions nip in the bud terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahel? These questions cannot but be also raised in light of the different international counter-terrorism approaches adopted so far.

Russia has done military cooperation agreements with 43 African countries, meaning that the majority of African countries, 44 out of 55, are already in the orbital cooperation sphere of Russia. The departure of the French and the Americans necessarily removes healthy competition between and among them. It also widens the scope of non-challengeable areas of Russian intervention in the conduct and management of the affairs of Niger. African leaders generally do not have fear of Russians. It is the Western leaders that do not want any jot of rivalry with Russia in several African countries. Yet, the problem of international insecurity is threatening humanity and no one has been able to find any lasting solution to it. 

At the level of international containment efforts, the European Union adopted a new foreign and security policy framework in June 2016 to deal with global insecurity. It was entitled Global Strategy for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union. It is predicated on four pillars and the focus was STRIVE, that is, Strengthening, Resilience to Violence and Extremism. Explained differently, the EU supports strengthening cooperation in order to counter terrorism and violent extremism, as well as building capacity for integrated approaches to countering terrorism and violent terrorism. 

The Organisation of American States (OAS), signed a Convention on Terrorism to prevent, punish, and eliminate terrorism by strengthening cooperation among Member States. As provided in Article 4 of the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism, adopted at the Second plenary Session on June 3, 2002 (vide AG/RES.1840 (XXXII-0/02), Member Signatories are to take necessary measures ‘to prevent, combat, and eradicate the financing of terrorism’ by particularly detecting and monitoring movements across borders of cash and seizing and confiscating funds and assets.

The approach of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is not all that different. The UNGA adopted in 2006 a New Agenda for Peace and Security that is implemented by the UN Counter-terrorism Task force. The Agenda seeks to enhance global peace and security through the building of trust, solidarity, universality and multilateralism, forging international efforts to counter terrorism and deepening investment in regional security at the national, regional, and international levels. In other words, the preferential approach of the UN is the use of soft power or soft approach. The use of soft approach is indirect in this case as the UN relies on the Member States to enforce the counter-terrorism measures.

Additionally, the UNGA approach is built on four pillars: ‘addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism; Preventing and Combating terrorism, Building state capacity for strengthening the role of the United Nations, and ensuring human rights and the rule of law.’ Like the UNGA, African Union’s counter-terrorism approach is also founded on a 4-P strategy: Prevent people from becoming terrorists; Pursue terrorists to stop them from attacking and escaping away; Protect the people against terrorist attack; and Prepare in order to minimize the impact of terrorist attack.

From the foregoing, Nigeria has four options to choose from: the UNGA, the EU and other great powers’ approach, the Russian approach, and the AU approach. In this regard, there is the need to reconcile the Abuja Declaration of the 2-Day Summit held last week Monday and Tuesday with other international approaches on how to counter terrorism. The Summit not only recalled the need to address the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism in Africa, as well as the ‘desire of the African Union to silence the guns on the continent by the year 2030, but also noted that ‘the spread of terrorism and violent extremism in different parts of the African continent poses a significant threat to peace, security, and stability in Africa, as well as hinder progress being made towards the achievement of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the AU Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.’

For these purposes, the Abuja Summit decided on four foci: pursue an African-led and African-owned approach to countering terrorism, strengthening regional and sub-regional cooperation; building capacities, especially of states more critically challenged by terrorism and violent extremism and encouraging prevention and adoption of effective counter measures (vide the Summit’s Declaration done in Abuja, Nigeria, 22-23rd April, 2024 by Heads of State and Government of Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, et al).  The contents of the Declaration are not in any significant manner different from the various suggestions hitherto made either by way of focus or measures to be taken.  This simply implies that the alleged African solution does not appear to have originality of its own and because it lacks originality, it is difficult to talk about African ownership.

In the face of security challenges like this, the ideal approach is to commission institutions like the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the National Institute of Policy and strategic Studies, various Departments of International Relations and Strategic Studies to first carry out preliminary research into the suggestions already made so far, find out what the causal factors for the failure of the suggestions, and then hold the type of Abuja summit as an outcome. Foreign policy is hardly informed by research. This is why Africa cannot but find it difficult to have an African solution that can be owned by it.

Put differently, one critical issue in intra-African relationships is the neglect of the dynamics of withdrawal of membership from regional and sub-regional bodies. A related issue is why regional and sub-regional bodies also become dysfunctional few years after their establishment. For example, the Communauté économique de l’Afrique de l‘Ouest (West African Economic Community), comprising six Francophone West African countries, was set up with the active support of France to counteract Nigeria’s influence in West Africa. The CEAO has gone into désuétude. Mauritania withdrew from the ECOWAS and joined the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).  The AMU today, is neither sick nor well to the extent that Morocco now wants to leave it and join the ECOWAS. The G-5 Sahel Joint Force is similarly on the path of self-extinction because of withdrawal of membership of three members. The same is true of withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger from the ECOWAS to form an Alliance of Sahel States. One constant rationale for withdrawals is complaint about insecurity and non-development. The French and Americans are leaving the Sahel and Russians are replacing them. Is the solution now Russianisation? Can African solution solve international terrorism and violent extremism, which stricto sensu is not an African problem? It is global. The solutions proffered as African solutions in Abuja are, at best, not different from what have been suggested internationally simply because of lack of research.

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