The first question that comes to mind on hearing the joint announcement by military rulers Abdourahmane Tchiani of Niger Republic, Ibrahim Traore of Burkina Faso and Assimi Goita of Mali that they are withdrawing their countries from ECOWAS is, do they have the locus under international law to vitiate treaties signed and ratified by their countries’ constitutional authorities?
Their legal, political and constitutional standing in their own countries is dubious, to say the least. They seized power in some cases by overthrowing constitutional authorities and in other cases by sacking fellow military rulers. None of that makes them legitimate authorities, hence the pressure from ECOWAS, African Union and their own citizens to move towards a restoration of constitutional rule in their countries.
For a junta whose constitutional standing is dubious to seek to repudiate a 50-year old treaty, legitimately signed by the country and upheld by many governments since then, which also brought a lot of socio-economic and political benefits to the country, is reckless in the extreme. Besides, there is always a laid down procedure for withdrawing from international agreements. Countries around the world will never sign bilateral or multilateral agreements if they know that other parties to the agreement will wake up one day and abrogate them, without following the laid down procedure. The ECOWAS Treaty provides a procedure for exiting the regional organization. The three juntas failed to observe this in their pronouncements of January 28th and in their communication to the ECOWAS Commission on January 29th, 2024.
It is noteworthy that in the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 29, Nigeria and the rest of the West African community expressed regret over the three juntas’ unfortunate pronouncement. The statement also said Nigeria and other ECOWAS nations remain committed in their solidarity to the people of the three countries, knowing fully well that they remain favourable to ECOWAS’ ideal of championing regional integration. After all, it is very clear that the people of the three countries were never consulted before such a momentous decision was announced. It is certain that they would never have approved of it, knowing that regional integration and free movement of goods and persons has contributed immensely to their socio-economic well-being.
Since these crises began and escalated with last July’s coup in Niger that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Bazoum and clamped him and his family members in detention, Nigeria’s and indeed ECOWAS’ approach has been that of persuasion to convince the three countries to reconsider their position. Delegations upon delegations have been sent to engage them in dialogue towards a restoration of constitutional rule in their countries. The fact is that continued rule by unconstitutional juntas is a recipe for instability because it is an invitation to other adventurists to try games of their own. Even though the three juntas have so far proved to be recalcitrant and have resorted to many provocative actions, such as forming “military alliance” and inviting a foreign power to come to their aid, it was wise of ECOWAS leaders to keep open the doors of engagement with the three juntas.
Indeed, since the beginning of the crisis foisted by their unconstitutional takeovers of power in Mali in 2020, in Burkina Faso in 2022 and in Niger Republic in 2023, Nigeria and ECOWAS have made several overtures of engagement to the three juntas aimed at amicable resolution of the situations in line with extant ECOWAS protocols, including in some instances even capitulation to their point of view. In the case of Niger Republic for example, regional leaders dropped their initial demand for a restoration of President Mohammed Bazoum to power and are now only asking for his release from detention and a credible transition to civil rule program.
Unfortunately, the juntas tended to see accommodation as a sign of weakness on the regional leaders’ part.
This is doubly unfortunate because much more is at stake than just trade and integration. With respect to Niger Republic for instance, its junta leaders particularly need to realize that its closeness to Nigeria goes beyond ECOWAS. It transcends diplomatic or political relations between two countries; the two peoples are actually one, and cannot be separated by mere pronouncement of a putschist. The sooner junta leaders in the three countries quit their bravado actions and return to the path of sensible discussion with the ECOWAS mission of three Heads of State appointed last December to dialogue with them, the better for everyone.
– Tudun Doki, a retired diplomat, writes from Kano.