Alliance of Sahel States (AES): Yet Another Regional Bloc in West Africa

On 16 September 2023, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States (Alliance des États du Sahel – AES), a defence pact originally thought to back up the threat of retaliation against the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) if it militarily intervened in Niger following the coup. This was followed up with a more formal announcement on 8 February to leave the regional bloc, with accusations of the bloc having ‘lost its way’. Even more recently, in February, the group shared plans to create a tri-state confederation.

In their statement leaving ECOWAS, the three member states highlighted three major criticisms of the bloc. First, they cited that it had “drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism,” perhaps a veiled critique of the bloc’s approach to seeking resolutions. Second, they shared a belief that the bloc was now “under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, (and) has become a threat to member states and peoples,” which likely aimed at tying the body to former colonial master France, which has become deeply unpopular in their states. Third, the group accused the body of not supporting their fight against “terrorism and insecurity” and imposing “illegal, illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible sanctions,” which have led to increased hardship and uncertainty in those states.

The news prompted ECOWAS to lift the sanctions against Niger in a bid to deter mass withdrawal. Mauritania was the first and so far, the only country to exit ECOWAS in 1999; but it has since maintained a friendly relationship with the bloc. The establishment of the AES should bring up questions on the efficacy of regional bodies on a continent known for its proliferated and occasionally convoluted number.


New Ingredients, Same Soup

Africa’s substantial geographic expanse and complex history have resulted in its regional organizations assuming a disproportionately significant role compared to other global regions of the world. Regional organisations in Africa have historically reinforced legitimacy, for states and leaders, especially in the aftermath of a wave of independence and during a second storm of unconstitutional power grabs. They have provided platforms for dialogue and regional integration on a continent with mostly landlocked countries needing access to sea trade. Recently, the increasing acknowledgment of a correlation between stable governments and economic growth has led to more blocs taking on an increased role in safeguarding democracy on the continent.

But while these structures might have been fit for purpose in the past, they have not always consistently addressed the evolving challenges of citizens for different reasons. First, because of their role in legitimising governments, they have often been more accountable to the heads of state and government and not to the citizens. Second, these structures have often been based around the ambitions or priorities of member states, which means when these states find utility in bilateral trade agreements or other arrangements, the blocs become comatose – as seen with the largely moribund Arab Maghreb Union. Third, the heterogenous nature of these groups, owing to neighbouring states with different colonial legacies, means that there is often more internal debate going on around how these structures can actually function and not much to what common values and aims can survive domestic political transitions. 

It is with these concerns that initial evaluations show that the AES, despite its lofty ambitions, might already be bogged down by the shadows of the bloc it hoped to outrun. First, since the original unifying factor was being led by military regimes, a return to democracy would see leaders who might not be as invested in maintaining membership in the organisation. Second, because a major reason behind its formation was to protect a military regime in Niger, it is likely that any attempted counter-coup or clash over leadership succession in any of these states would lead to strained ties. This is not an impossible scenario - September 2022’s coup in Burkina Faso was the second in a year and led by younger officers, a very clear possibility as regimes seek to increase its rank and file. Third, in a world where the lines between domestic and foreign are increasingly blurred, it is very hard to see past a situation where the member states are landlocked and bordered by ECOWAS member states and the need to liaise with the very institutions they criticised when they left the bloc.


This should lead to the question of whether ECOWAS itself is an exemplar of what the AES aims to accomplish.


New Vehicle, Same Pathway

It is a fair case to make that even ECOWAS’ formation in 1975 was home to a strong coterie of military generals, including in these three member states and host Nigerian General Yakubu Gowon. However, the era of omniscient and infallible generals has changed. The Nigerien regime’s need to show scenes of mass support might have been directed at convincing regional allies of the popularity of the move to depose Mohamed Bazoum, but it was also designed to show a leadership accepted by the people. But the different leaders have all presented themselves as temporal leaders simply stopping the country from getting derailed.

There are questions on if the AES is the solution they seek. There can be no ignoring France’s extensive influence through its former territories and surprise ties with Bola Tinubu, Nigerian president and ECOWAS chair. But despite their aversion to ‘foreign influence’, AES countries have increasingly pivoted towards Russia and the Africa Corps, the rebranded Wagner Group. Increased ties have been established with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, in different sectors, that show a growing incursion of Russian influence. This does not show a bloc fully independent of foreign influence and, as experts continue to argue, it is unlikely that any rebrand will change its antecedents in the region, which cannot be as altruistic as the AES might argue. Furthermore, for all the criticism levelled against ECOWAS of being distant from the people it claims to serve, there is hypocrisy in the AES being formed without a referendum being conducted to ensure citizen participation. This could form the basis of any future government’s decision to withdraw. This might also affect representation and acknowledgment at international groups, such as the African Union that has increased its collaboration with the regional economic communities. It is hard to imagine ECOWAS member states acquiescing to AES becoming another grouping.

At the heart of this ongoing crisis is the fate of millions of people across the three member states and indeed beyond. But to be clear, there are potential victims on all sides of this divide. ECOWAS member economies will also rue the loss of qualified personnel from those countries and a potential strain on their humanitarian structures through notoriously porous borders. Furthermore, through the many bordering states, AES policies will affect those in ECOWAS’ member states and might be contrary to the different ECOWAS protocols that seek to harmonise standards across the region. It would complicate the already difficult work being done. 

Like many other regional blocs, ECOWAS faces an existential debate on how best to meet this moment in African relations, especially with increased citizen engagement and less dependence on state support. But it has done well in the free movement protocol and the result is millions of citizens, some living in neighbouring West African states, who will need guidance on these next steps. The brazen and quick nature of the announcement might be tied to this ongoing diplomatic bluff game between the bloc and these three suspended states, and a prompt resolution should now be a matter of urgency for ECOWAS’ leadership. The immediate impression might be that the three states have ‘won’ the blinking contest with ECOWAS, but there is far more at stake than the very temporal and ultimately useless claim to ‘victory' when there is more at stake.


In recent civil society meetings and online discussions, many have asked what it means to be a part of a bloc – especially for a new generation. For many in Niger, especially with the fear of an ECOWAS intervention, there are no fond memories or association with the bloc. The same can be seen online with criticism over its handling of Senegal’s recent election crises as well. What is clear is that West African leaders face an important question on how best to guide the bloc into an uncertain but ultimately promising future. Further fraction may not necessarily be a sustainable answer, but it should hopefully encourage necessary discussions worth taking place.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development. 


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