Divided West Africa hosts two summits this weekend

Niamey, Niger — A divided West Africa hosts two presidential summits this weekend — one in Niger between Sahel region military regime leaders, followed by another in Nigeria on Sunday with leaders of a wider economic bloc.

Saturday’s summit in Niger’s capital, Niamey, will mark the first between the military leaders of a new regional bloc, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES).

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger set up the mutual defense pact in September, leaving the wider Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc in January.

Their ECOWAS exit was fueled in part by their accusation that Paris was manipulating the bloc and not providing enough support for anti-jihadist efforts.

The exit came as the trio shifted away from former colonial ruler France, expelling anti-jihadist French troops, and turned towards what they call their “sincere partners” — Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Given the deadly jihadist violence the three countries face, “the fight against terrorism” and the “consolidation of cooperation” will be on Saturday’s agenda, according to the Burkinabe presidency.

Sunday’s summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja then offers heads of ECOWAS states the opportunity to discuss relations with the AES.

Saturday’s summit

After several bilateral meetings, the three Sahelian strongmen are gathering for the first time since coming to power through coups between 2020 and 2023.

In mid-May, the foreign ministers of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger agreed in Niamey on a draft text creating the confederation, which the heads of states are expected to adopt at Saturday’s summit.

Niger’s General Abdourahamane Tiani welcomed his Burkinabe counterpart Ibrahim Traore in the capital Friday, while Malian Colonel Assimi Goita will arrive Saturday morning.

“Don’t expect many announcements, this is primarily a political event,” said Gilles Yabi, founder of the West African think tank Wathi.

“The aim is to show that this is a serious project with three committed heads of state showing their solidarity.”

In early March, AES announced joint anti-jihadist efforts, though they did not specify details.

Insurgents have carried out attacks for years in the vast “three borders” region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, despite the massive deployment of anti-jihadist forces.

The trio have made sovereignty a guiding principle of their governance and aim to create a common currency.

‘Path of no return’

Sunday’s summit comes as several West African presidents have called in recent weeks for a solution to resume dialogue between the two camps.

Notably, Senegal’s new President Bassirou Diomaye Faye said in late May that reconciliation between ECOWAS and the three Sahel countries was possible.

In June, his newly reelected Mauritanian counterpart, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, called on West African countries to unite again against the expansion of jihadism.

But successive summits on the same weekend raises fears of a stiffening of positions between AES and ECOWAS.

“I do not see the AES countries seeking to return to ECOWAS. I think it’s ECOWAS will have to tone it down (the situation),” Nigerien lawyer Djibril Abarchi told AFP.

While AES is currently an economic and defense cooperation body, its three member countries have repeatedly expressed their desire to go further.

At the end of June, Colonel Goita assured that cooperation within the AES had taken “a path of no return” during a visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital.

The potential creation of a new common currency would also mean leaving behind the CFA franc they currently share with neighboring countries.

“Leaving a currency zone is not easy,” warned Yabi. “Any country can change its currency, but it takes a lot of time and requires a clear political choice as well as a technical and financial preparation process.”

Issoufou Kado, a Nigerien financial expert and political analyst, agreed: “They have to be very careful, because the mechanism takes time.”

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