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West African bloc lifts sanctions on junta-led Niger

Published 02/24/2024, 08:38 AM
Updated 02/24/2024, 12:06 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) flag is pictured  in Accra, Ghana March 25, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko/File Photo

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) - The West African regional bloc said on Saturday it would lift strict sanctions on Niger as it seeks a new strategy to dissuade three junta-led states from withdrawing from the political and economic union - a move that threatens regional integration.

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met to address a political crisis in the coup-hit region that deepened in January with military-ruled Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali's decision to exit the 15-member bloc.

After closed-door talks, ECOWAS said it had decided to lift Niger sanctions including border closures, the freezing of central bank and state assets, and the suspension of commercial transactions with immediate effect.

In a communique it said this was done for humanitarian reasons, but the move will be seen as a gesture of appeasement as ECOWAS tries to persuade the three junta states to remain in the nearly 50-year-old alliance. Their planned exit would bring a messy disentanglement from the bloc's trade and services flows, worth nearly $150 billion a year.

The bloc "further urges the countries to reconsider the decision in view of the benefits that the ECOWAS member states and their citizens enjoy in the community," it said.

It also said it had lifted certain sanctions on junta-led Guinea, which has not said it wants to leave ECOWAS but like other junta states has not committed to a timeline to return to democratic rule.

ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray said some targeted sanctions and political sanctions remained place for Niger, without giving details.

STRATEGY RETHINK

Earlier, ECOWAS chairman Bola Tinubu said the bloc had to rethink its strategy in its bid to get countries to restore constitutional order and urged Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea "not to perceive our organisation as the enemy".

ECOWAS closed borders and imposed the strict measures on Niger last year after soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 and set up a transitional government, one of a series of recent military takeovers that have exposed the bloc's inability to halt democratic backsliding.

The sanctions have forced Niger, already one of the world's poorest countries, to slash government spending and default on debt payments of more than $500 million.

In its communique, ECOWAS repeated its call for the release of Bazoum and request for the junta to provide an "acceptable transition timetable".

Niger's coup followed two each in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso over the past three years, leaving a swathe of territory in the hands of military governments that have also moved to distance themselves from former colonial ruler France and other Western allies. The military also seized power in Guinea in 2021.

ECOWAS also imposed sanctions on Mali in a bid to hasten its return to constitutional order, although they were lifted in 2022.

© Reuters. Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo is received by ECOWAS President Omar Alieu Touray and Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf Tuggar during the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government on the political, Peace and Security Situation in the ECOWAS sub-region in Abuja, Nigeria, February 24, 2024. REUTERS/Marvellous Durowaiye

The three countries have called ECOWAS's sanctions strategy illegal and grounds for their decision to leave the bloc immediately without abiding by usual withdrawal terms.

The three have started cooperating under a pact known as the Alliance of Sahel States (AES (NYSE:AES)) and sought to form a confederation, although it is not clear how closely they plan to align political, economic and security interests as they struggle to contain a decade-old battle with Islamist insurgents.

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