Niger, Mali, Burkina ‘irrevocably turned backs’ on West African bloc: Military leader

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Niger’s military leader on Saturday said that the people of his country, along with neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, have “irrevocably turned their backs” on the West African regional bloc.

The comments came at the first summit of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), which coup-hit Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso set up after pulling out of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) earlier this year.

“Our people have irrevocably turned their backs on ECOWAS,” Niger’s ruling general Abdourahamane Tiani told his fellow Sahel strongmen, who all came to power through coups between 2020 and 2023, at the gathering’s opening in the Nigerien capital Niamey.

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The three AES countries accuse ECOWAS of being manipulated by former colonial ruler France, with Tiani calling for the new bloc to become a “community far removed from the stranglehold of foreign powers.”

Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso’s military leaders have all sought to reject Paris’s influence, expelling anti-extremist French troops and turning instead towards what they call their “sincere partners” -- Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The three countries also said ECOWAS is not doing enough to combat extremist violence -- a recurring problem in the Sahel.

“The AES is the only effective sub-regional grouping in the fight against terrorism,” Tiani declared on Saturday, calling ECOWAS “conspicuous by its lack of involvement in this fight.”

Relations between the three countries and ECOWAS deteriorated considerably following the July 2023 coup d’etat which brought Tiani to power in Niger.

ECOWAS imposed heavy economic sanctions against Niger in response, and threatened military intervention to restore deposed president Mohamed Bazoum to power.

Those sanctions were lifted in February, but relations between the two sides remain frosty.

ECOWAS is due to hold a summit of its heads of state in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Sunday, where the issue of relations with the AES will be on the agenda.

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