By Boureima Balima

NIAMEY (Reuters) – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, three West African states led by the military, signed a confederation treaty on Saturday, underscoring their determination to chart a joint course outside a regional economic bloc that has been urging them to return to democratic rule.

The signing took place at the first summit of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) and signals a closer alignment between the neighbours in the insurgency-torn central Sahel. Juntas seized control in a series of coups in the three states in 2020-2023 and severed military and diplomatic ties with regional allies and Western powers.

Niger’s military leader General Abdourahamane Tiani described the AES summit as “the culmination of our determined common will to reclaim our national sovereignty”.

Formalising the treaty to establish a confederation confirms the rejection by Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso of the 15-member Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS). Its signing comes a day before a summit being held by ECOWAS, which had hoped to persuade the three to reconsider their decision in January to quit the bloc.

“Our peoples have irrevocably turned their backs on ECOWAS,” Tiani said in a speech. “It is up to us today to make the AES Confederation an alternative to any artificial regional group by building … a community free from the control of foreign powers.”

It is not clear how closely the AES will harmonise political, economic and defence policies as it struggles to contain a decade-old battle with Islamist insurgents and grow economies that are among the world’s poorest.

In March, the three states agreed to set up a joint force to tackle security threats across their territories.

Their finance ministers said in November they would weigh the option of setting up a monetary union and senior officials have, to varying degrees, voiced support for abandoning West Africa’s CFA franc common currency.

ECOWAS has made diplomatic efforts to dissuade the three states from quitting the 50-year-old alliance. The split will reverse decades of regional integration and threatens a messy disentanglement from trade and services flows worth nearly $150 billion a year.

The falling-out is linked to the ECOWAS decision to respond to the trio’s coups with stringent sanctions and its unrealised threat to use force to restore constitutional rule in Niger last year.

Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso accuse the regional bloc of abandoning its founding ideals and giving too little support against the Islamist insurgencies that have killed thousands of people and displaced over 3 million more.

The policies of the juntas have reshaped international influence in the central Sahel, with the three states fostering closer defence, diplomatic and business ties with Russia at the expense of former colonial power France, regional heavyweight Nigeria, and the United States.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice)

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