The Alliance of Sahel States: Initial Difficulties as a Resource for Development

On September 17, 2023 the transition leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter, instituting the Alliance of Sahel States.

On September 17, 2023 the transition leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter, instituting the Alliance of Sahel States. This happened in the midst of economic sanctions imposed on them by the subregion’s Economic Community of Western Africa (ECOWAS) and its threats to carry out a military operation in Niger. For the three landlocked nations, those sanctions had serious repercussions, aggravating the socioeconomic situation inside those countries and fueling the growing activity of terrorist groups there.

The Liptako-Gourma Charter suggests the Alliance of Sahel States pursues one goal only: establishing an architecture of collective defense and mutual support. While the first element of the goal is simple and clear, the proposition of mutual support is elaborated further on in the text. It is not only about defense against attacks by third parties, but also about the unblocking of roads, transportation hubs and strategic infrastructure, as well as about joint activities to stop armed rebellions by peaceful and forceful methods.

The emergence of a new military-political alliance overhauls the balance of power in the region, as it leads to the division of Western Africa into two blocs of states, with military tensions and sanctions pressure persisting between them. As the institutions and cooperation mechanisms in the Alliance of Sahel States are being established, competition with ECOWAS will be stiffening, which is a tall order to the leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger: moving forward towards their goals, while avoiding an open conflict with the Community. In this regard, existing difficulties in the formation of the Alliance can be seen not only as problems, but also as a way to achieve the long-term interests of the three Sahel nations.

The challenge of minilateralism

The main reproach against the Alliance of Sahel States is the lack of common institutions, supranational coordination bodies. However, it is likely that they will not be needed in their most common form. In recent decades, states have been increasingly reluctant to resort to forms of cooperation that involve formalized agreements, broad commitments and joint work for the long run. Because of the rapidly changing situation in international affairs, countries are in need of immediate solutions rather than forward-looking situations of mutual assistance and support by force when needed.

The new collaboration format has in recent years been dubbed as minilateralism: by reducing the number of participants, there is an increased likelihood of reaching agreements that will not remain declarative. Since cooperation is occasional and narrowly focused, this does not only cut the period of agreement and the required amount of resources but also the time span for implementation and the period of monitoring the commitments. [1] Simply put, minilateralism is relatively costless and allows one to quickly ascertain if a country has behaved in bad faith with respect to the agreements reached.

In this respect, the Alliance of Sahel States has a huge advantage over ECOWAS. The Economic Community of West African States has existed for almost 40 years and unites 11 states, even though the membership of Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger has been suspended. Harmonization of decisions in the Community has overgrown with bureaucratic inertia which takes time to overcome. Moreover, for historical reasons, ECOWAS lacks regulatory cohesion – a commonality of understanding on key goals and objectives. In particular, the Community has member states with specific positions on the situation in the region (Benin, Senegal, Togo). This only complicates the process of political bargaining: before agreeing on the amount of resources to be allocated, it is necessary to decide on the common interest and its specific indicators.

For its part, the Alliance of Sahel States has so far had a very flexible structure. By its very nature, the Liptako-Gourma Charter is a framework document that outlines a possible but by no means exhaustive list of possible areas for joint work. Moreover, harmonizing the positions of the three states is by definition easier than those of 11 actual members of ECOWAS. This is why, almost immediately after the Alliance was formed, its member states began coming up with initiatives to broaden the scope of cooperation. Thus, in November 2023, finance ministers of the three nations agreed on proposals to broaden the scope of economic cooperation and establish a committee to prepare proposals on a monetary union. Niger’s leader, General A. Tchiani, said in an interview: “Our union must develop in the political and monetary sphere.” Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister A.K. de Tambela was more ambitious, calling for “courage” in creating a full-fledged three-state federation.

Putting aside the inevitable revolutionary rhetoric sputtered by the leadership of the three states during the early years of their governance, a pragmatic line emerges as the mutually beneficial minilateralism is fostered as opposed to the multilateralism of ECOWAS. One of the Alliance’s upsides is that it may benefit from narrowly focused cooperation mechanisms (FX operations, border security, logistics corridors, technology transfer) and intensive inter-ministerial consultations as opposed to cumbersome supranational institutions and ambitious declarative goals of building democracy as the “collective dream” in ECOWAS. That is, although President Tinubu of Nigeria has referred to the Alliance as a “phantom union,” it is far from certain that this figure of speech will look too offensive in the medium term.

A candidate for the role of “intra-bloc dissident”

Many journalistic and academic publications seem to emphasize that July’s coup in Niger was part of the wave of ejecting legitimate governments in Africa. Among the reasons for an almost synchronized removal of national presidents and leaders they typically cite the growing self-awareness of people on the continent, an increased number of politically active youth, popularity of the narrative that highlights national sovereignty, and the accumulated effects of recent changes in the world order.

In my opinion, the coup in Niger has never been part of the pan-African wave of coups. Some differences are on the surface. While the current leaders of Mali and Burkina Faso are middle-ranking officers, it is mostly generals who are in power in Niger. If the leadership of Mali and Burkina Faso belongs to the largest ethnic group in the country, there is a balance of representation between different ethnic groups in the supreme body and government in Niger. While the factor of mass indignation over the inactivity of the authorities in fighting terrorism was decisive during the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, this factor was almost absent in Niger.

Standing out among the immediate causes of the coup are either a collective dissatisfaction of the military with the optimization of expenditures on defense and related sectors of governance, or individual dissatisfaction of senior military officials with the HR policy of President M. Bazoum.

However, an important variable largely ignored is the ethnic composition of the military and the inter-ethnic balance in the country. Since French colonialism, the military has been predominantly Zarma (Jerma), and even the capital was moved from Zinder to Niamey, closer to their areas of settlement. In contrast, the civil authorities were dominated by Hausa, one of the largest West African ethnic groups. [2] Since the Zarma constitute 20-21% of the total population and the Hausa more than 50%, military service soon became the obvious option for the Zarma to participate in the distribution of state resources. And for the rest of Niger’s ethnic groups, except for the Hausa, the presence of two competing ethnic groups guaranteed that political and economic benefits would be distributed more evenly and not in favor of the Hausa.

In sum, the Hausa-Zarma nexus has worked well for virtually the entire history of the independent Niger, and it has only been challenged twice. The first time – during M. Tandja’s second term (2004-2010) – when there was a bias in favor of the Fulbe (6.5% of the population), to which the president himself belonged. And for the second time, M. Bazum, who comes from Sahrawi Arabs, tried to shift the inter-ethnic balance under the pretext of establishing a more stable governance and “strengthening republican institutions”, to qualify for an IMF loan. Given the continued predominance of Hausa and Zarma in the state apparatus, both attempts ended in coups d’état. Interestingly, General Salifu Modi, the current member of the National Council for the Protection of the Homeland, was involved in both coups.

The differences in domestic political dynamics sharply distinguish Niger from the Sahel Alliance and have important foreign policy implications. Unlike Burkina Faso and Mali, Niger’s leadership has not succumbed to the allure of anti-Western rhetoric and not severed cooperation with the U.S.: America’s two military bases remain in the country, and a ceremony of credentials presentation by the new ambassador from Washington, K. FitzGibbon, was held in December. In addition, leaders in Niamey are still in no hurry to strengthen military and economic ties with Russia, although some agreements in this regard were reached during the visit of Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Evkurov to Niger. Finally, it is Niger that is most vigorously challenging the existing ECOWAS sanctions in the institutions of the Community and is still negotiating the lifting of existing restrictions. [3]

This raises legitimate questions about Niger’s role and prospects in the Alliance of Sahel States. Yet, there may be an obvious upside: just as modern Hungary restrains the most unrealistic impulses within the EU, Niger may initiate a discussion on restrictions, mutual guarantees, cross-commitments and other things without which any cooperation is doomed to lose its pragmatism and momentum. Moreover, Niger’s presence in the Alliance forms the basis for a minimum necessary pluralism that can have an important demonstration effect in the region: while ECOWAS’s position is largely determined by Nigeria as the region’s largest state, the Alliance already has the prerequisites for a more equal dialogue.


At present, the Alliance of Sahel States is just in its infancy. Even so, it has already generated considerable expectations not just in the Sahel but also in other parts of the world. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will soon face serious challenges, not only military but also socio-economic. Given the blockade by ECOWAS, practical steps will be required to demonstrate the seriousness of the three nations’ intentions.

Traditional concepts of politico-military and economic alliances do not fit the current situation in the Sahel and cannot be therefore realized. From this perspective, the Alliance of Sahel States can well become a “laboratory” of minilateralism, generating a unique experience when various formats of cooperation are negotiated on military and related topics. The balance between the revolutionary romanticism embraced by the leaders of Burkina Faso and Mali and the pragmatism preached by the leaders of Niger will play an important role in this regard. It is quite possible that the experience of the Sahelian troika will be useful for Russia in building relations in Eurasia and in the Asia-Pacific.

[1] Naim M. Minilateralism //Foreign policy. 2009. №. 173. р. 135-136.

[2] Isaev L.M., Ilyina A.M. Perestroika, Niger Style: Reasons for the 2023 Military Coup // Asia and Africa Today. 2023, No. 11, p. 15-22

[3] Ibrahim J. Political exclusion, democratization and dynamics of ethnicity in Niger // Africa Today. 1994. Vol. 41. №. 3. pp. 15-39.

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Ivan Loshkaryov
Ivan Loshkaryov
Ph.D., Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Political Elites, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Theory, MGIMO-University