ECOWAS lifts sanctions on Niger amid tensions in West Africa bloc

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The West African alliance holds Abuja summit amid political crises that have rocked the region.

The West African regional bloc is lifting most sanctions imposed on Niger over last year’s coup, in a new push for dialogue following a series of political crises that have rocked the region in recent months.

A no-fly zone and border closures were among the sanctions being lifted “with immediate effect”, the president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Omar Alieu Touray, said on Saturday.

The lifting of the sanctions is “on purely humanitarian grounds” to ease the suffering caused as a result, Touray told reporters after the bloc’s summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

The summit aimed to address existential threats facing the region as well as implore three military-led nations that have quit the bloc – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso – to rescind their decision.

The three were suspended from ECOWAS following recent coups.

Since then, they have declared their intention to permanently withdraw from the bloc, but ECOWAS has called for the three states to return.

Speaking in his opening remarks at the start of the summit, ECOWAS chairman and Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said the bloc “must re-examine our current approach to the quest for constitutional order in four of our Member States”, referring to the three suspended countries, as well as Guinea, which is also military-led.

Tinubu urged Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso to “reconsider the decision” and said they should “not perceive our organisation as the enemy”.

ECOWAS also said it had lifted certain sanctions on Malian individuals and some on junta-led Guinea, which has not said it wants to leave the bloc but has also not committed to a timeline to return to democratic rule.

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

Gesture of appeasement

Reporting from the summit in Abuja, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said, “Almost all the sanctions imposed on Niger have been lifted,” including land, sea, and air blockades, and sanctions barring Niger from economic and financial institutions in the region.

However, ECOWAS placed “some conditions” on the lifting of the sanctions, he added. “They want the immediate release of President Mohamed Bazoum and members of his family.”

Niger’s President Bazoum was deposed in a military coup last July, prompting ECOWAS to suspend trade and impose sanctions on the country. He is still imprisoned in the presidential palace in Niamey. On the eve of the summit, his lawyers urged ECOWAS to demand his release.

Earlier this week, ECOWAS co-founder and former Nigerian military leader General Yakubu Gowon also called for the bloc to lift “all sanctions that have been imposed on Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger”.

“Even before today’s summit, there has been a change in tone, in language and also the approach of ECOWAS entirely to the sanctions and embargoes imposed on these three West African countries,” Idris said.

Easing sanctions is seen as a gesture of appeasement as ECOWAS tries to persuade the three states to remain in the nearly 50-year-old alliance and rethink a withdrawal. Their planned exit would undermine regional integration efforts and bring a messy disentanglement from the bloc’s trade and services flows, worth nearly $150bn a year.

ECOWAS on Saturday gave the three military-led countries “an opportunity to be members of the organisation once again”, Idris said, adding that they asked them to be part of “technical discussions of the ECOWAS bloc” without restoring them as full participating heads of state at summits or major conferences.

After Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced that they would permanently withdraw from the alliance and formed a grouping called the Alliance of Sahel States, “the ECOWAS institution itself was shaken”, Idris said.

“[ECOWAS] is an organisation that is gradually losing its steam, and there is the danger of it being fragmented … There is also the concern that unless ECOWAS brings these people back into the fold, there is the danger of coups spreading in West Africa,” he added.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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