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West Africa bloc lifts coup sanctions on Niger in a new push for dialogue to resolve tensions

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — West Africa’s regional bloc known as ECOWAS said Saturday that it is lifting travel and economic sanctions imposed on Niger that were aimed at reversing last year's coup in the country in a new push for dialogue as it also renewed calls on three junta-led nations to rescind their decision to quit the regional bloc.

The sanctions will be lifted with immediate effect, the president of the ECOWAS Commission, Omar Alieu Touray, said after the bloc’s meeting in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, that aimed to address existential threats facing the region as well as implore three junta-led nations that have quit the bloc to rescind their decision.

After elite soldiers toppled Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, neighbors shut their borders with Niger and more than 70% of its electricity, supplied by Nigeria, was cut off after financial and commercial transactions with West African countries were suspended. Niger’s assets in external banks were frozen and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were withheld.

The sanctions, however, emboldened the junta in Niger and two other coup-hit countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, resulting in the three countries forming an alliance and announcing the unprecedented decision last month that they have quit the 15-member bloc. Analysts have called their withdrawal the bloc's biggest crisis since its formation in 1975.

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The lifting of the sanctions on Niger is “on purely humanitarian grounds” to ease the suffering caused as a result, Touray told reporters. “There are targeted (individual) sanctions as well as political sanctions that remain in force."

None of the conditions earlier announced by ECOWAS for the lifting of the sanctions have been met, including its request for Niger's deposed president to be released from custody as well as a short timeline for the junta in Niger to return power to civilians.

ECOWAS also lifted a ban on the recruitment of Malians in professional positions within ECOWAS, and resumed financial and economic sanctions with Guinea, also led by a military junta.

The bloc also invited officials of the junta-led countries to “technical and consultative meetings of ECOWAS as well as all security-related meetings,” a major shift from its usual tradition of blocking coup-hit countries from major meetings.

“The authority (of ECOWAS) further urges the countries to reconsider the decision (to quit the bloc) in view of the benefits that the ECOWAS member states and their citizens enjoy in the community,” Touray said.

Saturday's summit came at a critical time when the 49-year-old bloc’s future is threatened as it struggles with possible disintegration and a recent surge in coups fueled by discontent over the performance of elected governments whose citizens barely benefit from mineral resources.

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, current chairman of ECOWAS, said at the start of the summit that the bloc "must reexamine our current approach to the quest for constitutional order in our member states.”

ECOWAS has emerged as West Africa's top political and economic authority, but it has struggled to resolve the region’s most pressing challenge: The Sahel, the vast, arid expanse south of the Sahara Desert that stretches across several West African countries, faces growing violence from Islamic extremists and rebels, which in turn has caused soldiers to depose elected governments.

The nine coups in West and Central Africa since 2020 followed a similar pattern, with coup leaders accusing governments of failing to provide security and good governance. Most of the coup-hit countries are also among the poorest and least developed in the world.

The sanctions against Niger and the threat of military intervention to reverse the coup were “the likely triggers to an inevitable outcome” of the three countries’ withdrawal from the bloc, said Karim Manuel, an analyst for the Middle East and Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

With their withdrawal, “the West African region will be increasingly fragmented and divided (while) the new alliance between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger fragments the West African bloc and reflects an axis of opposition to the traditional structures that have underpinned the region for decades,” Manuel added.

Chinedu Asadu, The Associated Press