The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been one of the strongest regional blocs in Africa. That was until Tuesday, when Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced they were leaving the 15-member organisation.
Now the local Brexit in West Africa has caught the attention of the African Union (AU). On Wednesday, the AU Commission warned that the "irreplaceable unity" of Ecowas must be preserved and African solidarity enhanced.
But the decision by the three, also known as the 'coup belt', to quit showed that Ecowas had been reluctant to listen to their concerns.
The chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, appealed to regional leaders on January 30 to intensify dialogue between the leaders of Ecowas and the three countries.
He vowed to intervene in the crisis by pooling all the support at his disposal to ensure the success of the "logic of brotherly dialogue, far from external interference from any quarter".
The decision to quit by the three countries, known as the Alliance of Sahel States, was made out of frustration at the sanctions imposed on them by Ecowas, which blocked trade, froze assets and cut off all communication with the outside world. The AU followed suit by suspending them from its activities. Gabon, Guinea and Sudan have also been suspended for leading coups.
So, what happens on both sides? Some experts say Ecowas is being exposed for its weaknesses. But it also shows that the three countries are willing to lose any privileges they have gained in Ecowas to be independent of the bloc.
This week, the US suggested the move was self-defeating, especially as Ecowas has in the past helped end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and forged useful economic links between countries.
"The decisions of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali are really unfortunate because it further isolates them from their neighbourhood," US Envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned on Wednesday.
"It isolates them from other democracies in the region and it shows that the actions they are taking are actions that are only in their interest, not in the interest of the people of these three countries. Being outside is not in their interest and it's not in the interest of their people," she added.
West African political analyst Tolu Ogunlesi says the exit of the three countries could be a mistake. He told the Nation: "The three countries will lose access to the Ecowas passport regime, which guarantees visa-free travel and free movement within the bloc."
"The countries are all landlocked, which means further isolation," Mr Ogunlesi added.
He was referring to Mauritania's decision to leave Ecowas in December 2000, after giving one year's notice in December 1999. Two decades later, in December 2019, Mauritania came back to sign a partnership agreement (covering trade and migration) with Ecowas.
"I believe these three countries quit so that they could concentrate on forging deeper ties with the North African countries of Libya, Algeria and Morocco,'' he said.
Ecowas, however, said it had not received any formal notice to leave the bloc. And it takes a year to be formally relieved of membership.
Mr Bulama Bukati, a Nigerian political expert, said that in the short term, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso's withdrawal from Ecowas would be their economic self-sabotage.
"Isolating oneself from one's closest neighbours amid economic crisis is profoundly unwise, and unfortunately, ordinary citizens who are led to believe that this action serves their interests will be the main victims. Moreover, these countries have no alternative to Ecowas, '' Mr Bukati told the Nation.
The action by these countries is also seen as a reversal of 49 years of sub-regional integration and would affect millions of citizens.
Flow of trade
If accepted, it would disrupt the flow of trade and services. It is also likely to hamper national support. Nigeria would put aside the issues of collective security and political instability that Ecowas had addressed to ensure peace in the region.
"There are going to be major distortions at the bloc level. But survival may also depend on the individual relationships these countries have with their neighbours, said Abdullahi Shema, a lawmaker in Nigeria's northwestern Katsina region.
The people of the northwest and some north-eastern states of Nigeria have cultural, economic and political ties with the people of Niger, for example, and Niger has been a major beneficiary of Nigeria's road, rail, logistics and security programmes.
At the launch of the Lekki Deep Sea Port in Lagos in January 2023, the Director General of the Ministry of Transport in Niger, Ms Tchima Moustapha, pledged that her country would abandon the Cotonou Port and start transshipping its cargo through Lekki in Lagos,
Former president of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents Mr Olayiwola Shittu doubts that the pledge to quit can be sustained.
"Niger will face the backlash more because it depends on Nigeria for electricity and trade. It is an ongoing development that we are watching," Shittu said.
Captain Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso accused Ecowas of dining with the West.
Farida Nabourema, an influencer from Togo, says countless people spoke out against the decision.
"But before you throw a stone, ask yourself if you appreciate living in a country where all your government's assets, including cash, have been frozen, where all food imports have been stopped to the point where the maximum you can withdraw your own money from the bank is less than $20, and where the price of goods has tripled due to shortages in a country where more than 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty,'' she argued.
“Imagine living in a country where you as citizens are the ones punished with embargoes and sanctions for over a year because of the weakness of your state institutions which led soldiers to find loopholes and take over by coups," Ms Nabourema said.
She suggested that embargos against the masses have never worked and are simply cruel.
A coalition of Civil Society Groups in Nigeria urged the authorities in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to rescind their decision.
Mr Auwal Rafsanjani, the Executive Director, of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre at a news conference in Abuja on Friday called on state and non-state actors in the region to intensify engagements toward ensuring a more united Ecowas.
Nigeria’s former vice president Atiku Abubakar advised President Bola Tinubu, the current chair of Ecowas, to deploy diplomacy with the AU and salvage the situation.