The military rulers of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have banded together in a joint defence pact to fight jihadists and present a united political front in their declared aim to restore sovereignty.Against a backdrop of a bloody jihadist insurgency in West Africa’s Sahel region that erupted in northern Mali in 2012, later spreading to Niger and Burkina, all three have also undergone coups since 2020.After the July ouster of Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed tough sanctions on Niger, demanded a rapid transition to civilian rule and left on the table the option of military intervention.Mali, Burkina and Niger set up the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) in September, binding them to assist one another including militarily in the event of an attack on any one of them.While the alliance’s prospects remain largely unknown, the AES seemed to hold together at a recent summit of West African leaders, even in the face of diplomatic pressure.”This phantom pushback alliance appears intended to divert attention from our mutual quest for democracy and good governance,” Nigerian President Bola Ahmed Tinubu told the ECOWAS meeting.- Fighting jihadists -The coups in Mali, Niger and Burkina saw relations nosedive with former colonial power France and a pivot towards greater rapprochement with Russia. French troops have been ordered to leave the countries, heightening fears that jihadist violence will spread southward.The AES binds the three nations to work to prevent, or settle armed rebellions, with the “fight against terrorism” a priority.”We’ve often said in the past that the political will (to combat jihadism) has to come from the states most affected,” Jean-Herve Jezequel, Crisis Group’s project director for the Sahel, said.”With the AES, this is undeniably the case today.”However, questions remain as to the operational feasibility of the task.- Economic shortfalls -“We can’t afford the luxury of a long-term war in the Sahel,” Malian politician Babarou Bocoum said.”None of these three countries have ports or sufficient capacity to create wealth.”The sanctions and suspension of international finance and aid have left the economy of Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, hanging by a thread.The military regime in October announced a 40-percent cut in the 2023 budget due to “heavy sanctions imposed by international and regional organisations”.Mali has faced similar economic sanctions from ECOWAS but the World Bank has said its economy has proved “resilient” under the measures.While the Sahel pact is first and foremost a security alliance, Burkina’s transitional president Captain Ibrahim Traore has said it could be extended to economic development.Officials plan to make “our spaces a single space (where) we can come and go, trade and defend”, he said. Russia, meanwhile, has recently sought to strengthen military and economic ties with Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey, although the extent of the support is yet to be seen.- Limits of ‘anti-colonial rhetoric’ -The military leaders who took power after coups have all declared a desire to restore sovereignty and self-determination in their countries.But the tone of the alliance has so far been met with trepidation.”To gain support for their adventurous project, these military regimes are employing anti-colonial rhetoric, propaganda and the portrayal of their action as a liberation movement,” Omar Alieu Touray, president of the ECOWAS Commission, said.In the face of ECOWAS sanctions, Niger’s military junta chief General Abdourahamane Tiani praised the “support of brotherly and friendly countries” Mali and Burkina for allowing the people of Niger to “have remained on their feet”. Jezequel, the analyst, pointed to the limits of using sovereignty rhetoric, cautioning that although it could mobilise support among a population, it would not “meet the need for basic services”. “These states will come up against this reality sooner or later,” he said.But analyst and former member of the Niger military, Amadou Bounty Diallo, argued that the alliance was not a rejection of the international community but a necessary step towards economic development. “These three countries have recognised that unless they take charge of managing their own resources, it will be virtually impossible to escape from poverty,” he said.