West African foreign ministers held emergency talks on Thursday on the political crisis in Senegal and the withdrawal by three coup-hit countries from the regional bloc.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) extraordinary session addressed President Macky Sall's decision to delay elections in Senegal, just a week after Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger declared their departure.
ECOWAS Commission president Omar Alieu Touray said it was "the time we have been most challenged," calling the crisis in Senegal a "worrying development".
He urged the bloc to remain united as he spoke before the ECOWAS Mediation and Security Council in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
Senegal's foreign and defence ministers attended, but representatives for Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Guinea, all suspended from ECOWAS following coups, were not present.
Ministers were to hold private talks before ECOWAS makes a closing statement.
Crisis in Senegal
Senegal plunged into its worst political crisis in decades this weekend when Sall postponed the February 25 vote just hours before campaigning was set to begin.
Lawmakers voted almost unanimously in favour of the delay on Monday, but only after security forces stormed the chamber and removed some opposition members, who were unable to vote.
Observers expressed concern at events in one of ECOWAS's most influential and stable members, raising fears of knock-on effects in the region.
President Macky Sall announced he was postponing the February 25 vote just hours before campaigning was set to begin. File picture. By Amanuel Sileshi (AFP)
ECOWAS, the United States and European Union have urged Senegal to return to its election timetable, but critics have questioned the group's sway over increasingly defiant member states.
In a statement Tuesday, ECOWAS cautioned Senegal against jeopardising "peace and stability" during difficult times for West Africa -- but it was unclear what the bloc would do if Sall defied its warning.
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced their joint withdrawal last month, worsening a diplomatic headache for the bloc that up until then had 15 members.
According to a foreign ministry document seen by AFP, Mali has reaffirmed its exit "without delay" saying it was not bound by the organisation's one-year timeframe for leaving.
The turmoil has brought the almost 50-year-old bloc's broader role into doubt -- especially after its warning of military intervention in Niger last year fizzled out with no sign the country's toppled president is closer to being restored.
With its reputation at stake, ECOWAS's handling of the latest political upheaval is being closely watched.
ECOWAS can impose trade sanctions, as it has against Mali and Niger following their coups.
But the sanctions have hit citizens hard and military regimes remain in place.
ECOWAS cautioned Senegal against jeopardising 'peace and stability'. By John Wessels (AFP)
Experts also say that while Senegal may be playing with fire, it is still a long way off the stage where ECOWAS is likely to impose financial penalties.
"Sanctions cannot come in at this point," Idayat Hassan of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP.
"What can come in is more mediation," she said, expressing confidence in the power of the bloc's backchannel diplomacy.
ECOWAS has intervened militarily in the past, including in The Gambia in 2017 when President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing elections.
But University of Lagos politics lecturer Bamidele Olajide said it would "not be wise for anybody now to advance military action" in the region, expressing faith in ECOWAS diplomacy.