West Africa: Ecowas and the Three Rebels

On Sunday, the coup leaders in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso announced the withdrawal of their countries from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In a joint statement, the three military heads of states said it was a “sovereign decision” to leave ECOWAS “without delay,” because of the “inhumane” sanctions imposed against their countries. They also accused ECOWAS of having “moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and Pan-Africanism”; claiming that the bloc is now “under the influence of foreign powers.” ECOWAS, according to the military leaders, “notably failed to assist these states in their existential fight against terrorism and insecurity.”

First, we must understand the desperation that pushed the trio of Captain Ibrahim Traore, General Abdourahmane Tchiani and Colonel Assimi Goita to take the action they did. Their three landlocked countries have been under tremendous domestic pressure since being suspended from ECOWAS: Mali in 2020, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger last July. The military rulers signed a defence pact, Alliance of Sahel States founded on the Mafia code of ‘one for all and all for one’ and severed military and cooperation ties with France, their former colonial power. They have now turned to Russia, long seeking a foothold on the continent.

Before I deal with the Russian angle, let me state that this is a problem for us in Nigeria only to the extent that we are seen as leader of the sub-region. President Bola Tinubu is also the current ECOWAS Chairman. Yes, there is a lot to say about a whimsical approach to serious problems becoming emblematic of the current Tinubu administration. And I am aware of the enormous economic and security challenges that plague our country. But Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, three countries that collectively account for 8% of the $702 billion ECOWAS Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are not being helped by their military adventurers on this issue.

Not many people remember but ECOWAS was founded by 16 members comprising former British, French, and Portuguese colonies within the subregion. In 2000, Mauritania withdrew its membership in preference for the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) which it had joined, even when there was nothing stopping the country from belonging to two regional bodies. It did not take long before Mauritanians begun expressing regrets. Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghef, a former Prime Minister (2008-2009), has deemed his country’s withdrawal from ECOWAS ‘a big mistake.’ Of the 54 African countries, according to Waghef, 27 are members of two regional groupings, 18 belong to three groupings and one country is a member of four groupings hence “we have the right to belong simultaneously to two sub-regional organizations (ECOWAS and AMU).” With that opportunity lost, Mauritania is back today in ECOWAS but as an associate member.

Meanwhile, the main ECOWAS challenge for Nigeria is in Niger where President Tinubu is walking a tightrope. Last November, the Northern Senators Forum (NSF) issued a communique indicating quite clearly that there is no consensus in Nigeria as to how to deal with the Niger coup. “The Northern Senators Forum asks ECOWAS to lift restrictions on Niger Republic in the interest of business at our border communities. It is important that Nigeriens should not suffer as a result of coup in their country just as we are seeing what is happening in Gaza,” said NSF Chairman, Abdul Ningi, who read the statement after their meeting. “We call on Niger and Nigeria that we remain brothers, we remain partners and we remain Africans.”

There are other complexities and sensitivities the president must understand. The Nigeria-Niger border is 1,608 kilometres long and traverses seven states: Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Jigawa, Yobe, Katsina and Borno. People in these states engage in open trade across borders and their livelihood is dependent on transactions that are now hampered. Tinubu’s immediate predecessor, President Muhammadu Buhari, we must also remember, admitted openly that Niger is a second home for him. So, already there is domestic pressure that relations be normalised with Niger. General Abdourahmane Tchiani understands these dynamics strengthen his hand and perhaps explains why he is playing hard ball. That’s also why President Tinubu (and by implication, the ECOWAS he chairs) cannot afford to be rigid. At some point, there will have to be a compromise. And whatever goes for Niger must go for Mali and Burkina Faso.

Now to the Russian angle. In an interview with ARISE NEWS on Monday, former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, argued that Russia may be “emboldening these three countries to break up ECOWAS as part of the attempt to weaken what one will call the western influence in this part of the world.” Yet, according to Akinyemi, “Russia has not shown that it has the capability to help these three countries to combat the jihadists, the Tuaregs, the ISIS who are running wild in the Sahel.” To the respected diplomat, Nigeria and the regional bloc now contend with a crisis, essentially “because these three countries, in terms of landmass, that’s about half of ECOWAS. So, we’re not dealing with just a little hiccup on our hands.”

Regarding allegations by the three countries that ECOWAS is being teleguided by foreign powers, Akinyemi said it was clear what they mean. “You know the power that they are referring to, and presumably, the fact that our president is in France at the moment kind of reinforces this fear in their minds that the ECOWAS policies are actually French policies,” said Akinyemi. “We’re going to need some clever steps, diplomatically on this matter, and I think that ECOWAS needs some fast thinking to make sure that this situation does not get out of hand.”

I am aware that Russia is investing considerable resources (mostly non-financial apart from wheat donations) to gain a stronger foothold in a number of African countries. Russia has been deploying two vehicles: Military through the Wagner mercenary group and media propaganda, especially against France. In practically all the French speaking countries on the continent, local social media influencers are being contracted to spread pro-Russia (and anti-France) propaganda. “I manage the cyberwar, the media war… and (the late Wagner leader, Yevgeny) Prigozhin conducts military activities,” Luc Michel, who heads the media machine told BBC two years ago. “I think that Russia must replace the French in all of Africa.” So, obviously, there is no altruism in the Russian intervention in these countries.

After almost 50 years, ECOWAS has become part of the political and economic lifeblood of the subregion. To that extent, Nigeria’s very strategic importance and political stability are tied to the survival of the regional bloc. The leadership role we play makes the threat to its existence a serious matter. Therefore, the challenge of the moment requires deft diplomatic leadership that is inclusive and multicultural. That is the best way to neutralize the departure of France from the affected countries. As for the Russian meddlesomeness, it can be dealt with as part of the global anti-authoritarian drive. That of course presupposes strengthening our democracy at home and working for the peace and prosperity of our people.

Nigeria, 105 Years Ago…ll

In the first part of this series started last week, I excerpted from ‘The Nigeria Handbook 1919 (Issued with the approval of the Nigerian Government)’–a 304-page publication which contains ‘Statistical and General Information respecting the Colony and Protectorate’. The main idea was to draw lessons from the Nigeria of 105 years ago. Although I promised to continue the excerpts, I no longer see the need for it given the feedback I received. Most of the mails centre around our colonial experience and ‘where the rain started to beat us’ which, for me, cannot be a justification for our failings. I do not discount the harm of colonialism, but I believe Nigeria is what it is today because of the choices made in the past 63 years.

The Republic of Cyprus was not only colonised like Nigeria but also shares with our country the same Independence Day: 1st October 1960. Like Nigeria, Cyprus has faced wars, military coups and all manner of disruptions, instigated from within and without. But unlike Nigeria, the Eastern Mediterranean Island has done relatively well for itself. In practically all development indicators, Cyprus has fared far much better than Nigeria. So, we cannot continue to cite our colonial experience as reason for the rot in our society. The paradox, as I have written in the past, is that while Nigeria may not be doing well as a country, many of our citizens are doing well as individuals–both at home and in the Diaspora. There is hardly any compilation of the Global 100 in any sphere of human endeavour that does not include at least one Nigerian. That has been the consistent pattern no matter the metrics used and regardless of the field profiled.

Interestingly, my young friend, Ejiro Oghenechovwen, who until recently worked with the Nigeria National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPCL), seems to understand the essence of my intervention. And I crave the indulgence of readers to publish his mail before I conclude. “I have just finished reading your column on ‘Nigeria, 105 years ago’. I am particularly jolted by your comment that there was no conscious effort at nation building by Nigeria’s postcolonial leaders. Beyond it being painfully true, it strongly suggests that not even national or subnational government and governing processes (which we aren’t even doing well in) are sufficient for a pluralistic country like ours.

“I am delighted that the compiler of the 1919 handbook under reference admitted that organization and order were existent in precolonial Nigeria, contrary to the widespread Western view of an inherently savage and barbaric Africa. Furthermore, hearing a then-active participant in the country’s blossoming political process describe the obtainable government structure as indirect rule is, to me, liberating, as I had always believed that the term was coined in retrospect by future historians. Interestingly, I find astonishing your statistical comparison of the elements of the trade balance between the period covered and that of 2018. The proximity of 1913’s figures to 2018’s is saddening and depicts a merry-go-round affair over a century later, so that, beyond the incredulous fact that we now import palm seedlings – the products of which we earlier exported at two-thirds output volume as you revealed, we have always been a predominantly mono-product economy. When it is palm seeds and their produce, it is majorly palm seeds and their produce; and when it is crude oil, it is equally almost totally crude oil. In other words, we have historically not fared well with diversification.

“It is, therefore, imperative that we pay serious attention to the nation-building question, realizing that the call to leadership goes beyond maintaining, servicing, or upgrading processes, systems, and entities year after year and one democratic dispensation after another. It is also about consciously and masterfully moulding consensus, ensuring that everyone is on the same page – or at least, the same chapter – and journeying collectively, even if in pools and batches, in the same direction. This requires sincerity, courage, and continuous concession-making. I am reminded of a scene in ‘Invictus’, the 2009 movie on Nelson Mandela. Madiba, as he was fondly called, had just been elected South Africa’s first black president and was on his usual pre-dawn walk when he and his two bodyguards saw that day’s newspaper with a banner headline: HE CAN WIN AN ELECTION, BUT CAN HE RUN A COUNTRY? One guard was amazed at such a question when the man wasn’t even up to a day in office. Mandela calmly stated that it was a legitimate query. In like manner, our leaders at all levels and in all spheres must take an informed pause from their routine and reflect deeply on our national question. Why are things falling apart? Why is the nation’s center not holding? What should be done? The real question, perhaps, is, even when we find answers to those questions, are we sincere and courageous enough to respond accordingly?”

Perhaps Ejiro was reading my mind. Despite being blessed with abundant human and material resources, we have failed to aggregate the parts into a collective whole. With no communal sense to build a functioning society, the ‘whole’ of our country remains far much less than the sum of its parts. Essentially because the accumulation of individual greed far outweighs the collective need. When You apply the law of the jungle in competing for scarce resources without any sense of order which nation building entails, the chaos that we have in Nigeria today is inevitable.

Since the beginning of the year, for instance, the recurring news in our country is that of kidnappings by sundry cartels of criminals who seem to have overpowered the capacity of the state. Not only is the list of victims becoming increasingly long, but there are also thousands of others across the country who have been in prolonged captivity and whose ordeals are heart-wrenching for their families. They remain nameless: mere statistics in a nation where human life has become easily dispensable. What is the national response? Let us continue to pray!

Notwithstanding misgivings over the 1914 amalgamation, distortions to our federal structure caused by years of military rule, and disappointment with the current crop of leaders and the choices they make; it is also appropriate to remind ourselves that we have come a long way as a nation. Not even the most implacable enemies of Nigeria will deny its socio-economic potential, the enormous capacity of its people and the bright future that continues to beckon. If only our leaders would look beyond artificial differences, apply themselves to the jobs for which they were elected or appointed and rally our diversity as the real source of our strength.

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