West Africa: Nigeria and Fragmented Ecowas

The recent decision of three West African countries, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic, to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected to have implications for Nigeria and the sub-regional bloc.

ECOWAS was formed in 1975 by 16 countries: “To promote co-operation and integration … in order to raise the living standards of its peoples, and to maintain and enhance economic stability.”

Arab-speaking Mauritania was later to withdraw from the bloc in December 2000 but returned as an associate member in August 2017.

Along the line, security, economy and the promotion of democracy, among others, became part of ECOWAS protocols. However, recent political and security issues are trying to derail the cause of the regional bloc. Jihadist terrorists and military takeover of democratically elected regimes have posed issues for the bloc.

The recent joint declaration by the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic to quit ECOWAS is the culmination of their frosty relations with the body. The trio had been under sanctions for unconstitutional change of government in those countries. Struggling with jihadist violence and poverty, the regimes have had tensed ties with ECOWAS since coups took place in Niger on July 26, 2023, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Mali in 2020. All three were suspended from ECOWAS, with Niger and Mali facing heavy sanctions. However, they have quickly moved to form an Alliance of Sahel States to work together on issues of security and to live independent of ECOWAS.

Experts warn that the move by the trio could have serious consequences for the bloc and Nigeria in particular. In their assessment, it shows the waning influence of the regional body, and if not handled carefully could lead to more members turning their back on the union which will reduce its clout and stature.

Also, ECOWAS is hinged upon economic integration and multilateralism and the recent incident negates that. The departure of the three countries could also derail the proposed single currency, the Eco, which aims to deepen integration in the sub region. It could also adversely affect the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which seeks to enhance free trade in the continent.

Another worry is that their move could turn the region into another battle turf for the world powers. Already, Russia has stepped in to back the military juntas, promising them support in pushing back the jihadists. Having severed ties with colonial masters and longtime allies France, which they accuse of imperialism, their alliance with Russia, which has a history of authoritarianism, human rights abuses and restriction of human freedoms, could mean a different kind of trouble for the citizenry of the nations. Those countries could be trading one oppressor for another. With the US and China interests in the region, giving Russia a foothold in the subregion could have a destabilising influence. Russian mercenaries are believed to have been involved in illicit activities in some African countries, including the overthrow of governments.

Security-wise, the withdrawal of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso poses a direct threat to the collaborative efforts required to combat regional security challenges. These countries, particularly Mali and Niger, are critical in the fight against terrorism and insurgency, given their geographic positioning and the nature of cross-border security threats. Their departure from ECOWAS not only weakens the regional security framework, like the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) stationed in Niger, but also leaves Nigeria more vulnerable to the spillover of instability and terrorist activities from these neighbouring countries.

With a porous border like Nigeria’s, the cooperation of especially Niger is important to check the influx of small arms and terrorists from North Africa following the death of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and the fragmentation of authority among warlords.

It is noteworthy that Nigeria and Niger Republic have strong ties. In fact, there is hardly any cultural boundaries between the two as many residents in the border states have kinsmen in either countries. It is common knowledge that when terrorists strike in the North East and North West of Nigeria, the affected communities flee to Niger where they are welcomed with open arms and integrated into households and communities rather than being treated as refugees. So, this divorce could make the country less welcoming to spillover of displaced persons from Nigeria.

As a newspaper, we believe that the Nigeria-led ECOWAS should have been more circumspect in handling the three juntas than the forceful way it did, which pushed them overboard, especially when it was obvious that the coups enjoyed overwhelming popular support and the countries were trying to wriggle themselves out of French imperialism.

Going forward, we urge President Bola Tinubu not to give up on diplomatic measures to return the military juntas in the bloc. It is also crucial that ECOWAS remains a body driven by the aspirations and needs of its member states, free from the undue influence of external powers.

We urge what is left of the regional body retool its instruments in order to be able to respond effectively to the needs of the citizens of the member states. That will make its membership more appealing.

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