• Saturday, April 13, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Why Nigeria can’t play Russian roulette with ECOWAS

ECOWAS sanctions as a strategic gamble.

…Needs bloc intact to win insecurity war

…Sanction-lifting not out of cowardice

For the first time in its nearly 50 years history, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) seems to be bowing to pressure as sanctions imposed on three junta-led member states turned counterproductive.

The earlier sanctions and suspension from the bloc were amid calls for the junta-led countries to return to democratic rule.

Recently, (eight months after), the regional economic bloc lifted most sanctions imposed on Niger over last year’s coup, as well as Burkina Faso and Mali, where military juntas are calling the shots.

Read also: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger’s case top agenda as ECOWAS leaders meet in Abuja

The ECOWAS’ latest act is understandable, according to many observers, considering that the erring members- Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali- have threatened to withdraw their membership of the bloc, with plans to form a new bloc they called Alliance of Sahel State.

For many, rather than using force to restore civil rule in these countries taken over by military juntas as was the style of ECOWAS in the past, through ECOMOG, its military arm, the bloc has been pushing for dialogue, which has resulted in the lifting of the sanctions at its Abuja Summit recently.

Some experts have said that Nigeria can ill-afford playing Russian roulette by watching ECOWAS disintegrate. They believe it would be potentially very dangerous going by the age-long symbiotic relationship that had existed between those countries and Nigeria.

While Omar Alieu Touray, president of ECOWAS Commission, quickly declared that the lifting of the sanctions, which included a no-fly zone and border closures was “on purely humanitarian grounds” to ease the suffering caused as a result of the blockade, observers think that ECOWAS took the peace path to maintain regional integration and influence.

Read also: ECOWAS sanctions as a strategic gamble.

General Yakubu Gowon, ECOWAS co-founder and former Nigerian military leader, also saw the danger ahead and quickly ran to Aso Rock Villa in Abuja to meet President Bola Tinubu on the issue.

He even issued a statement in his open letter to all the Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS on the need to bring back the erring members.

“As one of the founders of our economic community, it is incumbent upon me to speak on behalf of the 14 heads of state and government who joined me in Lagos on May 27, 1975 to establish ECOWAS. Despite its shortcomings, ECOWAS has become an example of regional integration for the wider continent.

“I wish to once more reiterate to regional leaders that ECOWAS is more than a coalition of states, it is community established for the good of our people, based on shared history, culture and tradition,” Gowon, who went further to list the feats of the bloc, appealed in his open letter, amid recommendations, one of which is the immediate lifting of the sanctions.

But why is Nigeria particularly interested in a peaceful and united ECOWAS, with President Tinubu and General Gowon leading the negotiations.

In his critical review of the scenario, Deji Olatoye, a lawyer and partner at The Lodt Law Offices, noted that Nigeria is maintaining a cautious stance in its approach to the crisis, and being realistic not just about Nigeria’s current capabilities but also the history of the use of Nigeria’s hard power in the region.

“Nigeria has led peace enforcement to end civil wars in two countries and even removed a junta to restore democracy in one.

“But Liberia and Sierra Leone are anglophone countries. Nigeria’s participation in peace missions elsewhere has been under the aegis of the UN. Historically, Nigeria’s natural leadership in the sub-region and her ability to progress with steady regional integration has been challenged by the France fact or what I call the French wedge,” he noted.

Also speaking on Nigeria’s interest in restoring peace in the bloc, Muttaka Usman, lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, noted that Nigeria and Niger maintain very close relationship, because both nations share strong socio-cultural ties, with Hausa minority on each side of their 1,700 km border.

“With over 1700 km of border line with Niger Republic, Nigeria cannot afford to ignore such a country. It is a huge market along the corridor and it will also portend a great security risk to have a hostile neighbour,” Usman said, while noting that it was due to the very strategic neighborhood both countries share that warranted the Abuja-Kano-Maradi rail project that will terminate at Maradi, a commercial centre in Niger Republic.

The university don also noted that Nigeria was leading others in resolving the ECOWAS crisis because Africa still remains at the centre of Nigeria’s foreign policy.

“Many of us were apprehensive when Nigeria took the front seat in announcing the ECOWAS sanctions against Niger Republic. That move was in line with our foreign policy thrust,” he said.

For Idris Sesse, an Abuja-based businessman, Nigeria had to act like the big brother in ECOWAS, especially in the Niger case, because the sanctions were neither in the interest of Nigeria nor in the interest of the common man in Niger and Burkina Faso.

Sesse, who hails from Niger Republic, decried that the sanctions made the military leaders in Niger more popular and with sympathy from the people.

“Many people, including Nigerians along the border communities did not like the sanctions because, rather than affect the military leaders, it was the common people that suffered.

“ECOWAS should have just isolated those leaders and their families, rather than give a blanket sanction,” he said.

Excited with the lifting of the sanctions, Mamman Mohammed, director general, Media and Publicity, to the Yobe State Governor, in a telephone interview, noted that the move would help to further boost unity and strong economic ties between the two countries.

“If you want to fight transborder crime, there must be strong cooperation between both countries.

According to him, “Nigeria and Niger have come a long way. Working together is more profitable between the two countries, especially in fighting the Boko Haram insurgence.”

He recalled how the multilateral joint task force, once led by Tukur Burutai, Nigeria’s former Chief of Army Staff, successfully curtailed the activities of the Boko Haram, with the cooperation of Niger, Chad and Mali, concluding that Nigeria needs ECOWAS intact to win the war against insecurity and to all restore it economy.

However, from the economic angle and global politics, Olatoye explained that on the economic front, France’s coordination has resulted in an inadvertent variable speed, depth and geometry in overall West African integration.

“Just compare the single CFA area, single central bank and harmonised commercial law of the francophone countries to the lame ECOWAS efforts in the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ).

“Militarily, French bases have provided security in francophone West Africa, thus weakening national capabilities and often with destabilising effect under the now fraying Franceafrique mode,” he said further.

But the fraying of French hard power in the sub-region, as evidenced in the ‘declaration of independence’ by the three countries, according to him, could provide an opportunity for ECOWAS to regain influence.

The above, for him, is another good reason for Nigeria to soften its earlier hard stance, which was misinterpreted, either genuinely or mischievously, to be dotto-heading to France, which has been Nigeria’s traditional rival in the region.

On the whole, Nigeria’s softening stance, depending on how it pans out going forward, according to him, could be considered smart rather than weak.

The lawyer is also worried that while security is better pursued by coordinating all affected stakeholders, the experience of the last decade in the Sahel has shown acute lack of coordination in any case.

“It is my view that the traditional wedge role of France in regional coordination has not been helpful. If Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali actually do take charge of their defence and national security, perhaps the rest of West Africa may have better partners to coordinate with.

“If ECOWAS is able to negotiate an agreement on democratic transitions in these countries, rather than insist on the earlier stance of an immediate return to the old regime, the region could actually gain more trust and better position itself as a partner in the initiative to defend and solidify the national security of these countries thus securing the region,” he noted.

But if the three countries refuse to rejoin ECOWAS and go ahead with their Alliance of Sahel State, Olatoye said, “As for the economy, on a formal level, a ‘Sahelxit’, so to say, portends more disruptive repercussions for the CFA currency area, which has attained, under French clientelism, an advanced level of integration with a single currency and supranational institutions.”

The best that can happen in that situation, according to him, is for the rest of the region to step in under the leadership of ECOWAS, to ensure that the eventuality of an exit is a negotiated rather than a messy divorce.

“This is one way in which ECOWAS can reclaim the initiative and possibly even finally weaken the French wedge in the coordinated integration of the entire region,” he concluded.

With the sanctions lifted, Omar Alieu Touray, president of ECOWAS Commission, said that an olive branch has been extended to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, while the region expects them to reciprocate by withdrawing their intention of leaving the ECOWAS.

When that happens, President Bola Tinubu would be top among the beneficiaries as regional peace and security would be guaranteed.

But when that fails to happen, the ECOWAS region will face a real threat to its integration, security and influence.