Accolades keep pouring in as President Muhammadu Buhari becomes the Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but not many are aware of what it actually means to be Chairman of ECOWAS and how significant for Nigeria, Africa and, the world, this choice of leadership is at this time.
According to a statement by the Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, although the President did not put himself up for the post, he was elected to the position during the 53rd session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS in Lome, the Togolese capital.
“I am truly humbled and pledge to serve and work with all of you to deliver on peace, security, good governance and socio-economic development of the sub-region,” Buhari said.
In that Order
Having been President of the most powerful Nation in the 15 Nations ECOWAS for 3 years, President Buhari had spoken to and of the Community enough to reveal that his interests are in the order in which he gave his appreciation speech. Peace and Security, coming first while the economy of the region comes fourth and last.
In May, Buhari posited that cross-border crimes pose more challenge to the region than anything else. Before this, while speaking at a Workshop aimed at resolving the regional herdsmen-farmer clash, Buhari lamented the influx of undocumented migrants from neighbouring Nations, even though he insisted on the free movement across countries.
It is also expected that much more will be done in the area of stabilizing the region, as the retired General appeared to have taken every event of presentation of Letter of Credence to emphasize this point coupled with the fact that he is highly revered in the Gambia for stepping in to see the peaceful exit of Yahya Jammeh and averting a constitutional crisis which would have arisen from both Jammeh’s backtracking on election result and Nigeria’s prejudicial position that the former Gambian leader leaves without a right to contest the result.
Nigeria also has overstaying troops in Guinea Bissau in yet another effort to prevent a constitutional crisis. This is also very well received.
On the other hand, President Buhari refused to sign ECOWAS Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) saying it will hurt the largely youthful population of Nigeria and expose small businesses and industries to external pressure and competition which he argues may lead to closure and loss of jobs.
The President also wants ECOWAS to slow down on the single currency for the region which is planned for 2020, a year he will now be leading the Community into.
In February, Buhari, speaking in Accra, said the preparedness of individual States for the single currency has not been shown to exist. He also warned against watering down of criteria for such move and called for the harmonization of the fiscal, trade and monetary policies of member States before implementation. He essentially called for the shifting of the target forward.
On other occasions, Buhari spoke on the need to cut the cost of operation, reduce Commissioners, as well as the cost of keeping Commissioners.
With the claim that Boko Haram has been largely decimated, a Buhari-led ECOWAS is expected to give a lot of attention to the herdsmen-farmer clashes, which, unlike widely believed in Nigeria, extends to other West African Nations.
In April, the Nigerian Government said the clashes are worsened by ECOWAS’ failure to implement two of its Protocols. The first being the 1979 Protocol on free movement of persons, goods, and services. The second being the 1998 Protocol on Transhumance. The latter provides rules for the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle. The government suggested that the Protocol is reviewed in line with modern practice and in favour of ranching.
ECOWAS Chairmanship will give the President much more power to address these issues which affects his popularity at home with less than a year to the General Elections.
The Morocco trap
Perhaps the most complex issue before the new ECOWAS Chairman is the issue of if to admit Morocco into ECOWAS. An issue more complex than it looks on the face of it.
In February 2017, Morocco, a country in the North of Africa applied to be part o ECOWAS. While Morocco is not in West Africa, there is no law stopping ECOWAS from admitting it as the clause which says “such other West African States as may accede to it” had been removed from the ECOWAS Treaty since 1992.
Also, West Africa has a rich historical relationship with Morocco as ethnic Harratine and Gnawas people originate from West Africa.
Added to Morocco’s relevance to ECOWAS is that the Sahel is home to a number of groups which member States are at war with. From Al-Qaeda to AQIM, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram. Analysts say Morocco’s inclusion in ECOWAS will create further military alliances to stamp out these groups. This is even made truer considering that the Tijanniyah Sect originates from Morocco and it has very strong religious ties with countries like Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. These religious affiliations coupled with political unity via ECOWAS is seen as a solution.
However, Morocco claims ownership of a region known as Western Sahara whereas Nigeria’s position on the region has always been that Western Sahara be allowed to self-determine. Nigeria went as far as helping Western Sahara get membership of the African Union.
Lawyer and Human Rights activist, Femi Falana, argues that Morocco should not be allowed into ECOWAS because it sought to dominate it on behalf of the European Union. He says Morocco’s trade with other ECOWAS Nations stood at just 1 billion dollars whereas the GDP of ECOWAS Nations is 345 billion dollars. Even worse, Falana says, most of these trade are illegal as Morocco continues to mine from Western Sahara despite two court rulings saying it should not.
Morocco is a few miles away from Europe hence there is an influx of West Africans wishing to sneak into Europe. While Falana argues that the EU wants Morocco in ECOWAS so as to allow for free flooding of the ECOWAS market with European goods, there is also the issue of border control should West Africans be allowed to have free movement into Morocco as ECOWAS dictates for member States. For this reasons, others say the EU will be against Morocco’s move while the United States will most likely support it as Morocco was the first country to recognize the US as a sovereign nation in 1777. An ECOWAS Chairman at this period will be at the center of this conflict of interest.
Other concerns include the fact that Morocco is essentially a Monarchy, the presence of which may alter ECOWAS’ democratic narrative and weaken its military Force seeing that Morocco’s Army is a Royal Force. It is also feared that Morocco’s inclusion will weaken Nigeria’s influence. This fear is expressed by former Secretary-General of Common Wealth, Emeka Anyaoku, and others. Anyaoku also, oddly, suggests a conspiracy that Morocco may be out for revenge over Nigeria’s position on Western Sahara.
To understand the apprehension regarding Nigeria losing its influence, it suffices to consider that ECOMOG, which was the military arm of ECOWAS is presently almost solely Nigerian Army and its peace missions. Morocco, however, with just 33 million people, has two times the number of military personnel Nigeria has, with more active and more reserved. It is feared that all the thank you Nigeria get’s from its its peace keeping operations will at the very least be split. Even worse, its effort in West Africa is perhaps the only reason Nigerian Army is rated higher than many, including Morocco.
In June 2017, ECOWAS accepted Morocco’s application “in principle” and afterward created a committee of 5 countries, including Nigeria, to report to the 52nd Ordinary Session of the Submit by the end of the year.
President Buhari visited Morocco in June and got a royal welcome. A few persons suggested it was to court him into supporting Morocco’s bid. If true, his becoming the Chairman of ECOWAS would appear like Morocco did kill two birds with one stone.