regional policeman

Nigeria once ran West African security. Can it do it again?

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on July 17, 2023 10:44

Nigerian troops arrive in Sierra Leone in February 1998 as part of a Nigerian-led West African ECOMOG peacekeeping force
Nigerian troops arrive in Sierra Leone in February 1998 as part of a Nigerian-led West African ECOMOG peacekeeping force/Reuters

In decades past, coup leaders in West Africa worried about what Nigeria thought. With Tinubu heading ECOWAS, will Abuja regain its arbiter role?

“We will not allow coup after coup in the West African sub-region,” Tinubu said at the 63rd Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government in Guinea-Bissau. “We should serve a warning to exploiters that our people have suffered enough.”

A week later, Tinubu represented ECOWAS at the 5th mid-year coordination meeting between the African Union and regional economic communities in Nairobi where he said: “Some observers assert a new scramble for Africa is afoot and it is much like the old scramble that plundered our continent.”

Tinubu’s emergence as chairman of ECOWAS was widely celebrated by his supporters in Nigeria.

“The black continent has never seen a leader with this uncommon combination of reformist mindset and deep democratic credentials,” said one of Tinubu’s campaign groups.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tajudeen Abbas, as well as the Senate, described Tinubu’s appointment as an affirmation of acceptance by his foreign counterparts and a vindication following an electoral victory that is still being challenged in court.

“There are no doubts that the African sub-region will witness exemplary leadership with the Nigerian president as ECOWAS chairman,” the speaker said.

His statement that Nigeria is “back” also sends signals that the country is willing to retain its place as the leader of the region, say foreign affairs experts.

No to coups

Tinubu’s insistence on ECOWAS rejecting incessant coups is not entirely new as it is included in the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which was ratified in Dakar in 2001.

It expressly states that the armed forces, the police and other security agencies shall be under the authority of legally constituted civilian authorities along with other provisions.

In recent times, ECOWAS has been firmer on countries where leaders emerged through military incursion.

In August 2020, the 15-member bloc berated the heads of a junta that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Mali. Similarly, in September 2021 the West African bloc condemned the coup that ousted President Alpha Conde.

Sanctions against the countries have since been lifted while a roadmap to the return to democratic rule has been approved by all parties.

However, ECOWAS has not made any clear statement on the cases of tenure elongation among its members.

Low trade volume

One of the major objectives of ECOWAS is fostering economic cooperation. However, trade within the region has been very low compared to the one between member states and Western nations.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2021, intra-bloc exports within ECOWAS stood at $12.7bn, constituting 11.2% of member states’ total exports of $113.6bn.

Nigeria’s intra-bloc trade was $3.3bn, which was by far the largest contribution by a single country. However, this only constituted 5.9% of the country’s total exports in the same year, which was $56.3bn in 2021, owing to the large share of oil exports in Nigeria’s export basket.

Imports from within ECOWAS stood at $12.9bn, which constituted only 10% of member states’ total imports in 2021. This low level was driven largely by Nigeria, which imported just $2bn worth of goods from within West Africa, constituting just 3.4% of its total imports worth $57.4bn.

“Much of Nigeria’s imports come instead from China, the US and Belgium, and the country has lots of restrictions on imports of goods that African countries produce, such as food and basic manufactured goods,” the report said.

Even so, the direction of travel is not good. In 2022, the ECOWAS parliament revealed a 10% drop – an all-time low, in trade volumes within the West African sub-region.

Unified currency

The parliament blamed the lack of a single currency among ECOWAS member countries and efficient payment systems as the main drivers for the overt trade deficits.

In a bid to remedy these challenges, ECOWAS heads of state pledged to accelerate the process of creating a single currency, which they had earlier pledged to adopt in January 2020. They resolved to ensure that Eco is adopted by 2027, noting that this would help foster trade within the region.

Currently, the nine Francophone countries within the sub-region use a unified currency known as the CFA. However, there is no indication that Nigeria is keen on this.

“Changes are expected given the energy and vigour Tinubu wants to invest in it, but I don’t expect a revolutionary change. I expect improvements to be incremental,” says Professor David Aworawo of the department of History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos.

Aworawo, who served as a consultant to ECOWAS and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on the Conflict in Guinea-Bissau in 2018, says: “ECOWAS is a regional organisation that one person or country – no matter how committed – can transform overnight. Whatever decision he [Tinubu] is taking will need the support of the other 14 members.”

Money challenges

Nigeria has been responsible for 40% of ECOWAS funding, which amounts to $1.17bn in 16 years. In a bid to foster free movement of people and goods, Tinubu reaffirmed ECOWAS commitment to building regional infrastructure like the Lagos-Abidjan Corridor Highway, which is estimated at $15bn.

Even though Nigeria’s economy is larger than all other 14 West African nations combined, Nigeria is currently cash strapped and has a huge infrastructure deficit along with an unprecedented debt profile which has now been worsened by a recent devaluation. This is expected to undermine its big brotherly role in the region.

Nigeria, which is ECOWAS largest donor, needs an investment of $2.3trn over the next 30 years to close its own public infrastructure deficit, according to a study by the national government.

How Tinubu plans to boost trade marginally within the region while also tackling local challenges remains to be seen.

Policy expert, Dr. Abimbola Oyarinu, who has served as an adjunct lecturer in several universities, tells The Africa Report that while Tinubu’s speech is inspiring, it is unlikely he would be able to do so much because he will put Nigeria’s interest first and above the interests of other West African nations.

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