Nigeria should act fast to refocus ECOWAS on the goals set by its founding fathers, writes Peter Johnson

Keen watchers of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would have noticed a silent but revolutionary action taken recently by Nigeria, the economic and political powerhouse in West Africa, as part of efforts to counter a rather disturbing public perception that the regional organisation is losing focus and relevance.

Analysts have described ECOWAS of today as lacking in visionary leadership and political will, and that it has become a club of leaders engaged in the protection of their enlightened self-interests to the detriment of the community citizens. This flows from the organisation’s lethargic responses to conflicts and a growing tendency in the legitimization of incumbent governments and subtle acquiescence to the third-term presidency and indiscriminate change of national constitutions for tenure elongation. Recent elections in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, and the looming dangers in Togo, Benin, The Gambia and Senegal, have been cited as cases in point.

At a recent ECOWAS virtual summit on the political crisis in Mali, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was emphatic, in warning his peers against the dangers of third-term syndrome and tenure elongation in Africa. But that warning would appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Third-term induced violence marred recent elections in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. It is therefore no surprise that Abuja had to withhold the traditional congratulatory messages for Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire and Alpha Conde of Guinea who were declared winners of the December 2020 elections in the two countries, respectively. This is a subtle but strong statement that Nigeria is determined to assert itself and ensure that ECOWAS rediscovers its relevance.

When ECOWAS was formed in May 1975 to foster regional integration, military dictatorships held sway in many countries in West Africa. But Nigeria’s former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon and his Togolese counterpart Gen. Gnassingbe Eyadema ordered their ministers, Prof Adebayo Adedeji (Nigeria) and Edem Kodjo (Togo) on the difficult diplomatic shuttles that resulted in the signing of the 25th May 1975 Treaty of Lagos that birthed ECOWAS. This was achieved against strong opposition from then President Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire, a staunch ally of France, the former colonial power in Francophone Africa.

However, France, which has always preferred a France-Afrique or France-African Union, has never relented. To attract Houphouet-Bogny into the ECOWAS fold, Nigeria facilitated his transportation to participate in the signing of the Treaty of Lagos and ensured that Cote d’Ivoire’s Aboubakar Ouattara emerged as the first Executive Secretary of ECOWAS.

The undying crave by France for political influence in West Africa has continued to undermine ECOWAS’ regional integration agenda. For instance, the establishment of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) is in accentuation of that rivalry. UEMOA’s eight members belong to ECOWAS and are using the West African Franc (CFA), which is bankrolled by the French Treasury. Beyond competing with ECOWAS for international development support, it is believed that UEMOA was solely set up to counter ECOWAS or even destroy it.

It would be recalled that late last year, France and UEMOA members led by Cote d’Ivoire, had attempted to hijack ECO, the ECOWAS’ proposed common currency to replace CFA, a move stoutly rejected by Nigeria and other ECOWAS member states.

ECOWAS has since evolved into Africa’s leading regional power bloc, particularly with exemplary credentials in preventive diplomacy, intra- and inter-state conflict management and resolution among its 15-member states. ECOWAS’ interventions ended the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and have facilitated democratic processes in many other countries in the region.

The organisation has continued to rein in authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies of some of its leaders. A typical example was in 2009 when ECOWAS took a principled stance to stop former President Mamadou Tandja of Niger from extending his tenure. Also, in 2011, while the African Union, which has the African Commission on Human and Peoples Right based in Banjul, could not call dictatorial President Yahya Jammeh to order on his chain of human rights violations, ECOWAS made a bold statement by refusing to send a Mission to observe what was destined to be an un-democratic election held in the country that year.

ECOWAS did not recognize the outcome of that vote. When Jammeh held another election in 2016 and refused to concede defeat, ECOWAS sent a military mission to The Gambia and led international efforts to ease Jammeh to exile in Equatorial Guinea. His departure could have been sooner if the AU and the international community had backed Nigeria’s and ECOWAS’ principled stance of 2011.

Today, the ECOWAS leadership, which is heavily influenced by Paris, is sleeping at the wheel, lacking the courage to speak truth to power. The leadership deficiency has crept into the management of various ECOWAS institutions, the ECOWAS Commission and Specialized Agencies. There is division along linguistic lines (French and English) with the distribution of key statutory positions in favour of the Francophone bloc and against Nigeria, which shoulders more than 60% of the ECOWAS annual budget through payment of the Community Levy.

According to official financial statement presented to the ECOWAS Parliament in 2019, Nigeria paid more than $1,177 billion to ECOWAS as Community Levy contribution in the last 16 years to that date. This represented 40.42% of the $2,913,088,908 payment made by all the 15 member-states, and higher than the payments made by 12 other countries put together, except Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, which contributed 17.45% and 11.9%, respectively. Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, The Gambia, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo paid a total of $879,711 million. Guinea Bissau paid the lowest amount, representing 0.2 per cent of total community levy proceeds in the 16 years under review.

Nigeria, with an estimated 200 million population accounts for about half of ECOWAS’ estimated 400 million people. Apart from the community levy, the country also plays a leading role in the contribution of troops and financial resources for regional, continental and international peace keeping missions. Nigeria spent more than six billion dollars on peace keeping efforts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which was not refunded, excluding the human losses.

Nigeria usually bails out ECOWAS, including in the payment of staff salaries and bilateral supports to other member states, especially towards ensuring peaceful elections in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Niger, to name a few. But the country is often treated with disdain or regarded as a spendthrift. Nigeria’s long-standing sacrifices do not square up with its under-representation and influence in most international organisations, especially ECOWAS and the AU. For instance, while Nigeria respects the host country instrument in not seeking the two prime positions at the ECOWAS Commission – President and the Vice President – the country has only one Commissioner at the ECOWAS Commission today. Also, junior level positions normally reserved for a host country are often taken up by other nationals at the Commission.

The situation is not any better in other ECOWAS Institutions and Specialized Agencies, such as the Community Court, Parliament, ECOWAS Bank for Industrial Development (EBID), or in the appointment of Special Representatives to countries and international organizations such as the United Nations, ACP/EU in Brussels or senior level positions at the ECOWAS Commission’s Directorates and Divisions.

Indeed, is it not ironic that ECOWAS, which struggles with financial challenges could decide to increase the number of its highly paid Commissioners from nine to 15, based on an unreasonable argument that every member must produce a Commissioner? Nigeria has kicked against this wasteful move, but Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana which are enjoying better role allocations are adamant. Apart from their hefty remunerations and allowances, more Commissioners mean an expansion of the bureaucracy – directorates, divisions and red-tape. When President Buhari raised the issue few years ago, he was assured that the budget for nine Commissioners would be used to finance the 15-Commissioner structure. But it proved to be a subterfuge as the situation has not changed amid lack of funds for Community projects.

Nigeria must prevail on the leaders of the organisation that if every ECOWAS Member State desires a Commissioner beyond the manageable nine, such a member should bear the costs and the accompanying administrative overheads for such appointment. This position must be strongly insisted upon, especially as the economic climate in the world demands effective resource management that calls for a lean and nimble structure.

Similarly, Nigeria should ensure that the current selection of the Chair of ECOWAS Authority based on an alphabetical order and the zoning of statutory positions must be reviewed to produce a more qualitative outcome. For instance, as in the AU and EU, the recruitment process should be much more rigorous and transparent involving independent and proven external management experts.

Some development partners have also complained about frustrations with the lack of proactivity by the ECOWAS leadership which has remained in the main self-consuming, to the extent that it pays scant attention to the sustainable absorption of funds or burning rate, to the greater benefit of community citizens. Nigeria must spearhead reforms that will ensure that the community does not continue to lose out on donor funds and projects.

Another area that requires Nigeria’s urgent attention is an investigation into the selection or composition of ECOWAS election observers, and the strange activities of top officials of the community. Unlike in the past when observers were selected from a database of trained and experienced specialists, the lack of merit and competence as criteria for current selections has negatively impacted the quality of ECOWAS election observation missions. Similarly confounding is the series of meetings and missions which the staff are involved in, with some commissioners spending one to two months away from their duty stations, attending back-to-back meetings. Meanwhile the same organisation complains about lack of capacity, even when available personnel are not fully utilized.

These problems and the administrative laxities in ECOWAS can be blamed at least in part on the fact that Nigeria had hitherto failed to assert its leadership, until recently. It is therefore, imperative that Nigeria acts consciously, consistently, and very fast too, to refocus ECOWAS on the goals set by its founding fathers and prevent the erosion of the gains of over four decades. The danger in Nigeria not asserting itself in ECOWAS’ governance ecosystem is huge and could be very costly. Given Nigeria’s strategic position, there can be no ECOWAS, ECO, monetary union or regional integration in West Africa without Abuja’s major input.

Johnson, a foreign affairs analyst, writes from Abuja.