Buhari and ECOWAS security challenges

A change in the leadership of the Economic Community of West African States at its recent summit saw the emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari as its new chairman. He took over from Faure Gnassingbe, the President of Togo. The tenure is only for a year, a period too short for much to be achieved. However, being focused right from the outset could make the difference. This, Buhari has to be.

In his acceptance speech, he had pledged to work with all his colleagues “… to deliver on peace, security, good governance and socio-economic development” of the sub-region. What matters more is how he will drive this in practical terms. The organisation’s first meeting under his leadership on December 21, in Abuja, may provide a window for it.

The 15-member transnational regional body was formed in 1975 in Lagos, Nigeria, to ensure regional integration and economic cooperation among member-states. Implicit in this commitment is the free movement of people, goods and services. This agenda is being implemented not without difficulties. The awareness of this fact compelled it to roll out “ECOWAS Vision 2020” in 2007. It aims at “setting a clear direction and intends to significantly raise the standards of living of the people through conscious and inclusive programmes,” under five themes: regional resource development; peace and security; democratic governance; economic and monetary integration; and private sector in economic development.

ECOWAS has made strong statements on many occasions on intervening in overwhelming political crises in member-states, such as in the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone; the insurgents’ attempt to overthrow the legitimate authorities in Mali and the electoral debacle in Cote d’Ivoire. Its uncompromising stance on the outcome of the December 2016 presidential election in The Gambia compelled the country’s immediate past President, Yahaya Jammeh, to accept the result of the poll, which the opposition leader, Adama Barrow, won. ECOWAS soldiers mainly from neighbouring Senegal and Nigeria swiftly moved in, in January 2017 to ensure that there was no reversal in the democratic fortunes of that country.

However, this communal response to political instability has yet to be demonstrated on the vexed issue of proliferation of small arms and light weapons. The evil phenomenon sustains instability and banditry in the region.  According to the United Nations, out of 500 million of such weapons in West Africa, 70 per cent are found in Nigeria. The UN Security Council’s Group of Experts in 2013 drew the attention of political leaders to the fact that illicit flow of arms from Libya was “fuelling conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-State actors, including terrorist groups.” Nigeria is a big victim with the carnage resulting from Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen activities.

Buhari should use his chairmanship to ensure that member-states establish a rampart against this menace.  The borderless protocol does not in any way mean that traffickers in weapons of war and destruction should be allowed to turn the region into a super highway for gunrunning. In the Global Terrorism Index 2017, Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Chad were ranked among the 34 worst cases out of 117 countries. Nigeria was third, next to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Boko Haram killings have shown that it is no longer a Nigerian burden only, but a clear and existential challenge for West Africa. Chad, Niger and Cameroon – also a member of the Lake Chad Basin Commission – are periodically attacked, with casualties spreading across civilian, police and military personnel. Buhari’s first foreign visits shortly after he assumed office in 2015 were to these countries to crave a coalition against this bloodthirsty group. It paid off with the immediate formation of the Multinational Joint Task Force, which the United States recognised and gave a $5 million operational grant.

The military task force went into action and defanged the insurgents to the point that they lost swathes of territory in the North-East of Nigeria, which they had held as part of their utopian Islamic Caliphate. About 100,000 lives have been lost from their carnage, rendering of 1.9 million people internally displaced. That coalition seems to be vegetating now. No surprise, therefore, why these jihadists have renewed their onslaught. About 17 soldiers were killed last week when the fundamentalists stormed a military base in Garunda, Borno State. Buhari should use his ECOWAS chairmanship to revitalise the coalition and get others to assist through intelligence gathering. As an affiliate of al-Qaeda obsessed with global jihad, Boko Haram cells spread far and wide.

As Lake Chad continues to shrink (up to 90 per cent), its deleterious effects on Nigeria should not be underestimated. Buhari should always be conscious of the reality that it serves as a source of livelihood for more than 40 million people from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon – all members of the LCBC. He should nudge the LCBC states and international partners to redouble their efforts in rehabilitating its ecosystem and green economy. If this is achieved, it will help in diminishing the present southwards movement of herdsmen and its genocidal consequences; and the danger to national cohesion