Chiefs of Defence Staff in Ecowas member countries have recently met in Dakar, Senegal, over security issues, particularly insurgency currently ravaging some of the member countries, including Nigeria.
A statement issued on Thursday by the Acting Director of Defence Information, Col. Rabe Abubakar, said the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Gabriel Olonisakin is leading other top military chiefs to the meeting.
“The meeting is deliberating on new structures of the Ecowas Standby Force (ESF) and the Peace Support Operations Division (PSOD).
“Other areas of discussion include ECOWAS Mission in Guinea Bissau (ECOMIB), Exit Strategy and the implementation of the Defence and Security Sector Reform Programme (DSSRP) in Guinea Bissau.
“The Nigerian delegates are using the occasion to brief the wider regional body about the Boko Haram insurgency and the efforts the Nigerian Armed Forces and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) member countries are putting in place to end Boko Haram terrorist activities in the region,” the statement said.
Gen. Olonisakin had, a few days ago, attended a similar meeting in Mali where regional efforts to curb terrorism and insurgency were extensively discussed.
“With increased regional and continental awareness of the evil of terrorism and related crimes in the West African sub region, the perpetrators of evil will have it rough with regional forces,” the statement added.
Reports said the Nigerian delegation to the Dakar meeting were expected to present papers on the Boko Haram insurgency and emerging challenges in maritime security in the country.
Members of the delegation also include the Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas; the Chief of Training and Operations at the Defence Headquarters, Major Gen. Shehu Yusuf and other staff officers at the Defence Headquarters.
Urgency is necessary
Much of Ecowas is enjoying relative peace despite some members states grappling with terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking.
However, security has got much of the attention of Ecowas political leaders and influential commentators in the past few months with potentials of conflict spill-over from one country to another.
With Nigeria grappling with the Boko Haram and another political tension threatening to raise its ugly head in the volatile Guinea, Ecowas leaders knew they have got to act to prevent much of the region from sliding into chaos.
But many are leave to wonder is frequent security summits is an answer to Ecowas security threats?
Most ECOWAS countries have presidential elections coming up next year and given the history of elections in the region, often claims of rigging, repression and suppression of dissent by incumbent presidents is greeted with reprisal attacks from opposition supporters.
As a result, elections are almost synonymous with violence in the region due to allegations of widespread rigging, attacking opposition and systematic attacks on the press to suppress dissent.
Consequently, elections have lost credibility as genuine democratic means to pass power from one hand to another because of elections engineering and other abuses of the process.
Some countries have their elections year as far as 2020 while Sierra Leone, Senegal and Liberia will have theirs in 2017.
Apart from having regional elections monitors that observe elections in member states, head of states have attempted to introduce two term-limit for presidency in the region at their recent heads of states summit in Ghana couple of months ago which they hope would change the story in the region.
However, The Gambia and Togo opposed the move arguing that two-term limit for presidency is sovereign and must be decided by individual countries not by a regional body.
President Yahya Jammeh was represented at the heads of state meeting in Ghana by the vice president, Isatou Njie Saidy.
However, speaking to his supporters in Banjul in June this year, President Jammeh has threatened he will pull out of African Union and Economic Community of West Africa States if the two institutions are reduced to the control of Western powers.
“…Now they [West] are trying to use Ecowas. They said Yahya Jammeh cannot be changed by elections. They want to use their stooges in Ecowas to impose term limit because that is … a Western agenda,” Jammeh said.
“Where were the so-called Western leaders today 20 years ago when I became head of state? Let me warn Ecowas – Gambia is nobody’s colony and our development is not dependent on Ecowas that has already failed because it has been hijacked by the West. Even if the whole world introduced term limit, I will not have a term limit and let me see what you can do. Democracy is power to the people and not power to the West.”
But many analyst in the region believe that Ecowas’ fear that insecurity might spread all over the region if there is no term limit is genuine, citing the case of Blaise Compaore who stepped down in October last year in response to his attempt to have the constitution amended to allow for a third consecutive term.
But despite the resistance of The Gambia and Togo to institutionalise two term limit, civil society organisations and NGOs in the region have started speaking loud about it.
On September 8, The West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF) said at a forum in Dakar that it seeks to push the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take the step of adopting term limits for presidency in the region.
However, it remains to be seen when two term limit for presidency in the region might be accepted by countries like The Gambia and Togo despite the need for it since the regional body has no power to force it on to any of its member states.
Drugs: pepper on the regional wound
Moreover, many analyst following drug trafficking and consumption in West Africa including the 16 Ecowas countries have said the region is no longer just a transit route for hard drugs but also a final destination.
The 2012 World Drug Report (WDR) highlights the association of drug users with acquisitive crime as well as behavioral challenges including aggression or violence in the region.
Kwesi Aning and John Pokoo have argued in a research document they publish on the International Journal of Security and Development that “while the above revelations question the nature, effectiveness and resilience of the existing legal and institutional framework for responding to drug trafficking in West Africa, the emerging drug consumption levels in the sub-region suggests the potential impact of drugs on human security in West Africa.”
In June this year, the president of another Ecowas state, Guinea, has warned that Latino drug cartels are seeking new West African client states after French military action in Mali destroyed their key smuggling route to Europe.
“The French action in Mali has deprived traffickers of that specific route, so it is important that we enforce security at our borders so as not become a new conduit for that traffic,” Alpha Condé, 75, told The Daily Telegraph during a visit to London in June.
Also in 2009 Gambian authorities have seized a record 2.341 kilograms of very pure cocaine. The cocaine’s worth was estimated at US$ 1 billion – little less than the country’s entire GDP.
The culprits were 12 foreigners who were said to be nationals of the Netherlands, Venezuela, Ghana and Nigeria and they were later convicted and sent to prison on various jail terms, though they were lucky to be included in the recent amnesty, about two months ago, granted to over a hundred prisoners by President Jammeh.
Adding to all the various problems is maritime security.
It is estimated that at least $7 billion is lost to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. And that is different from the problem of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing facing coastal states within the region.
In May this year, Green Peace, the international environment campaign group, has reported that it has recorded 114 cases of illegal fishing off the coast of Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bisssau, Senegal and Mauritania by Chinese fishermen.
The Sub Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) has reported that the quantity of fishing resources caught illegally in some countries in the region is almost as high as the legal catches citing Guinea as an example.
It said the value of fishing resources caught illegally in the region is “more than $500 million annually in losses for economies of the sub region.
These add on a catalogue of social, economical and political problems of individual member states.
Eradicating poverty, political reforms are the answer
Many will agree that here is the start of the road.
Poverty level in the Ecowas region is intense and many analysts believe without lifting the people out of poverty, attempts to ensure peace in the region will not bear fruit.
The region’s biggest economy, Nigeria, which accounts for nearly 78 percent of Ecowas’ GDP in 2015, being the biggest economy on the continent, is struggling with intense poverty.
Media reports said Nigeria has almost 100 million people living on less than a $1 (£0.63) a day, despite economic growth that the country has registered over the years.
The National Bureau of Statistics said 60.9% of Nigerians in 2010 were living in “absolute poverty” – this figure had risen from 54.7% in 2004.
In smaller economies like The Gambia, 48% of the people are living below a dollar a day which represents a 10% decrease from the past ten years.
The economic outlook elsewhere in the region as far as the living conditions of the people is concern is the same.
Much of what has happened for now are summits.
And disturbing as it is, the sub regions’ real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is projected to hit 7.1 percent in 2015 as against 6.3 percent in 2014.
However, the economic growths, often time people complain, do not translate to poverty eradication.
Though there is need for greater political reforms in the region, but many optimists believe that the recent democratic political change from former president Goodluck Jonathan to President Buhari in Nigeria, the regional super power, signals that the political trajectory is changing.
“I can tell you that democracy has taken the stage in the sub-region- the people don’t want any other form of government. We have seen what happens in Nigeria recently. Who would have dreamt that Nigerian politicians with all their resources can lose power? And I think more and more, citizens are becoming alive to their responsibilities- they are monitoring who they vote for and they are making sure there is transparency and accountability,” a Ghanaian expert on parliamentary democracy, Dr Rasheed Draman, said, on a visit to The Gambia.
“This is the trend we are seeing now and it is irreversible. In some countries, it might come a little faster than others but eventually the whole sub-region will be submerged in this trend of democratic change- so it is a notice to our political leaders.”
But a further reform is needed to ensure transparency, democracy, protection of the fundamental rights of the people and holding of free, fair and transparent elections.
If the regional body desires not to be seen as a talking shop, African Union, it has to deliver on both the political and the economic goods that its existence promises.
It is no speculation that there is a strong correlation between intense poverty and violence.
Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) includes Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the members of UEMOA – Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Niger and Togo.
With the population of just over 335 million, Ecowas represents approximately one-third of sub-Saharan Africa’s total population.