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Broken ECOWAS imperils West Africa, requires redoubled efforts – ICG

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should redouble efforts to win back the three Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger –…

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should redouble efforts to win back the three Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – that recently quit the regional bloc, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has urged.

In a new report, titled “What Turmoil in ECOWAS Means for Nigeria and Regional Stability”, the Brussels-based conflict prevention and peacebuilding organization warns that “a broken ECOWAS will erode decades of economic, political and security efforts in West Africa.”

The report, published on its website on March 29, observes that the exit of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger will jeopardize joint efforts to curb security challenges, including jihadist insurgencies, banditry, transnational organised crime, as well as hurt West Africa’s economy.

Though the three nations represent only 17.4 percent of the region’s population and 10 percent of its $761 billion gross domestic product, ICG says failure to reverse their withdrawal will reduce ECOWAS’s market size and may halt several projects worth over $500 million.

The report warns that the countries’ hostility could prolong military rule, as the juntas would no longer be under the ECOWAS’s pressure to restore democracy. Crisis Group further warns that their departure could encourage other member states, risking the union’s disintegration.

For Nigeria, ICG says the division raises concerns as “The tumult in ECOWAS is, at least in part, a reflection of Nigeria’s diminished influence in West Africa”, a slide that started over a decade ago but “significantly aggravated during the eight years of Muhammadu Buhari’s lethargic presidency.”

Crisis Group warns that regional disagreement could worsen insecurity in northern Nigeria, saying a weakened ECOWAS shrinks the country’s clout and “could erode the support that Nigeria needs in its quest for permanent membership of a reformed UN Security Council.”

The report, however, endorses ECOWAS’s commitment to dialogue with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, admitting that although wooing them back appears “a very tall order”, the bloc and its chairman, Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, should redouble efforts, particularly in five key areas.

First, Crisis Group urges fresh talks with the junta leaders through credible third-parties such as respected religious and traditional leaders, eminent persons (including members of the ECOWAS Committee of the Wise), prominent women leaders and credible civil society representatives.

ICG charges ECOWAS to address the breakaway countries’ grievances and review its programs and activities to reassure all members that it remains aligned (or is realigning) with its original mandate. It urges the bloc to help the nations to tackle insurgencies and activate the long-proposed regional counter-terrorism force.

ICG calls on ECOWAS to recognize the rising anti-French sentiments in Francophone countries, publicly demand equitable relations between them and Paris, and seek opportunities to reassert its own autonomy, in order to dispel the impression among some citizens that it is being teleguided by Western powers.

The organization advises Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to rethink their current hardline stance and seize the olive branches ECOWAS is extending to them, “for the sake of regional comity and security and out of respect for their own citizens’ civil and political rights.”

The International Crisis Group says if all reconciliation efforts eventually fail, the regional body must seek an agreement with the breakaway countries, “for calibrated disengagement from the bloc and, subsequently, peaceful cohabitation.”

The agreement, according to the report, should include “procedures and timelines for relocating ECOWAS agencies and staff in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger”, and also “clarify the status of citizens of the two blocs, in terms of their rights to movement, work and residence in the other bloc.”

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