VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
Trust Nigeria’s large army of social media activists to inject a joke even in very serious matters. In the wake of the sychronised announcement by the military rulers of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic that they were withdrawing their countries from the 49 years old regional integration group ECOWAS, two hastily constructed maps quickly appeared on social media. One, made up of the bloc’s 15 member nations, was tagged ECO-WAS. The second, a map of the regional bloc after deleting the three departing states, was tagged ECO-IS.
On geographical maps at least, these three countries’ departure from ECOWAS is impressive because they have 54% [2.7 million km2] of the bloc’s total land area of 5.1 million km2. Niger Republic and Mali are the bloc’s two largest members in terms of land area. Other statistics are however less impressive. The three countries have a total 55.5 million people, or 13% of the bloc’s total. Economically, there standing is even less impressive because they have a nominal GDP of $30 billion, or about 5% of the bloc’s total.
All three countries are landlocked, hundreds of kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean to the south or west and thousands of kilometres away from the Mediterranean Sea to the north. For that matter, their possible access to the Mediterranean is across the Sahara Desert, infested as it is by terrorists and secessionists. Their access to the Atlantic Ocean on any side is controlled by ECOWAS member states.
Environmentally, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic are some of the most fragile states in Africa. All their vast land is situated in deserts and the Sahel. Most of the land cannot grow food or feed cattle, hence the need for good trading relations with neighbours in order to feed their populations. Environmental problems almost always require region-wide solutions. Even locust swarms that appear every now and then in these countries require regional efforts and the help of international organisations to combat.
To stop Sahara Desert from advancing southwards also requires a regional approach, which we have been trying to do by erecting a belt of trees in the last twenty years. And when the worst happens, such as the 1973-74 drought, millions of Sahelian citizens from these countries pour into neighbouring countries to the south. ECOWAS protocol ensures that they don’t need visas for three months. Of course no one is gloating here, because when Boko Haram ravaged Nigeria’s north east region, thousands of Nigerians fled to Niger Republic, where they received much needed help.
On top of all these are the security issues. All three rebel nations, particularly Mali and Burkina Faso, are bedeviled by terrorist insurgencies easily beyond their power to cope with. A military alliance of the three of them, such as they announced last year, is a dubious proposition because it is an alliance of the weak. Even though the French Foreign Legion helped to stop Tuareg rebels from overrunning northern Mali 12 years ago, the soldiers’ decision to expel the French appears to have popular backing, but it could also backfire in future.
Unfortunately, Russian help does not promise to be much better. We Africans know that without the USSR and its allies’ help in the 1960s and 1970s, much of Africa may still be under colonial and apartheid rule by now. For that we are very grateful to Russia, USSR’s eldest son and chief heir. Russia today is however only a shadow of USSR. It does not have the military muscle, global reach, Warsaw Pact, strong Cuban, North Korean, Vietnamese and Syrian allies, the ideological clarity or even the keen strategic sense of USSR. Besides, Russia today has its own chestnuts burning in Ukraine.
Any rational person will pause and reflect on these realities before he opts out of ECOWAS, but probably not a young soldier who equates foolishness with bravery. Now, soldiers all over the world are known for bravado, an essential quality in men who bear arms. But senior military men, in particular, are also known for rational calculations of risk. Both Traore and Goita are junior military officers to whom bravado and posturing are more important than rational assessment of situations
The military rulers’ coordinated announcement reminded me of a phrase that US President George Bush Senior used during the Gulf War of 1991: “a cruel hoax.” Trying to pull these countries out of the regional bloc is, when viewed in the long term, a cruel hoax. Tchiani, Goita and Toure seek to create a severe disruption to my generation of West Africans, who have been brought up to believe in “free movement of goods and persons” within the region. It permeated all our thinking, down to the ridiculous. In the 1980s, when some university students were caught passing pieces of paper around in the exam hall, they said it was in the spirit of ECOWAS, i.e. free movement of answers in the exam hall.
Governments are a continuum, but Ibrahim Traore, Assimi Goita and Abdurrahmane Tchiani are historically too miniscule to tear up an agreement signed by Aboubakar Sangoule Lamizana, Musa Traore and Seyni Kountche. The first two were civilianized Presidents, and their respective, democratically elected parliaments also ratified the ECOWAS treaty. I say that Tchiani, Goita and Toure are historical minions when compared to West African leaders who were present at the signing of the ECOWAS treaty in Lagos in 1975. Think of Ahmadou Sekou Toure of Guinea, Leopold Sedar Senghar Senghor of Senegal, Sir Dauda Jawara of Gambia, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone, Luis Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, William Tolbert of Liberia and Mukhtar Ould Daddah of Mauritania.
Even though Ould Daddah’s military successors withdrew Mauritania from the bloc in 2000 AD, it came back 17 years later and sought associate membership. I was not surprised because I kind of knew Ould Daddah to be thoughtful and considerate. In 1974 when General Yakubu Gowon brought him to Sokoto, I was among the school pupils that lined up the road to wave Nigerian and Mauritanian flags. His successors later realized their folly in ripping up a treaty that Daddah signed.
In addition to these presidents, several military rulers were also present to sign the Treaty of Lagos. They included Yakubu Gowon, Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Ignatius Kutu Acheampong of Ghana. Those old soldiers were all more visionary and loomed larger in African affairs than Goita, Tchiani and Traore. In those days, when so many African countries were ruled by soldiers, it was understandable that democracy did not feature in the Treaty of Lagos. It did not feature in the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity [OAU] either. The governing principle in those days was “non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.” But Africa has since transformed alongside the rest of the world, and democratic governance has come to occupy a place alongside economic integration, good governance and respect for human rights as a major principle of inter-African affairs.
It is legally, politically, psychologically and historically dubious for a young soldier to abrogate a treaty that was negotiated by a predecessor with much more vision, much more African patriotism and much more political weight than himself. It was also ratified by his country’s parliament, made up at the time of men and women more experienced, more visionary and imbued with more African patriotism than himself. Only so that he must continue to rule his country as a military ruler? The allegation made by Tchiani at the weekend that ECOWAS leaders were acting under the dictates of France is laughable. As a reporter for Citizen magazine, I was in Niamey in 1991 to report on his country’s Conference Nationale, and will never forget the hunger for democratic liberalisation that I saw in Nigeriens’ eyes. Was it caused by France as well?
Rather than this rash action, there was actually a good escape hatch. At its last summit meeting in Abuja in December, the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government appointed a committee of three Heads of State to negotiate with the military rulers. It was stated that progress in those talks will also lead to steady easing of sanctions and reintegration back into the bloc. ECOWAS had dropped its initial demand, that deposed President Mohammed Bazoum must be restored to power. It also played down on its threat to use force. Instead, the main demand was for a quick and credible program of restoring constitutional rule, plus the release of Bazoum and his family members for them to leave the country.
If I remember right, this practical principle, if it can be called that, was first applied by the Western Powers, UN and African Union with respect to Mauritania in 2005. When that country’s soldiers deposed President Maaouya Ould Taya in a coup, I was expecting the “international community,” as the Western powers arrogantly call themselves, to insist on a reversal. Instead, they asked the new military rulers to try to restore constitutional rule within two years. ECOWAS leaders were trying to nudge Traore, Goita and Tchiani along the same path. A likely sticking point could be that these soldiers could agree to adopt a transition program, only to try to transmute into civilian rulers, as was done in many African countries. That will not meet the test of credible transition programs that ECOWAS was demanding.
To this Nigerian joke of ECO-WAS and ECO-IS, I add a prediction that anyone who is alive some years down this road will see another map called ECO-MUST. It will not only mark the return of these three countries but most likely incorporation into ECOWAS of some new members as well. Among the possible ones are Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Western Sahara and even Morocco, which tried to join ECOWAS a few years ago. Better come back Goita, Tchiani and Traore. ECOWAS is a regional economic, political, security and integration must.