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ECOWAS protocol on free movement: Experts caution FG over risky moves

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Experts have warned that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) could break up, if Nigeria does not tactfully handle its concerns over the bloc’s Protocol on Free Movement of Persons.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had recently established a link between the protocol and the spate of killings by herdsmen, suggesting Nigeria might opt for a review. Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom, whose state has witnessed massacres by the herders, also corroborated the view, noting that the pact was undermining internal security.

Daniel Omoweh, Professor of International Relations at Western Delta University, Oghara, and former Associate Research Professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), said: “There is no policy in international relations that does not have a drawback. What is important is for the member states to understand where problems are and to how to tackle them.

When you talk about the security implication, I don’t think people having freedom to move is the issue. Rather, I want to believe that if the member states do security checks adequately, they will be able to tackle these people.

According to him, “The free movement protocol of ECOWAS does not permit terrorists. So, if terrorists are infiltrating, it is not the free movement that should be scrapped. What we need to do is that each country should set up proper surveillance. Border control is not an easy business.

America has been trying to stop people, particularly criminals, from passing through Mexico to the United States, but they have not succeeded.”

Speaking further on the need to boost security at the borders, he added: “In international relations, it is said: ‘In the world of the strong, the weak also live’. How do they survive? They survive by surprise attacks. They don’t need to carry machine guns or artillery to carry out attacks.

If we have to tackle the insecurity, I don’t believe closing the borders will solve the problem. What we should find out is who the arms sellers are, because terrorists cannot operate without the supply of arms and ammunition.

Who are those selling arms to them? If you say somebody is a terrorist, it is because he has capacity to destabilise the country and his community. And that capacity is in the kind of weapon he has. Who are those producing the weapons?

Who are the buyers? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. If we check the movement of arms, particularly these smaller weapons that you can carry with ease, it will help immensely.”

Amid fear that a review could hurt the union, former Minister of External Affairs Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi noted: “I am not advocating that we pull out of ECOWAS because of the problem posed to us by the free movement of goods, services and personnel.

Pulling out is not going to solve the problem. Pulling out will not all of a sudden secure the borders. This is because those borders are physical. People say, ‘Why is Nigeria not doing this or that?’ That is because you are not in government to see the complexity of the issues involved.”

Hinting on possible consequences, he said: “Whatever we do, we are going to open up ourselves to retaliation by some of these countries because there are more Sahelian members of ECOWAS than coastal members.

So, while we can expect support or understanding or sympathy from the coastal members of ECOWAS, obviously there will be hostility from the Sahelian members.

Thus, we have to weigh the cost and benefit of whatever decision we are going to take. I hope that whatever decision we take will not lead to a breakup of ECOWAS and that some measures of control can be arranged in consultation with other members because Nigeria feels very strong on this.”

He noted: “You pull out, fine, (but) how does that stop the cattle from being brought in? How do you stop the smuggling of goods in and out? As I have had to explain in a few places, ECOWAS followed trade and trade did not follow ECOWAS.

What do I mean? From colonial days, Nigerian traders migrated all over West Africa, unregulated and uncontrolled by anybody. So, trade, to some extent, created ECOWAS. ECOWAS didn’t create trade… If you pull out of ECOWAS, this informal trading will continue.”

An expert on legal jurisprudence, Dr Odiyovwi Osusu, noted that if the protocol is reversed, “it would affect the regional body. It will be the end of ECOWAS because Nigeria is like Germany in the European Union (E.U.).

As England pulled out of the E.U., the Union didn’t have problem because Germany is still there. Germany has the strongest economy in the E.U. and its economy is what is sustaining the bloc.

“Before the Schengen currency, the German Mark was almost parallel with the British pound sterling. So, if Nigeria wants to review the ECOWAS protocol, as it relates to free movement, it has to be very careful, because it could affect the regional body.

“What I think the country needs to do, rather than saying it wants to review the protocol, is to concentrate on the security architecture. The security architecture of Nigeria is porous.

If you review and people are still coming in, you will be arresting and sending people back. So, why not review the border security such that there would be free movement but not for criminals?”

Also comparing ECOWAS to the E.U., a senior lecturer in Jurisprudence and International Law at the Lagos State University, Dr. Gbadebo Olagunju, said: “ECOWAS as a body of economic integration stands for free movement of goods, persons and capital, etc.

There was a time the body even mooted the idea of having a common currency. On this free movement of person, over time, they came up with the issue of grand card, which was meant to allow citizens of member states to drive their vehicle to any of the member states.

“However, the problem is that we will not unilaterally make laws in our own state without amending that protocol at the international level. To that extent, other member states have to agree too, as we cannot on our own reverse an international protocol without involving other members because of an international law principle, Pacta sunt servanda, which means that agreements must be obeyed.”

He said: “If you are a party to an agreement and you want to withdraw from that agreement, there are steps to be taken. Don’t forget that Nigeria is a champion of the ECOWAS itself. So, we can review the protocol, but we cannot reverse it just like that, unless we want to kill ECOWAS.

“I understand the challenge of borders on internal security, but don’t forget that those other member states have their own security problems too. So, it is better for Nigeria to go through the ECOWAS channel and notify other members that we seek to review a certain protocol.

Sitting down at home and complaining or attempting a unilateral review would amount to violating the principles of international law, of which Nigeria is a strong signatory.”

On his part, Dr. Dayo Ayoade of the Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, University of Lagos, said: “If you have to go out of a treaty you voluntarily entered into, then you have to go through the same process to amend it.

I can’t see how that can fly because that protocol is fundamental to ECOWAS operations. Don’t forget that ECOWAS is built like the E.U., and it is to integrate the regions under one umbrella. Illegal migration is an issue all over the world and criminal gangs would always attempt to cross the borders.

“The issue is for Nigeria to beef up its border security and have more effective screening of those coming into the country. The E.U. also operates the same free movement, but has to put in place security measures. They are not like Nigeria where the borders are completely porous and people, cattle, and what have you, are roaming in and out.

We don’t know who is a Nigerian or a Nigerien because they are of the same ethnic stock. So, we could insist and ask migrants to produce their national ID cards for identification or some kind of official documentation.”

He added: “The problem is not the ECOWAS treaty; it is poor security framework that does not really address the issues. Our security architecture should be reviewed and made tighter because even if the government succeeds in getting the review and stops the free movement, it will not solve the problem, neither will it stop people coming in through the porous borders. Amending the ECOWAS treaty will not change anything.”

Ayoade’s colleague, Dr Fassy Yusuf, noted: “The ECOWAS protocol has been domesticated in Nigeria. To that extent, it is part of our laws. What that means is that until it is repealed, it is still our law.

Every nation at any point in time has the right to determine its economic agenda and wellbeing just like the U.K. decided to exit from the E.U. A country may also decide to exit from ECOWAS completely, but if it says it wants to review an aspect, then the larger interest of ECOWAS would also be considered.”

Fassy, however, maintained that such “exit would affect the totality of the well-being of ECOWAS in terms of funding and the rest. Don’t forget that Nigeria under Gowon and Prof. Adebayo Adedeji founded ECOWAS.

So, Nigeria would be setting a dangerous precedent. What I think Nigeria should be doing is to lobby other member states to listen to some of the actions that are obnoxious or inimical to the well being of Nigeria.”


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