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Nigeria, Morocco and the future of ECOWAS

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ECOWAS Headquarters

The virtual absence of Nigeria from the 51st Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which took place in Monrovia on 4 June 2017 under the chairmanship of H.E. Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, left behind a trail of surprise, disappointment and even anger in the minds of many Nigerians. It also left heavy question marks on the future of ECOWAS, because of the receptive consideration given to the Morocco’s request for membership of the community by the Heads of State in Monrovia.

ECOWAS has since its establishment been central to Nigeria’s foreign policy, because of the importance of the sub-region in Africa and the world. The treaty establishing the community was signed in Lagos on 28 May 1975, after several years of determined efforts by General Yakubu Gowon, who was then the Head of State of the Military Government of Nigeria and his Togolese counterpart, General Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo. Since then ECOWAS has gone through thick and thin, and today it is the most active Regional Economic Community (REC) in Africa. If any country should take credit for this achievement, it is no doubt, Nigeria. It gave ECOWAS the financial, diplomatic, military and political support it needed to face the numerous challenges it encountered in the last 42 years, especially during the conflict in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where it was estimated that Nigeria spent over $7 billion.

However, recently, Nigeria’s influence in ECOWAS began to wane as a result of a lackadaisical foreign policy. Although Abuja hosts the commission, fundamental decisions are often taken without Nigeria’s leadership input, or with very inconsequential contributions by some Nigerian apparatchiks. This was evident from the absence in Monrovia of any Nigerian government official in a high leadership position. If President Muhammadu Buhari couldn’t attend on health grounds, and the Acting President because of the likely political implications of leaving the country in the absence of the President,why couldn’t the Foreign Minister or the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs represent Nigeria? This was the first time such a thing has happened in the 42 years’ history of ECOWAS. Sadly, this was a summit in which the Heads of State in attendance took some critical decisions, which if upheld would seriously harm our national interest!

Nigerians were not only shocked by the unprecedented absence of Nigeria’s political leadership in Monrovia, but also disappointed by the reluctance of the government to explain to them the reasons for this decision. The impression created in the minds of many Nigerians is that the country decided to boycott the summit because of the invitation extended to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister to address the summit, making him the first non-African to be so honoured. Information obtained indicates that the decision to invite Mr. Netanyahu’s was mooted since last year. In this case, if Nigeria was averse to the proposal, why didn’t she use her diplomatic skills and muscles to abort it right at the conception stage? Wasn’t the invitation discussed and agreed upon by the Council of Ministers before it was extended to the Israeli Prime Minister, or did Nigeria acquiesce to the visit until the last minute when it was too late to stop it? At what stage did Nigeria know that the Prime Minister of Israel was invited to address the ECOWAS Heads of States? What followed was the avoidable embarrassment of a charge d’affaires sitting on Nigeria’s seat, while other states were represented by their presidents. Such a diplomatic faux pas can only happen when there is a huge gap between foreign policy formulation and execution. Unfortunately, this is not the first time our foreign policy has suffered such a setback in this administration.

From all indications the Netanyahu affair was a project of President Sirleaf and Mr. Marcel Alain de Souza, President of the ECOWAS Commission, both of whom visited Israel before the summit. During President Sirleaf’s visit she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa for her work on “Promoting women’s equality and other human rights issues”, so it wasn’t surprising at the end of her chairmanship, she seized the opportunity to reciprocate the Israeli gesture by inviting Netanyahu to address the summit in Monrovia. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Netanyahu held meetings during his trip to Monrovia with ECOWAS leaders, Israeli officials signed an MOU pledging to invest $1 billion by 2021, “to advance green energy and power projects in all 15 ECOWAS member countries”. The first project under this MOU will be a $20 million commercial-scale solar field at the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, which will have the capacity to supply 25% of the country’s power.

It started like a bolt from the blue(s) barely a year ago, but it is fast becoming a reality after the Monrovia summit, “Noted with pleasure, the request for membership from the Kingdom of Morocco”. The speed and seeming success with which Morocco is pushing its ECOWAS membership drive, especially after joining the AU, has left Nigeria’s foreign policy formulators, as well as implementers so dazed that some veterans like Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and members of the Association of Retired Career Ambassadors of Nigeria (ARCAN) have found it necessary to pick up the gauntlet.

In his article titled, “Morocco’s admission in ECOWAS is anti-Nigeria”, published in several Nigerian dailies last week, Akinyemi said, “Having failed to find any rational benefit to ECOWAS by expanding membership to Morocco, I can only conclude that the move is to whittle down Nigeria’s influence in ECOWAS”.

He added that the only option left for Nigeria is to ask the West African Heads of State and presidents to drop this whole issue of expansion to the Mediterranean, or Nigeria should serve notice that it would terminate her membership of ECOWAS. ARCAN, through Ambassador Ignatius C. Olisemeka, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and founding chairman of the association, also expressed its shock at the attempt to even consider admitting Morocco, a member of the chaotic Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) into ECOWAS. Like Akinyemi, the association also believes “Morocco’s moves are a calculated attempt aimed at whittling down the strength of Nigeria for her role in the admission of Western Sahara into the then OAU.”

ARCAN wondered why the Federal Government has so far, not engaged in a vigorous campaign against Morocco’s move, and for this, it believes that the government owes Nigeria an explanation. Hopefully, after the intervention of Akinyemi, members of ARCAN and several other Nigerian foreign policy experts, the Federal Government would realise the need to shake off the lethargy with which it has been treating this vicious moves from Rabat. Morocco has the dubious distinction of causing dissension in any organisation it belongs; it has done that in OAU and AMU and given the chance it will do the same thing in ECOWAS. Recall also how last year it led eight other Arab countries to withdraw from the fourth Arab-African Summit in Malabo, over the insistence of AU on the participation of Western Sahara. This action nearly crippled the summit.

Unlike in the treaty of similar economic communities, there is no accession clause in the ECOWAS Treaty, because of the belief that all the states in the West African sub-region are already members.In their own wisdom, the founding fathers of ECOWAS, defined the membership of the Community in the 1975 ECOWAS Treaty comprising, “States that ratify the Treaty and such other WestAfrican States as may accede to it”. It is clear from this that the founding fathers expected only West African states to be members of the community. The 1993 Revised Treaty also does not have an accession clause, but (Article 2(2) says member states, “shall be the states that ratify this treaty”, and this gave Morocco the audacity to think it can leisurely walk into the community as a member. However, all over the world, accession into any REC is governed by legal, diplomatic, economic and political factors. Turkey has since 1987 been trying to accede to EU without success, as EU accession clause requires both unanimous approval of the Council of the European Union and the agreement of each existing member on the “conditions of accession”. ECOWAS is for the states in the West African sub-region and in this regard, the revised treaty defined the “region” as “the geographical zone known as West Africa as defined by Resolution CM/Res.464 (XXVI) of the OAU Council of Ministers.This resolution does not consider Morocco as a country in the West African sub-region, and the United Nations does not also classify Morocco among the countries in this sub-region either. Instead, Morocco is classified among AMU States together with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. Morocco cannot, therefore, unilaterally reclassify the internationally recognised division of the states in the five sub-regions of Africa, by migrating from AMU to ECOWAS. This will constitute serious difficulties not only to AU, but also the UN.

Both Akinyemi and ARCAN highlighted how Morocco’s admission into ECOWAS would erode Nigeria’s diplomatic influence not only in ECOWAS, but also in the international community. The immediate diplomatic crisis that would arise from Morocco’s membership would be over our principled stance on Western Sahara, where Nigeria would be isolated in ECOWAS because at least 12 out of the 15 member-states support Morocco. However, the economic fallout would also be enormous. It is easy to see Morocco is also attracted by the huge ECOWAS market, 70% of which is Nigeria. ECOWAS membership would provide tariff-free access for Morocco’s products in the whole of the community, including Nigeria. Considering that Morocco is an offshore manufacturing hub of many EU countries, this would only be to the benefit of the North African country. The harm is not directly coming from Morocco per se, whose GDP is less than one-quarter that of Nigeria and industrial output slightly bigger than that of Lagos State, but her surrogacy of Europe. Nigeria’s reluctance in signing the proposed Economic Partnership Agreement between EU and ECOWAS would be useless, once Morocco, which has since March 2000 signed an Association Agreement with the EU, comes into ECOWAS. With ECOWAS weak Rules of Origin regime, Morocco would simply serve as a gateway for EU goods entering into Nigeria without tariff or quantitative restrictions, further worsening our balance of trade with the EU. This is what Nigeria has been avoiding by refusing to sign EPA.

There should be no pretense; ECOWAS comprises countries of West Africa, which have different challenges and aspirations from the countries of North Africa. Morocco an Arab country should stay in AMU where it belongs, which incidentally has its headquarters in Rabat. Akinyemi has gone to the extent of advising Nigeria to serve notice that it would terminate its membership of ECOWAS if the community’s Heads of State are prepared to accept Morocco’s membership. With due respect to my former minister, I take the position that under no circumstances should Nigeria turn her back on ECOWAS, after 42 years’ investment that has cost us billions of dollars, not to talk about the thousands of Nigerian soldiers who lost their lives in the service of ECOWAS. We built ECOWAS and we cannot leave it for Morocco and her new coterie of cheer leaders. The notice we should serve to other ECOWAS Heads of State is, Morocco’s membership is unacceptable to Nigeria. This administration has a duty and indeed an obligation on behalf of Nigeria, as well for the preservation of Buhari’s legacy to ensure that Morocco is not allowed into ECOWAS.

Ibrahim is a retired ambassador.



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