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Nigeria: Trapped between national security woes and ECOWAS pact on free movement



In the early 1970s, when Nigeria began championing the cause of sub-regional cohesion in West Africa, there were foreign policy considerations, which went beyond the sentiment of sub-regional solidarity.

In the efforts to galvanize the countries in the sub-region, through the formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Nigeria enunciated a policy of good neighborliness, wherein it was reckoned that if it could be on very cordial and friendly terms with its neighbors, it would have used a soft power approach to address emergent threats to national security, from both within and without.

At the time, there was a potent combination of factors, which threatened to undermine the stability of the most populous black nation on earth.


Nigeria’s manifest destiny, which was loudly proclaimed at independence by its leaders, was being undermined by a potent combination of internal secessionists threats, which intermingled with great power meddling.

Nigeria’s foreign policy had to come to terms with the need for a national security strategy anchored on friendly neighbors, especially given the fact that the country was surrounded by other states, which were colonized by one of the great powers, France.

A clear manifestation of the treacherous nature of the international environment Nigeria found itself having to navigate in the post-independence period would be seen in the roles played by some of the great powers in the civil war, which pitted the secessionist Biafra side against the Federal Government.

These realities were apparently very fresh in the minds of the political decision and policy makers, just as the geo-politics of the Cold War era equally shaped the need to get a binding platform for the states in the sub-region.

Added to the impetus to create a buffer of friendly states in its immediate neighborhood, is the fact of the financial muscle, which empowered Nigeria to influence other actors within the sub-region.

The discovery of oil afforded an already endowed giant the financial wherewithal to call the shots, especially after crisis in the Middle East disrupted the supply of oil in the international market.

As if driven by the much talked about manifest destiny, the country could afford to raise its voice to defend the rest of Africa.


In the struggle against Apartheid, settler colonialism and the evils of white minority rule in Southern Africa, Nigeria had the balls to square it off with the great powers.

Part of the logic for sub-regional integration came from the assertiveness and newfound confidence that an objection to injustice backed by the power of petro-dollars had conferred on the giant of the African continent.

So if Nigeria could spearhead the struggle for the humanity of fellow Africans in other parts of the continent, why would it not bring together its neighbors right in its own backyard in West Africa?

This explains why in the developments leading to the formation of the community, Nigeria did not bat an eyelid in pumping the required resources towards propping ECOWAS. It had the deep pocket to influence and persuade its neighbors in the sub-region to join the club.

It went as far as giving generous concessions to help the realization of the goals ECOWAS. Four decades after the formation of ECOWAS, there is no doubt that the community has made immense contributions.

It has provided a platform, which has harmonized the aspirations of the peoples of West Africa sub-region. ECOWAS has been a veritable platform for exchanges and cooperation on peace and security, the push for democratic governance, and the rule of law in the sub-region.

From trade to technical cooperation on health, education, agriculture and infrastructure, the roles which ECOWAS has played in giving West African states a voice in international system, cannot be wished away.

However, like all such groupings, which aspire to a supra-national approach in addressing common challenges facing the various states through in the push for free trade, free movement and even a monetary union, there are serious challenges, which cannot be overlooked.


Nigeria as the prime mover of ECOWAS is a good position to ruminate on some of these challenges, especially because it has had to deal with some of the not so palatable fallouts of commitments to the sub-regional group.

As things stand, Nigeria is a cauldron, which keeps erupting on account of the challenges of insecurity.

Internally, the volatile nature of inter-group relations, and the struggle over scarce national resources, has meant that Africa’s economic powerhouse is perpetually on the brink of full-blown crisis.

While issues of ethnic identity and the related struggle for scarce and heavily centralized resources constantly create tensions, sectarian eruptions, especially in the North have continued to undermine national stability.

The problem of Boko Haram terror in the North East is a ready example of how a combination of poor governance and an alienated group of citizens, can come back to haunt the state by creating a climate of violence and fear.

Ordinarily, these internal factors alone, which the Nigeria political process has left unaddressed over the years, are capable of sinking any nation-building project.

The resonant calls for restructuring and the fundamental redesign of the Nigerian polity to ensure, equity, justice and fairness is part of the internal campaign to address the contradictions in the very idea of Nigeria.

Externally too, there is now a compelling need for Nigeria to take a second and more nuanced look at international agreements that may have allegedly contributed to the current state of insecurity in the country.

One of such instruments that have come under the spotlight is the ECOWAS Protocol on free movement. Security analysts have pointed at the protocol as one factor that has given vent to the massive influence of killer herdsmen into Nigerian territory.

For some years, Nigerians have struggled to come to terms with the activities of murderous herdsmen.

This very mobile group of terrorists move from one community to another hacking people to death and mounting an unending assault on lives and property.

The point has been made that despite the good intentions of the Protocol on Free Movement, criminal elements, like drug cartels, armed gangs and global terrorist networks have in turn taken advantage of the efforts in the sub-region towards free movement, trade and closer ties.

This part explains why the security system in Nigeria seems to have been caught napping, as very mobile networks of lawbreakers roam freely across the porous Nigerian borders, wreck havoc and simply disappear.

The herdsmen for instance are known to be so dispersed across the region, such that keeping track of them especially after attacks on communities, would require a totally different approach to law enforcement.

Added to this is the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which has made the incursion of elements involved in criminal enterprise much more deadly, as they even possess the fire power to take on, not only civilian populations, but also state agents attempting to enforce the laws.

The role of small arms and light weapons in the deadly incursions of those criminal elements would be gleaned from the routine consistency with which they take the lives of law enforcement officials.

The question many anxious citizens are posing is: if these marauders can so boldly confront those who are supposed to protect the ordinary citizens, it shows how deeply entrenched and equipped the criminal elements are, necessitating a different set of strategies to bring an end to their destructive activities.


In the face of the challenges posed for national security by the Protocol on Free Movement, there is no doubt that Nigeria, which is the hardest hit must do something urgent.

While the answer may not be a knee-jerk action towards reviewing the protocol, there could be some creative ideas around using the ECOWAS architecture for peace, security and law enforcement to put criminal elements in check.

The Nigerian Constitution provides explicitly in Section 19(a) that the foreign policy objectives of the state should be the “promotion and protection of the national interest.”

This provision is earlier supported by the express contents of Section 14 (2b), which make it clear that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.

In other words, the governance of Nigeria is supposed to give top most priority to securing the lives and properties of Nigerians.

Unfortunately, the way and manner the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has handled the security challenge posed by terrorist herdsmen has left so much to be desired.

While it is convenient to simply blame mechanisms like the Protocol on Free Movement for part the security challenges being experienced in the country, the other fundamental question many are asking is how decisively has the government responded to bring an end to the chronic break down of law and order.

So far, there has been no coherent strategy to show that there is an understanding of the nature of the conflicts and attacks that have made Nigeria a killing field.
The Protocol on Free Movement, whatever its weaknesses does not provide any backing for criminal activities or actions, which undermine lives and property.

It therefore means that if the government, which controls the coercive instrument of state power on behalf of all Nigerians is ready to do something about the unending wave of killings, a sustainable solution may just be in sight.

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