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Pulling out of ECOWAS not solution to security challenges, says Akinyemi


Bolaji Akinyemi

Nigeria, a big player in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is faced by security challenges, which have been blamed on the free movement of people across the borders. But would pulling out of the sub-regional bloc provide a solution? And are there issues that must be weighed realistically before any decision is reached? Former Minister of External Affairs and Professor of Political Science Bolaji Akinyemi speaks with GBENGA SALAU.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has suggested a review of the ECOWAS free movement protocol, given Nigeria’s security challenges. How would this affect the marketing of the country’s products in the sub-region?

The issue you have raised is a very important one. But it is also a very wide one. You cannot have an economic community or economic union without free movement of goods and human beings. The crisis that we face now, when I say we, I mean Nigeria, cannot be treated in isolation.

What do I mean by that? The problem of Brexit – Britain leaving the European Union – one leg of it has to do with immigration, people flooding into Europe.

Even though the press and politicians, especially in Italy and other countries, tended to focus on immigration from the southern Mediterranean states as well as West African states, and in some cases East Africa, for Britain, actually, the issues of immigrants have had to do more with people coming from Eastern Europe, not from Africa or Asia.

So, when you look at the United States, its problem over what has been called the issue of the wall has to do with immigrants from Latin America.

So, I think we should put the issue of Nigeria’s problem with immigrants within that context. Therefore, as it is problematic for European countries, for the United States, it is also going to be for Nigeria.

And in the case of Nigeria, unfortunately, it has the added issues of the clash between herdsmen and farmers, and the attendant violence perpetrated by these herdsmen, resulting in horrendous injuries and massive deaths.

The people, who should know, like the Sultan, have said that the herdsmen who are perpetrating these heinous crimes are not from Nigeria. So, to that extent, the free movement of people guaranteed by the ECOWAS chapter has now become problematic for Nigeria.

What should Nigeria do? Does it adopt the British model by dropping out of ECOWAS or does it stay within ECOWAS? And I think I should stress this; the issue of herdsmen has also reared its head in Ghana. And I think that the coastal members of ECOWAS are going to bear the brunt of this crisis: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Southern Cameroon, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Why do I identify the coastal countries? This is because part of one cause of several causes is the changes in weather, the spread of the Sahara desert southwards, which has affected grazing land to the north of Nigeria, thereby pressing the herdsmen and their cattle into the south.

Another cause of it, which is of a security and strategic issue and which we have not paid so much attention to – although increasingly, scholars in the security study field are now paying attention to it – is the involvement and movement of groups like ISIS and other Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalists; their involvement with the organisations which are also moving down south.

When I say down south, I mean into Nigeria, even though we have tended to concentrate on Boko Haram. Information available shows that there is increasing sensitisation of the herdsmen, who are perpetrating these horrendous crimes, by these Islamic fundamentalists.

So, it is not only an economic issue; it is also a security issue for Nigeria. 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.

And it is starting to pose what I will call an existential problem for Nigeria. I will say that it is our number one problem; that is insecurity. This issue posed by free movement of personnel.

How can the government strike a balance between the economic benefits of free movement of goods and persons and the attendant security challenge?

We export goods to West Africa and we import goods from West Africa. But you have got to look at the volume involved. Who gets the larger chunk? And on whose side is the trade balance or the trade imbalance? And each country will have to do that cost benefit analysis.

You could ask for a temporary suspension of the free movement of people without affecting free movement of goods. This is one narrative that could be put forward. Each country would then decide on how to vote on such an issue.

I was not expecting that we would be faced with this crisis so soon when I took the position of publicly opposing the admission of Morocco into ECOWAS because I don’t believe that Morocco faces the same kind of issues that West Africa does.

And this is part of what I have in mind because Morocco, taking a position on this issue, is not going to be affected by the kind of factors that will influence West African states. And then you are going to get a distortion in the decision-making process within ECOWAS itself by the admission of Morocco.

There are some countries that will say they don’t really export that much, though they may say, ‘Yes, we import goods from them (Nigeria), maybe, we will find an alternative’. And some countries will say that they export but they just have to look for an alternative market, just as Britain is doing.

Having been confronted with the Brexit vote, it is busy looking for markets all over the world that she can export her goods to, without carrying the attendant baggage of free movement of people.

If we pull out of ECOWAS or take some related actions and the borders remain porous, will it not defeat the decisions we have taken? Shouldn’t we be tackling the issue of porous borders first before anything else?

Well, one of the factors that actually drove the desire for setting up ECOWAS is the impracticability of control of movement of people and of goods. This very issue you have raised, the porosity of our borders, we are not the only one.

All West African countries’ borders are porous. We, being the largest, of course, have the greatest mileage of porous borders.

Are you going to build a wall like Trump is saying he will do in the United States? We have never seriously addressed the issue of what to do with our porous borders. And there are cultural and religious reasons why we have never done that.

But in fairness to government, the impracticability of doing so is there. If you say you are going to put security forces around the porous borders, how many?

That definitely would be about five times the present size of the Nigerian army. Even with the five times the size of the army, will that still be sufficient.

And the cost of such a massive security presence all across, which will be at a cost to us, will it balance the benefit of doing so? And that was why this economic community was established, so that what you loose in one swing, you gain in another.

But as I said, since the behaviour of the herdsmen is posing an existential problem for us, we have to design a response. You keep emphasising pulling out of ECOWAS.

I am not sure that will solve the problem. You pull out, fine, how does that stop the cattle from being brought in? How do you stop the smuggling of goods in and out? Because 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 and it was in recognition of this unregulated trade often by women. Even during colonial and even before the colonial era, women in canoes went to The Gambia.

At times, they will be out for three years before they show up again. That was what ECOWAS capitalised on.

If you pull out of ECOWAS, this informal trading will continue; this informal trade not captured by any statistics. We have always had it and we will always have it.

It is part of what you are referring to as the porosity of the border. And we tend to think about the land border alone. What about the coastal lines?

How many of the canoes that you will find in Lagos harbours…not Apapa or Tincan. Ikorodu is one harbour. Epe is another.

And then start going towards Benin, Sapele, all the way to Calabar. There are inlet harbours. They are not big, but they take in the canoes. They do not take in containers; they take in the small traders.

Nigeria dictates what happens in the West Africa region. Won’t the decision we take eventually diminish our influence in the region and on the continent?

Nigeria’s status in West Africa and in Africa is not as a consequence of our membership of ECOWAS; it has more to do with the size of the country itself, not just the geographical size, but also the economic and military size.

Take a look at what happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia. We bankrolled the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). And in terms of contribution, military personnel, ECOMOG was really another name for Nigerian troops.

Yes, in order to give it that veneer that it was an ECOWAS force, few other West African countries made contributions. And some were just token contributions. Ghana made a substantial contribution.

Cote d’Ivoire also made a substantial contribution. But most of the others were token contributions.

Therefore, I am just following your line of thought. 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. This is because 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. In a way, this interview has simply thrown up the complexity of the problem.

So, at times, when people begin to 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.

This is because, at times, governance is like a balloon. You squeeze air and it goes to another part of the balloon. You think if you squeeze, it will leave.

It will not. There is an elasticity in governance, which often means you got to configure all areas that will be affected by a particular localised decision and then see whether the problem you are seeking to solve will not create another problem for you.

Beside the porous borders, there is the issue of poor monitoring of people going in and out. Immigration officers cannot do the job alone. How can the government mobilise its citizens to prevent the influx of illegal aliens?

I have been privileged to be involved in discussion that involved traditional rulers. They pointed out that when traditional rulers had recognition in the process of governance and were regarded as strategic partners, they could easily monitor what went on in every hamlet, village and town under their domain because they had representatives in all those places.

And part of the jobs of these representatives was to monitor the movement of strangers into a community and immediately report to the traditional authority who also passes the message until it reaches the capital city and receives the attention of the government.

But now that they are no longer recognised, they are ignored and sidelined, there is nobody who monitors alien residents or movements into communities.

That is one thing we could look into. We could bring that back. But such is the pollution of the institution of governance in Nigeria. How are you sure that would not be another level for the collection of bribes?

How are you sure the traditional authority at that lower level will not simply regard it as opportunity to enrich themselves, milking the poor alien who wander into their domain. You have to look into that issue.

I fully understand that there have been cries over the cost of governance and that resources that should have been devoted to development are being used to administer the country. Yes, I accept that.

But that means restructuring of the institution of governance, downsizing maybe the civil servants and increasing or upsizing the security services, so that you downsize all the people just sitting in the office where three people are doing the job of one person and increase the number of custom officers, immigration and police officers that the country needs.

I understand the number of police we have is about 350,000. And by U.N. figures, we need about 1.5 million.

So, there is the inadequacy of security personnel. Another issue is: will increasing the size of policemen in the country increase incidences of corruption and abuse?

There is a call for a common currency. Will a central means of identifying citizens within the sub-region also help?

This is part of what people complain about in terms of these multinational bodies; they tend to take on too much, including local issues that are best dealt with at the local level.

What will an institution sitting in Abuja, as an institution of ECOWAS, do in terms of documentation that others in the member states will not do better?

The best that a central organ can do is coordinate and compile data gathered at the national level, and the data depends on the one submitted from the state or local government level.

You are not going to send someone from the state headquarters into every ward. That will be the job of the local government, which collects data at ward level, compiles them at local government level and passes them on to the state level, which in turn passes them to the national level.

Then from the national level, they pass them all to the ECOWAS headquarters. It should not be done the other way around.

Are you saying the issue is so complex that it defies solution?

I am just saying that there are no easy solutions. I have got to the age now where I am skeptical about easy solutions to complex problems. And the more I monitor what is going on in the world, the more I see that easy solutions to complex problems only end up making the problems more complex. Brexit is one of them.

Given the problem Britain faced in the European Union, posing the question in terms of ‘should we leave or stay?’ is a simplistic approach. And so, you got the answer, ‘we should leave.” But each day now shows you the impracticability of leaving. Politicians are stubborn.

Britain now has to cope with the headaches of leaving; headaches that could have been avoided by staying and addressing the difficult issues that Britain was facing, which basically was one question of immigration, that too many decisions were being taken on issues.

Too many issues were being decided in Brussels that should have been decided at the national level and that some of those decisions didn’t make sense.

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