2020, Nigeria and the West Africa Challenge, By Jibrin Ibrahim

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West Africa is undergoing a very difficult phase in its evolution. A report just published by the International Crisis Group draws attention to the spectre of jihadism haunting the whole region. Islamist militancy has been growing dramatically in Burkina Faso which is emerging as a terrorist corridor linking the Sahel to the coastal states of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. The terrorists, it would be recalled struck Côte d’Ivoire in March 2016. The ICG report points out that the jihadist groups are advancing toward the south and east of Burkina Faso, approaching the Gulf of Guinea states. On November 7 2019, an attack on a convoy of workers from the Boungou gold mine, which killed at least 38 people, confirmed their presence in the east of the country, bordering Benin and Togo. Burkinabé security forces also recently intervened in the region of Pô, a town bordering Ghana in the south east of the country, killing six individuals suspected of terrorism.

In 2012, terrorist groups took over Northern Mali and would have marched to and taken over the capital, Bamako but for the intervention of French troops. There have been a number of attacks on the border between Mali and Côte d’Ivoire. The jihadist group – Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) appears to be trying to open a corridor from northern Mali to north-western Nigeria and northern Benin, passing through the Nigerian town of Dogondoutchi. Meanwhile, there are reports that the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a group that emerged out of Boko Haram, is poised to move into the security conundrum that has emerged out of the growth of rural banditry in Zamfara creating the possibility of building bridges with the increasingly active groups operating in Niger.

In a video dated November 8 2018, three leaders of a terrorist coalition affiliated with al-Qarda – the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) — Iyad Ag Ghali, Djamel Okacha and Amadou Koufa, called on the Fulani people who are found all over the Sahel and West Africa to “pursue jihad”. The specifically called for action in Senegal, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Cameroon. Meanwhile, the Jihadi groups have been regularly attacking army formations in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The same is happening further to the east with Boko Haran and ISWAP attacking the military in the Lake Chad Basin countries of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. What is happening is that the attacks are increasing over a wide area suggesting that the core strategy of the terrorists is that of decentralization making it difficult for national security agencies and international forces to cope with their activities. They have moved into deprived rural areas which have virtually no State presence.

Meanwhile, the basic strategy within West Africa appears to be to prevent coordination in tackling the menace of terrorism. There is an assumption that everyone knows has no basis that Islamic terrorism will remain a Sahelian phenomenon. It was on this basis that the G5 Sahel Joint Force (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) was conceived. This assumes that the jihadist threat would expand horizontally, crossing the western Sahel from east to west and remaining there.

Meanwhile, what is emerging is also a vertical march towards the south and teaming up with Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. The G5 has not even taken off in its operations and its clearly too narrow an approach to contain the situation. What is clear is that France insists on this narrow definition of the terrorist threat.
From the very beginning, efforts should have been coordinated at the level of ECOWAS. The problem is that ECOWAS has neither the vision nor the leadership to play an effective role. The deep Francophone/Anglophone divide within the organisation remains an important constraint. It has blocked the development of greater coordination; better intelligence gathering and sharing; and more effective border controls, which will require tackling the corruption that is rife in many customs services and police forces.

A new front of discord has emerged in the region on the economic front. Nigeria has closed its borders with its neighbours since August last year to control smuggling. This has caused serious concerns in Cameroon, Niger, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The establishment of the West African currency, which is programmed to be launched this year has become another divisive issue. This year, the 30-year struggle for a West African currency might not happen as planned.
On the 21st of December 2019, President Alasane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire together with his French counterpart, President Macron announced that the 8 West African countries using the CFA Franc currency would adopt the Eco as their new currency this year. The announcement was done the same day ECOWAS met and took the momentous decision to adopt the Eco, also this year. Clearly, the involvement of France poses the risk of breaking up the Eco. France is very keen to take over the responsibility of establishing and even printing the new currency and presents the other countries in the region with a fait accompli. Although France has said it would relinquish its position on the board of the CFA Central Bank and the requirement of depositing 50% of a member country’s foreign reserve with the French treasury, it is clear that they are seeking to establish a controlling influence over the Eco.
It is true that the long delay in establishing the Eco has been caused by the inability of the 15 ECOWAS countries to meet the convergence criteria they set for themselves, notably; that the inflation rate of less than 5 percent is maintained, a budget deficit of not more than 3 percent of GDP and that each country has enough foreign reserves to cover at least 3 months of imports. We note that after failing to meet these conditions over the past two decades, the eight countries have now adopted the currency without meeting them. This means sound economic principles have been set aside for political reasons. On 28th December, Ghana announced that it was considering joining the 8 countries but would prefer a flexible exchange rate regime, implying it was not keen on pegging the Eco to the Euro. There has been silence on the Nigerian end until the 30th of December when the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning issued a press release informing Nigerians that Government was studying the situation and would soon issue its position.

The most important element of the on-going West African crisis is that Nigeria has essentially abdicated its leadership role built on the lives of our soldiers that fought to defend Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria needs to reinvent its leadership role on both the security and economic fronts. On the new currency, the 8 CFA countries cannot be a vanguard for monetary integration in West Africa when they account for only 21% of West Africa’s GDP and 32% of the region’s population. Nigeria alone accounts for about 66% of ECOWAS’s GDP and 55% of its population. Nigeria therefore has to play a leadership role in the establishment of Eco just as Germany played the anchor role in establishing the Euro.

The adoption of the Eco provides Nigeria a golden opportunity to lead the sub region. This would require greater coordination between the different arms of Government particularly the Presidency, Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, Budget and Planning, the academia, the Business Community, the press and civil society organisations. Eco can only be built on the basis of strict adherence to the convergence criteria laid down by ECOWAS’s West African Monetary Institute. Starting the Eco system without adherence to the convergence criteria poses enormous risk of Eco’s sustainability and international credibility. Nigeria should break out of its silence and immediately make it clear to ECOWAS members that third parties from outside the region cannot play a leadership role in establishing Eco.

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