NIGERIA AT RECEIVING END OF ECOWAS CRISIS

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NIGERIA AT RECEIVING END OF ECOWAS CRISIS

Nigeria stands to lose more than the other 12 member countries in the areas of security and economy, following the pullout of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), experts and people living in border communities told the Daily Trust on Monday.

Also, some experts have argued that the departure of the three countries from the regional bloc could hinder meaningful progress on the negotiations on protocols relating to trade and investments, and ultimately therefore negatively impact the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The AfCFTA is designed to ramp up trade within Africa and bolster the continent’s global trade standing.

Recall that the military juntas in the three countries had, on Sunday, announced their withdrawal from the ECOWAS with immediate effect.

This was sequel to the sanctions imposed on them by the regional body following the ouster of democratic governments.

Mali was suspended in 2021 after two coups; Burkina Faso, in 2022, and Niger, in 2023.

Even though the ECOWAS Protocol indicates that member countries can only pull out after a one-year notice, those who spoke to our correspondents said it has not been easy for them since last year, and Sunday’s declaration by the three countries would only aggravate the situation.

Unlike what happened in Mali and Burkina Faso, the suspension of Niger generated greater concern, especially by people from Northern Nigeria, who share cultural and religious affinity with Niger.

The people from the two countries at the border communities intermarry, conduct businesses together and also tackle common problems at local, state and bilateral levels.

The Niger-Nigeria border is 1,608 kilometres (999 miles) in length and runs through Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno states.

There is only a thin line that separates communities in Niger and those in Nigeria in the seven states as the people crisscross with no or little restrictions.

Apart from a few papers for documentation, they require no visas to travel and carry out their businesses or for social events.

But when an embargo was slammed on Niger in 2023, followed by increased surveillance, the impact was immediately noticed as both official and unmanned entry points were closed, a development that led to shortages of essential commodities.

Niger heavily relies on Nigeria for grains, textiles and building materials.

Nigerians on the other hand travel to Niger to import livestock like camels, cattle, sheep; date palms, among others.

The coup in Niger and the action taken by ECOWAS, which Nigeria leads, also affected counter-insurgency operations like the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), in the northern region, as attested to by troops on the ground around the Lake Chad region.

In November 2023, this newspaper reported how the vacuum created by the absence of Nigerien forces in the aftermath of the coup had resulted in the escalation of attacks on the fringes of Lake Chad.

Some locations across the region, especially within the axis of Gaidam in Yobe State, Mallam Fatori and Damasak in Borno, have been witnessing steady infiltration of foreign fighters.

According to our sources in Gaidam, Niger removed troops they had stationed at the Gaidam-Niger border leading to an increase in terrorists’ attacks.

The Chairman of the Borno Elders Forum, Dr Bulama Mali Gubio, said considering the close relationship, the withdrawal of Niger from ECOWAS would have serious effects on traders in Nigeria and thousands of refugees taking refuge in the neighbouring country.

“We are talking about the official businesses going on through the borders, not smuggling. Now, our people must secure a visa to cross to Niger, so there would be no free movement of goods and services,” he said.

He called on Nigerian states bordering the Niger Republic to support the next step to be taken by President Bola Tinubu and the ECOWAS in using negotiations to resolve the debacle.

“At least, northerners have done everything possible to respect the long-term relationship we maintain with Niger. Our traditional rulers, clerics, former leaders and businessmen had intervened to broker peace but the junta proved arrogant in their quest to continue ruling at the expense of the masses”, he said.

Also, security sources from Abadam, a border community where thousands of Nigerians are taking refuge in Diffa, Niger Republic, said they have started recording high numbers of returnees.

“The number of Nigerian refugees returning from Diffa and other towns of Niger Republic these days is scary. We mostly cleared them to go to the IDP camp in Monguno.

“The camp is now overstretched, some of them have no place to sleep, and the food supply is not sufficient for those in the camp,” one of the sources said.

Abdullahi Ibrahim, a lawyer and an activist in Maiduguri, said while Niger relies heavily on Nigeria in terms of economy, Nigeria is also counting a lot on Niger to counter violent extremism occasioned by Boko Haram activities.

“People in Malam Fatori crossover to Maine Soroa in Niger to get medical attention. They also buy basic things for survival like water and sundry foodstuff because it is easier than coming to Maiduguri or even Monguno,” he said.

A security operative working in the North East who preferred anonymity said: “We need their cooperation to ensure a smooth crushing of the terrorists’ strongholds, especially in the Abadam axis, Kukawa and Marte, into the Tunbus (islands) on the fringes of Lake Chad”.

According to him, “ISWAP are found now in Gashegar, Arkubma and Shilay, where they stay and carry out operations, including collection of taxes from the communities.

“On Fridays, ISWAP usually, with two vehicles, six motorbikes, sleep in Laye village. In the morning, they patrol communities around Kareto/Laye. Most of these elements of ISWAP come from the Gaidam axis. These communities are under Mobbar LGA,” he said.

Commenting on the socioeconomic implications of the new development, particularly on the border communities, the Chairman of Jibia Peoples Forum (JPF), Alhaji Gide Dahiru, said business activities were already affected adversely by the impasse, saying pulling out of the three countries, but specifically, Niger from ECOWAS could only aggravate the situation.

“There were rules governing cross-border transactions, including business and personal movements. Now that these countries have decided to pull out of ECOWAS, it means those rules are no longer effective and new ones will emerge in their place.

“As you know, there were commodities such as grains and other farm produce like tiger nuts and dates from Niger Republic that hitherto were duty-free, but if this new development has come to say, it means such products might be on the list of import duty”, he said.

Also commenting, a security analyst, Muhammad Nasir Abdullahi, said there was a collaborative effort between Nigerian and Nigerien forces about the fight against banditry along the borders, saying “If that is cut off, the situation could be dire in the area”.

In terms of social relations, Abdullahi said there is a strong kinship between the neighbouring communities due to inter-marriages, thus any stringent international rules could tear such families apart.

According to Professor Tanko Baba, a political economist at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Nigeria will be at the reaching end.

“Nigeria champions the cause of ECOWAS. It is doing Nigeria a lot of good. Economically, the whole region is integrated. Nigeria has the highest population among the 15 member countries. The trade route here in Northern Nigeria stretches to Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Businesses and transactions happening among citizens of these three countries that have now pulled out of the regional bloc will die up.

“Remember also that the economy of Nigeria, particularly in terms of cattle; 69 to 79 per cent of cattle that are being consumed in Nigeria come from Niger Republic.

“And some of these are not only from Niger, some are coming from Senegal daily. Now, we are going to experience a drop. This is also in addition to the security crisis that Northern Nigeria is going through.

“Diplomatically, Nigeria has never in its history had a neighbour that is as loyal as the Niger Republic. Now, Nigeria has the highest risk of security threats.

“Now, Niger has translated into a foe of a sort and these criminals, bandits, terrorists and cattle rustlers have also linked their roots to these particular countries in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger,” he said.

Dr Bashir Achida, also an economist at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, said the pattern of trade between Nigeria and Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali is huge.

“If you go to some of these border towns and you see the level of economic activities, especially trade, you will realise that a lot of our people rely heavily on these countries for their businesses. Pulling out (by these three countries) will be catastrophic,” he said.

“The trade between Nigeria and Niger is about more than a billion US dollars just last year. About USD 300 million was formal trade and over USD 600 million was informal,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mali has formally notified ECOWAS of its decision to leave the political and economic bloc, which it announced on Sunday with neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger.

About Dons Eze

DONS EZE, PhD, Political Philosopher and Journalist of over four decades standing, worked in several newspaper houses across the country, and rose to the positions of Editor and General Manager. A UNESCO Fellow in Journalism, Dr. Dons Eze, a prolific writer and author of many books, attended several courses on Journalism and Communication in both Nigeria and overseas, including a Postgraduate Course on Journalism at Warsaw, Poland; Strategic Communication and Practical Communication Approach at RIPA International, London, the United Kingdom, among others.

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