Bola Tinubu is the new chair of ECOWAS – the burning issues that face the Nigerian president


Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu was elected as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on 9 July 2023. He took over from President Umaro Sissoco Embaló of Guinea Bissau.

Nigeria’s experience is needed now to reposition the regional body. The country’s leadership status in west Africa will be useful, considering the challenges confronting the sub-region.

The chair does not have any executive powers, but is in a strategic position to liaise more closely with the president of the ECOWAS Commission. It’s the president who wields the power to implement the regional body’s decisions and policies.

As a researcher with expertise in west Africa’s security, I think two major issues deserve the new chairman’s attention: ending military coups and tackling insecurity.

With a history of civil wars such as those in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the growing spate of violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin and in the Sahel, the threat to regional peace and security is serious.

Insecurity and democracy

There has been democratic backsliding in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad. This is worsened by linkages with jihadism.

Concerns over President Macky Sall running for a third term plunged Senegal into violent protests. His decision not to run again has since been welcomed by the international community.

Still, uncertainty around fragile peace deals and political arrangements means the sub-region’s democratic transitions are not assured.

ECOWAS has mostly been reactive rather than proactive. It has not gone beyond condemning coup plotters and military juntas. Its stance of not interfering is largely informed by the need to recognise the sovereignty of its member states. But this has tended to derail its credibility and strategic relevance in promoting regional stability.

The two-point agenda is particularly significant given the threat of insecurity across the region. Another reason is that authoritarianism hardens political divides, which could result in regional instability.

Though Nigeria has its own internal challenges like rising debt, declining revenues and insecurity, it is still well positioned to lead the sub-region at a time like this. It has the political, economic and diplomatic sagacity.

Ending military coups in west Africa

ECOWAS under Nigeria’s leadership must mobilise collective political will and call on military juntas to give up political power and keep to democratic transition schedules. It will need to take concrete actions – such as sanctions – against those who are in the way of democracy.

It must make a deliberate effort to commit other countries across the sub-region to upholding the rule of law and entrenching constitutionalism over authoritarianism. ECOWAS needs stronger instruments to do this. One way is to get all member states to commit to binding protocols that attract penalties. The penalties could include cuts in trade volumes and suspension of military cooperation.

Nigeria showed its own commitment to democratic ideals by being one of the first countries in Africa to commend Macky Sall’s decision not to extend his stay in office.

Ending insecurity in west Africa

The second issue that needs decisive leadership is insecurity across the region. The spillover effects of the spread of jihadism from the troubled Sahel region, for instance, into the coastal countries led to the Accra Initiative. This is a security arrangement between Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Mali and Niger. Nigeria has observer status.

However rather than ad hoc security arrangements such as the G5 Sahel, ECOWAS under Nigeria’s leadership should push for harmonisation of regional security efforts. The G5 Sahel is a regional framework in response to violent extremism in the Sahel.

A harmonised effort would be geared towards mutually linked security goals, given the transnational nature of the threats. Non-military peace efforts should take priority over an overly militarised approach to security. A military approach has had the unintended effect of protracted armed conflicts across west Africa.

The recent decision by the military junta in Mali, asking the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping mission, also created a policing gap. ECOWAS must be willing to shoulder this.

Given Chad’s proximity to Sudan, ECOWAS under Nigeria’s leadership must also be willing to take on an active role in finding a solution to the crisis in Sudan. The growing influence in the Sahel of the Wagner Group – a private military company composed of Russian mercenaries – also needs greater attention.

Looking ahead

The chairmanship is a rotating position, usually for a year. But a lot can still be achieved. Focusing on these two critical issues that are central to regional peace, security and stability over the next year could make a huge difference. Especially with the required political will.

Nigeria’s leadership has been missing over the years in the sub-region. It is time to set things right. Beyond the consequences on lives and livelihoods, peace, security and stability of the region is dependent on its decisive leadership. Achieving the ECOWAS agenda requires deliberate efforts on Nigeria’s part by establishing shared goals and objectives with member states.



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