This article is part of our #FirstWord series to provide context on trending news.
President Muhammadu Buhari has emerged as Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This was announced at the end of the recent regional bloc summit in Togo.
What does it mean?
The position is largely ceremonial and lasts for a year. It involves organising ECOWAS meetings, coordinating responses to issues that arise and in most cases, mediating over potential conflicts. The position also affects other arms of the ECOWAS architecture, such as the Council of Ministers and other statutory meetings. Nigeria, by virtue of producing the Chairman, will now chair these meetings. This is an opportunity for the country to implement strong foreign and trade policy in the region.
The position is for the country more than the individual. Both Buhari in 1985, and Yar'Adua in 2010 began terms as ECOWAS Chairmen, and upon their departure from office, the role simply moved on to Babangida and Jonathan respectfully.
How does it affect us?
Firstly, Buhari isn't new to this position. However, the role and the region have changed since 1985. With the organisation's robust peacekeeping portfolio and the volatility in the region, Nigerian diplomats and government officials will be working closely with the president and other officials from member states to coordinate the bloc's response to issues. The political situations in Mali, Togo and Guinea Bissau will definitely be monitored.
There is also the power of agenda-setting, which will likely focus on security problems and threats and subsequently finding effective responses. However, it does mean he will be responsible for encouraging or discouraging group plans such as the current push for a single currency for West African countries in 2020. Much like the AfCFTA issue that dragged on, economic analysts and other stakeholders will have a say and handling issues at home and abroad may be difficult in an election year.
The Government might parade this as a foreign policy triumph, and it is rightfully so. The truth though, is that Nigeria has always had a strong influence in ECOWAS. It hosts the headquarters in its capital, has the most seats in the ECOWAS parliament and it also been given one of West Africa's seats on the African Union Peace and Security Council on a permanent basis.
What is important however is that this position, especially in an election year, has the capacity to either bolster this administration's foreign policy credentials or negatively affect them. Only time will tell.