Premium Times (Abuja)

West Africa: Nigeria, Ecowas' Largest Donor, Continually Outsmarted By Smaller West-African Countries

Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS commission, doesn't come away as extravagant, with his modest suits, chauffeured-cars, and few guards.

But in Abuja, where the West African regional body he heads is headquartered, Mr. Ouedraogo lives large. He maintains a permanent executive suite at the Transcorp Hilton despite recently remodeling his official apartment with a swimming pool and boy's quarters.

When he took office nearly a year ago, Mr. Ouedraogo, a national of Burkina Faso, refurbished his office with N15 million.

With immense cash and power at his disposal, the diplomat recently overruled a required authorization of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, council, to recruit nine personal staff in addition to nearly a dozen approved for his office.

That decision, costing contributing nations over $300,000 (N48 million) in unplanned funding, inflamed some member countries, with Nigeria, ECOWAS' biggest funder, declaring it "unacceptable".

"These appointments should have waited to be presented during the normal session of the council," Nigeria's Foreign Affairs minister, Olugbenga Ashiru, said in a protest letter, days before last Christmas.

But the violation, which has stirred a spat within the commission' ranks, is seen merely as a speck of a broader scale of abuses that have helped fuel divisions among member states along Anglophone-Francophone lines, and have increased incidences of corruption at the regional body.

To Nigerian officials, however, the implication has gone further. Those breaches, particularly intensified by Mr. Ouedraogo's self-given powers, Nigerian diplomats say, have merely complicated Nigeria's long-standing frustration of spending billions of naira to run ECOWAS, but failing to retain a commensurate influence on the body.

Rather than make such gains, even the country's supposed basic rights, are lost to a regional politics Nigerian diplomats have failed to master for decades.

While Nigeria's influence is tucked at the commission, far less contributing nations like Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Guinea and Togo-all French speaking, easily have their ways.

Leading in funding, lost in influence

Between 2003 and 2011 for instance, Nigeria contributed $918.7 million (N138 billion) to the running of the Community, followed at a distance by Ghana at $225.7 million (N34 billion), and Cote D'Ivoire at $107.5 million (N16.1 billion).

For years, Nigeria's funding to the 15-member body stood at three to six times what other nations contributed. That ratio rose recently to over 60 percent of ECOWAS' total revenues, with the introduction of community levies, according to data showing annual state-wide contributions.

Even so, Nigeria hosts three of ECOWAS' institutions-the commission, the court and the parliament-contributions that are expected to, in addition to the lead in funding, translate in the minimum to relative privileges in decision-making, and staffing.

But in reality, Nigeria receives a thrashing on any matter requiring voting, its opinions are often discarded; and, not only do shortages exist on her staff quota-for a nation with millions of unemployed- some of the openings are seized on by smaller, but smarter nations.

"One would expect that the decision-making process in ECOWAS ought to recognize the power and influence of its major contributors," one official said, not wanting to be quoted. "This is definitely not the case."

A 2011 analysis by the commission's financial controller concluded that Nigeria was short of at least 11 staff at the regional office in Abuja. Currently, Nigeria heads one directorate out of the commission's 26, with a second disputed.

The shortage at the senior level rings at the non-professional low-ranking cadre with allegations that, foreign senior officials, who are in majority, reserve available spots for relatives.

"Now all kinds of people related to representatives of other countries are brought in by other countries to hang around as contract staff when his principal anticipates that there is going to be recruitment," another foreign affairs official said.

When such openings eventually exists, the non-Nigerian contract staff, automatically then qualify as local recruits, having stayed in Nigeria for some time, the official who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said.

He requested anonymity since he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

In recruiting his new advisers, one of the rules the commission's president, Mr. Ouedraogo, brushed aside was the Article 20 of the 2005 Staff regulation of the commission.

The provision makes it mandatory for in-house staff, on acting or related capacities, to be first considered for existing openings before outsiders. Abiding that rule would possibly have been in Nigeria's favour, with the country having four of her citizen's in acting capacity.

Foreign minister, Mr. Ashiru, raised that concern in his letter to the president of the commission, dated December 20, 2012, citing the breached rule and criticised Mr. Ouedraogo's decision to unilaterally forge on with the recruitments without the approval of the ECOWAS council.

"Nigeria does not see, or believe that there are any extenuating circumstances for the application of Rule 13 in the recent recruitment of personal staff of the president of the commission," he said.

Rule 13, adopted in 2010, allows the president of the commission liberty for decisions in between routine sessions of the commission's council, to reduce bureaucratic bottlenecks in the event of an emergency.

Still, established subjects such as employment, covered by an approved organogram, are not seen as falling within that purview, officials say.

Complex politics

But the scope of high-wire dealings that has tamed, or say, outfoxed Nigeria at the commission, far transcends employment matters.

In Mr. Ashiru's letter, a separate complaint was how Nigeria's contributions during ECOWAS meetings were, in many instances, "deliberately or conveniently" obliterated from the final minutes of such discussions.

"I am seizing this opportunity to serve notice that Nigeria will no longer accept this situation," the minister warned.

He questioned why decisions made by the regional body, were jettisoned by member states involved "for reasons best known to them",

The key to rooting Nigeria, and her influence, lies apparently with the ECOWAS structure of dominant eight French speaking, five English and two Portuguese speaking nations.

Reputed for their unanimity, the French speaking nations are further bonded with a sub alliance within the ECOWAS community, under the African Economic and Monetary Union (also known as UEMOA from its name in French, Union économique et monétaire ouest-africaine).

"With each state having one vote, and with the preponderance of the UEMOA, the reality is Nigeria even with the support of the four other English speaking states, is outvoted at every turn," another official said.

That formular has remained in place for decades, and Nigerian diplomats have failed to win over backers either from the tightly knitted UEMOA, or the minority Portuguese speaking nations of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau.

How those divisions have haunted Nigeria, showed last year in her failed bid for the United Nations Security Council seat after member states split support for other nations also vying.

In office positions, decision-making, selection, the Francophone alliance looms large at the ECOWAS community, and overturning that influence has remained frustrating for Nigeria for years, even with the huge funding.

Nigeria, for instance, has yet to hold the commission's presidency since it became operational in 1977, although seven Nigerian heads of government have held the chairmanship of ECOWAS since 1977.

Indicative of Nigeria's significantly limited powers over the affairs of the commission despite its dominating financial contributions, Cote D'Ivoire recently received approval for almost $2 million (N300 million) in additional subvention as the country chair of ECOWAS-derived from a stipulation that grants part of a country's levy contributions for the activities of the chair.

Foreign affairs officials say the request for such extra funding, presented by Mr. Ouedraogo himself, deserved to have been well-questioned and defended, to reconcile its need. In the end, the approval was overwhelmingly backed mainly by the Francophone nations, while Nigeria's lone opposition was overruled.

Corruption allegations too

It is not clear how Mr. Ouedraogo responded to Nigeria's concern. A spokesperson for the commission, Sunny Ugoh, denied knowledge of the letter and declined comments on it and other issues.

Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Ogbole Odeh, also declined comments, but said Nigeria reserved the right to "appropriate" response on matters affecting her interest.

"Responses can be given on matters touching her interest, depending on the merit of the case," he said.

At the commission, the intra struggle and hushed wrangling have somehow seen member countries increasingly flout common decisions, and, have fuelled allegations of corruption and financial recklessness at the commission.

Just January, a Beninoise employee, Michel Glambo-Koami, was arraigned for allegedly fraudulently wiring the commission's N29 million to his account in Benin after impersonating the commission's director of finance.

Mr. Ouedraogo, without a direct accusation of fraud, has also drawn rebuke for his management of funds.

When taking over in 2012 from the former president, James Gbeho, Mr. Ouedraogo's official residence in Asokoro was refurbished by Nigeria's foreign Affairs Ministry. He turned down the offer, asking that extra facilities including a swimming pool and boy's quarters, be fitted.

That done, still, he maintains a permanent suite at the Transcorp Hilton at Nigeria's expense.

He soon followed up with the lavish office furnishing, despite a similar exercise having been completed shortly before his predecessor vacated office.

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