UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
WEST AFRICA: ECOWAS elects Niger's Tandja as new head, slams Cote d'Ivoire
ACCRA, 20 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - President Mamadou Tandja of Niger was elected chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at the annual summit of the 15-nation body, which is still wrestling to end a civil war in Cote d'Ivoire.
Like his predecessor, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who held the chair of ECOWAS for the past two years, Tandja is a man of impeccable democratic credentials.
A former army colonel who failed in his first two attempt to win the presidency through the ballot box, he was re-elected for a second five-year term in December in polls viewed unreservedly by international observers as free and fair
"I will continue to pursue peace efforts in Cote d'Ivoire," Tandja said after being unanimously chosen as the new ECOWAS chairman on Wednesday. "The various factions should look beyond their personal interests. They should be more committed to peace efforts so ECOWAS can concentrate on bringing development and investment into the sub region."
ECOWAS represents 215 million people, over half of whom live in Nigeria. The Abuja-based organisation was set up three decades ago to promote regional economic integration. But in recent years the bloc has increasingly dabbled in peace-making efforts in the conflict-prone region, mediating between warring parties and dispatching peacekeepers to trouble-spots before the United Nations arrives on the scene.
Tandja's election as the ECOWAS chairman came as somewhat of a surprise.
Pre-summit favourites were President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, where a prominent journalist was shot dead in December, and President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin.
During his two years at the helm of ECOWAS, Kufuor played a key role in negotiating an end to Liberia's 14-year war and sending in ECOWAS troops to police the agreement.
But his peace-making efforts in Cote d'Ivoire were less successful. Despite hosting three round-table conferences in Accra, and dispatching 3,000 ECOWAS peacekeeping troops to Cote d'Ivoire after it plunged into civil war in 2002, ECOWAS, under Kufuor's leadership, proved unable to broker a solution to the conflict.
It eventually handed over the dossier to the African Union (AU) after Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo launched fresh attacks on the rebel-held north of the country in November last year. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has now taken over as the leading international mediator.
Slamming both sides in the conflict for their intransigence, Kufuor said at the opening of the ECOWAS summit: "It needs to be stated clearly that the major missing factor in the search for peace and stability is the lack of political will on the part of various leaders of the factions . to work sincerely towards peace."
"The continuing intransigence of various faction leaders gives the sub-region a negative image. Such leaders must search their hearts," he added.
Radio France International said ECOWAS member states were divided over how to proceed on Cote d'Ivoire. It said some leaders were unhappy that ECOWAS had handed over its mandate for dealing the problem over to its bigger brother, the AU.
Referring to Tandja's pledge to continue pursuing peace efforts in Cote d'Ivoire, an African diplomat stationed in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan, told IRIN that this week's Accra summit appeared to be a last ditch attempt by ECOWAS to salvage the Ivorian crisis.
"If Cote d'Ivoire does not pull its act together, it will definitely be slapped with UN sanctions. ECOWAS and the AU have done their best," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
President Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire was among the 12 heads of state who attended the meeting
Aside from security issues, the summit announced that it was delaying a scheduled deadline to issue a single currency by 1 July, 2005.
ECOWAS has taken the first steps towards creating a common market in West Africa and easing the movement of people across borders, but it has made slow progress towards creating a regional currency, which was due to have been launched in mid-2005.
While Ghana and Nigeria have met three out of the four convergence criteria required for the implementation of the new currency, the other member states of the West African Monetary Zone, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Guinea continue to lag behind.
"Member countries are unable to meet the deadline. It would seem a new date, a more realistic one will have to be set," Kufuor said.
The currency, named the eco, is to be created by the English-speaking countries of West Africa and Guinea. It aims in the future to merge with the CFA franc, a currency which is used by eight mainly French-speaking nations which is pegged to the euro.
The summit also endorsed a Common Agriculture Policy, which is still in the early stages of formation and a revised master plan of an ambitious US $16 billion West African Power Pool. This is aimed at linking the national grids of the ECOWAS member states and building new hydro-electric dams to boost power supplies to the entire region by 2020.
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