Qattara to succeed Jonathan as ECOWAS chair

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Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara is expected to succeed Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan as the ECOWAS chairman in the vote set for Friday morning, a day after leaders of the West African economic bloc opened their summit in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Leaders from the 15-member regional bloc will also discuss the deteriorating security in the drought-hit Sahel and the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

There is heightened insecurity in the Sahel region, where Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger face renewed threats from Al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM).

Mali has also been forced to combat an offensive launched last month by Tuareg rebels, who have attacked several northern towns since January 17, part of a long-running struggle to secure autonomy for their nomadic desert tribes.

France this week offered its first suggestion of a link between AQIM and a key Tuareg rebel group.

The unrest in Mali has sparked widespread internal displacement and a surge in refugees fleeing the country. Niger and Burkina Faso, both ECOWAS members, have seen the arrival of thousands of Malian refugees, as has Mauritania, which is not a member of the bloc.

The Red Cross has said that at least 30,000 people are displaced in Mali and living in extremely “precarious conditions,” while the number of people who have fled the country is believed to be more than 20,000.

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The Sahel also needs “urgent” assistance to mitigate against the potential onset of famine following late and erratic rains that have ruined crops across a wide swathe of territory, United Nations and European Union aid chiefs said this week.

The summit is also expected to tackle the rise in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, ECOWAS spokesman Sunny Ugoh told AFP.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have launched three attacks in the area in recent days, including one on Monday in which the captain and chief engineer of a cargo vessel were shot dead off the coast of Nigeria.

The same source said the next president of the ECOWAS commission will likely come from Burkina Faso, replacing James Victor Gbeho of Ghana, whose four-year term is ending.

The presidents of Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria and Sierra Leone were in Abuja for the start of the meet, according to the ECOWAS spokesman.

Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Togo round out the bloc.

The head of the African Union commission Jean Ping, whose mandate was extended last month following a fiercely contested vote, was also in Abuja.