West African leaders have agreed to create an dependent regional military force tasked with maintaining peace and security in the region.
The leaders attending the 62nd ordinary session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided on Sunday to "take care of our own security in the region", said Omar Alieu Touray, the new president of the ECOWAS commission.
The West African heads of state, who were present at the New ECOWAS Headquarters building funded by the Chinese Government in Abuja, Nigeria, said they were "determined to establish a regional force that will intervene in the event of need, whether this is in the area of security, terrorism and restore constitutional order in member countries," he added.
"The leaders are determined to establish a regional force that will intervene in the event of need, whether this is in the area of security, terrorism (or to) ... restore constitutional order in member countries," according to a communique from the leaders.
ECOWAS also said their defense chiefs would meet next month to work out how it would operate.
Touray said the latest decision of ECOWAS to create its own regional force would "restructure our security architecture".
The modalities and funding of the planned regional force will be considered by the bloc's defense chiefs in the second half of 2023, he added.
The ECOWAS' new president stressed that such an operation could not be solely dependent on voluntary contributions.
Touray also addressed other regional issues and called on Mali's ruling junta to release 46 Ivorian troops it has held since July.
"We ask the Malian authorities to release the Ivorian soldiers by January 1, 2023 at the latest," he said.
The Gambian diplomat said the West African bloc reserved the right to act if the soldiers were not released by January 1.
If Mali fails to do so, ECOWAS will impose sanctions, a West African diplomat told AFP.
Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, who has been mediating between Mali and Ivory Coast on the issue, will travel to Mali to "demand" the release of the soldiers, the diplomat added.
The Ivorian troops were arrested on July 10 on their arrival at the airport in Mali's capital Bamako.
Ivory Coast says the troops were sent to provide backup for the international peacekeepers of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and are being unfairly detained.
Mali says the troops are mercenaries and has placed them in custody on charges of attempting to harm state security.
ECOWAS had decided at an extraordinary summit in September to send a high-level delegation to Mali to try to resolve the crisis. But no progress was reported from this mission.
In addition to Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso are two other countries that have been affected by military coups and the spread of militants in the last two years.
All three countries have been suspended from the decision-making bodies of ECOWAS.
Niger has also witnessed a spread of extremist militant groups that have been wreaking havoc in the region.
Also attending the session of the ECOWAS leaders, the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Cui Jianchun, said, “to sponsor and construct the new ECOWAS Headquarters is a vivid reflection of China’s support to the work of ECOWAS as well as the traditional friendship between China and the West African countries.
“We will continue to promote the common development of China and Africa, and are ready to make new contribution to the building of the China-Africa community with shared future in the new era,” Jianchun added.
Jianchun said Nigeria played a leading role in the region by tending to ECOWAS affairs and making huge efforts to maintain regional stability and catalyze its integration.