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ECOWAS invites a Zionist to address its conference – Dr. Glen Segell

June 8, 2017


ECOWAS invites a Zionist to address its conference

By Glen Segell

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 12 (June 2017)

It took amazing courage for the 15 African nations of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as the first non-African leader to address its conference.[1] He is an Israeli citizen, a Jew and an ardent Zionist.

The invitation and his address indicate that times are changing in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the ECOWAS leaders are Muslims and some of the states are Islamic. No other forum in the world would have made such an invitation. It is a first for Africa and for relations between African Muslim leaders and the Zionist state.

Diplomacy is like a coin as it has two inseparable sides. On the side of this coin is Israel and on the other ECOWAS, where there were mutual objectives and where both of which benefitted from Netanyahu’s address.

On the Israeli side of the coin, is the leader. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is also Israel’s Foreign Minister. Wearing two hats is not an exception and has become the rule in the Israeli Cabinet. The first Prime Minister after independence in 1948 David Ben Gurion was also Defence Minister. Doing two jobs is not just functional and practical but is also cost effective. Africa is of personal significance for Netanyahu, his brother having commanded the freeing of hostages from a hijacked Air France aircraft on 4 July 1976 in Entebbe Uganda, and having been killed in the operation.[2]

The practical and functional side of doing two jobs comes when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister (the same person) wish to achieve the same goals (two birds with one stone). One “bird” is tackling Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah and the other “bird” is gaining recognition of Israel as the Jewish national homeland.[3] So this week Netanyahu travelled to western Africa and became the first non-African leader to address 15 African nations at the ECOWAS conference. There he met like-minded states who also wished to tackle Iran, but for different reasons.

In doing so the visit marks a new watershed in Israel’s relations with Africa and with and for Islam and Muslims in Africa. A brief note on why this is a watershed is spelt out by a spot history of Israel and Africa as a problematic friendship.[4]

From 1948 to 1967 Israel had good relations with post-colonial African states providing assistance including agriculture, education, military and construction. The relationship was close as both Israel and the African states had just achieved independence hence there was a shared understanding of a post-British rule world and as developing countries. However after the 1967 war many African states broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. There was strong coercion from the oil rich Arab world.

During the 1980’s after the peace treaty with Egypt and the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel strove to make strong headway in re-establishing ties. Although the process was slow it achieved its objectives. For example last year Guinea, a Muslim-majority country that was the first African nation to sever ties with Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War re-established diplomatic ties after a 49 year break.[5]

Every bit helps for Israel! Though most ECOWAS African states are small and poor compared to other states such as the G7, such diplomatic ties chip away at the boycott, sanctions and disinvestment (BDS) movement; and at the Middle East anti-Israel Islamic bloc in the United Nations. In this bloc Shia (Iran led) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia led) bury their differences to initiate debates, motions and votes against Israel.

Closing the gap in relations and isolating Iran is an important process for both Israel and for the ECOWAS states.This week’s visit was not Netanyahu’s first to Africa. Last year he visited the continent as the first sitting Israeli prime minister in 29 year to do so visiting Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda and meeting the presidents of Somalia and Kenya. This was of particular significance as those later two countries severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016. Somalia received substantial aid from Saudi Arabia the day it severed the ties. Clearly Africa has become a proxy battleground between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia; giving further commonality with Israel.[6]

Looking closely at these visits of Netanyahu and his policy shows that the objectives of Israel’s focus towards Africa are no different from Israel’s foreign policy objectives towards all states and indeed those of the foreign policy of ECOWAS states in the international arena. It is therefore not surprising that Netanyahu was invited as the first non-African leader to address its conference even if he is an Israeli citizen, a Jew and an ardent Zionist.

At the top of the list for both Israel and ECOWAS states is recognition as independent sovereign states by all others; an aspiration of all post-colonial states after they threw off the colonial yoke of European imperialism.

For Israel implementing this policy includes improving the outcomes for the Jewish state in U.N. votes, expanding economic cooperation, curbing Iranian influence in Africa, establishing diplomatic relations with Muslim-African states and isolating Israel’s enemies such as Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah.

Turning to the other side of the coin begs the question “But what did the ECOWAS nations gain specifically by inviting Netanyahu other than symbolism?”No doubt that this is back to the future for 2017 looks like 1961 where Netanyahu at the ECOWAS conference offered Israel collaboration with African states in agriculture, desertification, trade, education, health, homeland security, cyber and communications, energy, culture and science, and the military, including terrorism. Some of these already started for example Israel for some years has become ever closer to Ghana, Mali and Niger in agricultural cooperation.[7] Hence as with most diplomatic appearances of this kind, it is sometimes informing the world of an ongoing process and testing the water for adverse reactions.

The importance of the ECOWAS address by Netanyahu cannot be understated. Listing the audience clearly shows states with an Islamic majority: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. For some terrorism also features prominently as do religious strife for example in Nigeria. Here Israel will be able to provide substantial experience.[8]

However not all went according to plan. The one country in Africa which has the closest historical ties to Judaism in contemporary times was not happy; and because of Netanyahu’s presence, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI cancelled plans to attend the ECOWAS conference.[9]

The cancellation shows that Africa is split demographically even though geographically it is one continent. This means that Africa is Africa but prompts the question about North Africa.It is sometimes known as the Maghreb due to its closer Islamic ties with the Middle East than sub-Sahara Africa. No doubt that the Zionist state will find that winning the hearts and minds of Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya and turning them against Iran will show that sub-Sahara ECOWAS-easy.

So while sub-Saharan African Muslims and Islamic states are more willing to accept Zionism as there is a common affinity of post-colonial nationalism and as developing states, the Maghreb North African states are more reluctant to do so. The Islamic African states in ECOWAS can assist in narrowing this gap for Israel and have the potential to provide Israel with backdoor diplomacy to Persian Gulf states. Diplomatic ties with Persian Gulf states will also prove once and for all Israel is the Jewish national homeland.

This begs the final somewhat polemic question regarding Netanyahu’s address to the ECOWAS conference “Despite the common ground between ECOWAS and Israel in countering Iranian influence and despite Israel’s aid – will these be sufficient?” Whatever the answer it is clear that sub-Saharan African Islamic states portray a different view to Zionism and express it compared to Maghreb North African Islamic states.




[2] Operation Jonathan,

[3] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

[4] Joel Peters, Israel and Africa: The Problematic Friendship, (I.B. Taurus, 1992)

[5]Israel and majority Muslim African country to establish ties. The Jerusalem Post, 20 July 2016.

[6] Somalia received Saudi aid the day it cut ties with Iran, Reuters, 17 January 2016.

[7] West African countries fertilize Israel relations through agriculture, Niger Capital,

[8] Nigeria now third most terrorized country in the world. 21 November 2015.

[9] Morocco king boycotts Africa summit over Netanyahu invite. The New Arab, 2 June 2017.

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