ABUJA — Deteriorating security in the drought-hit Sahel and an uptick in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea were set to top the agenda at a West African regional meeting that opens in Nigeria's capital on Thursday.
Leaders from 15-nations that make up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are also scheduled to pick a new body chairman, replacing Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, whose mandate is expiring.
The summit comes amid 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 tribe.
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.
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 during which the captain and chief engineer of a cargo vessel were shot and killed off the coast of Nigeria.
A government source in Abidjan said Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara is expected to be tapped as the next ECOWAS chairman before the summit closes on Friday. The post carries a one-year mandate.
With his country facing a fresh rebel offensive, Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure did not travel to Nigeria's capital, sending the foreign minister in his place, a presidency source told AFP on Wednesday.
The 15 nations that make up ECOWAS are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.