Not many people gave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) any chance of success when it was formed 36 years ago in a region that in the 1990s acquired a dubious reputation for political volatility and restiveness. For a region of culturally diverse peoples with a chequered colonial history characterized by artificial barriers, such cynicism was perhaps understandable.
But thanks to the wisdom and vision of the founding fathers, and the dogged determination and commitment of believers in the ECOWAS project the institution continues to record some remarkable achievements.
Indeed a dispassionate assessment will show that ECOWAS has carved a niche for itself as a sustainable and vibrant brand in regional integration worldwide and a model for Africa. Above all, it continues to earn and enjoy the respect, goodwill and support of a growing number of international development partners.
Following the pioneering work of the leaders of Nigeria and Togo, the 28th May 1975 Treaty of Lagos which gave birth to the Organization as a platform for the pursuit of accelerated regional socio-economic development in West Africa would later be embraced by 15 States in the region. Today, more countries outside the region and international organizations find it irresistible to associate and collaborate with ECOWAS by having their Permanent Representatives accredited to it in pursuit of mutually beneficial strategic interest and for maximizing the benefits of the region’s potentialities including boundless human and natural resources and an attractive market of some 300 million consumers.
In a highly competitive and globalizing world, the opportunities and synergy of cooperation accruable to ECOWAS Member States are limitless under the community’s integrated development agenda based on five major pillars - peace and security; policy harmonization, promotion of trade and investment, infrastructural development as well as democracy and good governance.
The Organization’s founding Treaty has since been revised and from 2006, ECOWAS and community institutions have been undergoing transformational changes both in structure and strategy in response to the challenges of the times and the global trend.
The transition of the ECOWAS Secretariat to a Commission in 2007 and the realignment of the Community Parliament, the Community Court of Justice and other specialized agencies to their core objectives, are some of the institutional changes designed to fast-track the regional integration process in line with the ECOWAS Vision 2020.
According to the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Ambassador James Gbeho, the overarching objective “is to transform the region from an ECOWAS of States into an ECOWAS of people living in a peaceful and secure environment and benefitting from the abundant resources and potentialities of our region.”
Through the adoption and application of the ECOWAS Mechanism (1999) and the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance (2001), the Organization has been able to progressively and incrementally stabilize the region and promote democratic governance. Strict adherence to Constitutional Convergence Principles has yielded relatively peaceful, transparent and credible outcomes in recent presidential elections in Guinea, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria.
By applying the policy of “Zero Tolerance” to power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means, ECOWAS has been able to put pressure on “wayward regimes to change their ways through a combination of sanctions and preventive diplomacy,” President Gbeho informs.
Consequently, ECOWAS in the last three years is on record to have suspended the membership of three Member States – Guinea, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire – and later restored constitutional order and legality in those countries working together with the international community.
In response to the myriad of civil wars and internal conflicts that bedevilled a number of countries in the region in the 1980s and 1990s, the Organization set up a Peace Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), whose achievements in the resolution of the Liberian and Sierra Leonean conflicts have been internationally acclaimed as a success story and a continental reference point. But the ECOMOG success came at a huge human and material costs, and the disproportionate concentration on peace and security, meant that ECOWAS for two decades neglected one of its cardinal objectives - economic development and integration.
Nonetheless, echoing the views of many international relations experts, Professor Bola Akinterinwa, Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), believes that ECOWAS could not be faulted for laying emphasis on security and political stability.
“Economic development and political stability are two sides of the same coin and in their wisdom, ECOWAS leaders have always sought to prevent, manage and or resolve regional conflicts with the knowledge that without political stability there will be no economic development,” he affirmed.
Meanwhile, a Standby Force as part of a regional mechanism for conflict prevention and management is being formulated, although troop’s contribution and funding remain key challenges.
According to Ambassador Gbeho the fact that there is no active war going on in the region, is due largely to “our proactive preventive diplomacy,” and “democratic culture is gradually taking root in the ECOWAS region, where all the current Heads of State have either been democratically elected or confirmed in their positions through elections with various degrees of credibility.” Die-hard ECOWAS apostles even postulate that without the constant intervention of the regional economic grouping, West Africa would have gone up in political flames.
But despite the remarkable progress achieved, the ECOWAS Commission itself is the first to acknowledge that the security situation in the region continues to be characterized by “fragility and unpredictability.” Governance institutions remain weak and requires mammoth efforts and collaboration with civil society and other partners, to strengthen institutions, reform the security system to make it more responsive to democratic control and human rights; and ensure greater separation of powers, adherence to the rule of law and anti-corruption principles.
If any evidence was needed that all is not well with democratic transitions in Africa the recent post-electoral crisis in Cote d’Ivoire is seen as a sad reminder that there are still some leaders who manipulate the constitutional and electoral instruments and organs to rig elections in order to hang on to power and entrench the sit-tight syndrome.
Renowned Nigerian jurist, Akin Oyebode, a professor of jurisprudence and international law, while lauding the ECOWAS vision as being in line with global trend informed by enlightened self-interest, however, says a lot of work is still required.
Countries across the world whether in the Americas, Europe, Asia or the Middle East, have seen the “wisdom in hanging together instead of being hanged separately,” and for West Africa to maximize the benefits of regional integration as a building block for international development, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ado-Ekiti in Nigeria's south-western state of Ekiti insists that Nigeria, the regional giant must play an effective leadership role similar to what Germany is doing in the European Union.
“Nigeria’s presence is felt across the region and its leadership position is eloquent in the fact that it accounts for an estimated 70% of the region’s GDP. Nigeria’s socio-economic development should be exemplary, sustained and sustainable,” said Oyebode, who was recently commissioned by the African Commission to draft its Continental Legal Framework on Cross Border Cooperation.
He cited the hypocritical attachment of Member States to national sovereignty while at the same time canvassing regional integration, explaining that such a contradiction hampered the harmonization of national policies and statutes into a supranational architecture. Oyebode therefore urged regional leaders to “muster the political will to give teeth to their good intentions, decisions and declarations; otherwise the dream of West African integration will remain work in progress.”
One of ECOWAS’ foremost achievements is its flagship Protocol on the free movement of persons, and goods and the right of establishment designed to facilitate the integration of national economies and peoples. The implementation of this protocol has resulted in the ECOWAS Passport and the ultimate goal is the realization of a single Community space where citizens can move, settle and trade freely without let or hindrance. Already, the ECOWAS region is the only region in Africa with a visa-free regime across national boundaries, and the right to establishment for citizens in any Member State.
But as the Commission intensifies work on a common visa for visitors to West Africa, Oyebode and other international relations experts are of the opinion that illegal road blocks still constitute a draw back to true free movement and regional integration.
While ECOWAS seems to have found a solution to the perennial financial problem dogging many multinational organizations through its Community Levy mechanism, another major concern is that the region comprises mainly primary and in most cases single-commodity producer countries which “consume what they do not produce,” said Oyebode,.
His recipe is that the gap between production and consumption must be narrowed if not completely eliminated, in order for the community and its citizens “to keep hope alive.”
Still on the economy, the elusive convergence of national economic policies continues to delay the realization of a much-desired monetary union in line with the objective of the 1978 ECOWAS Monetary Cooperation Programme. Despite their resilience, the largely agrarian and raw material dominated economies of ECOWAS Member States remain vulnerable to the shocks of exogenous factors, including the on-going global financial and food crises.
In 2010, for example, the region recorded a growth rate of 6.2 percent, but this figure masks significant disparities between the States and remains below the minimum 7 percent economic growth rate required for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
As a solution, economic experts strongly recommend prudent macro-economic policies, scaling up of investments in the social sector, formulation of economic policies within the framework of a regional development programme, and diversification of the export base by member States to ensure sustainability and mitigation of the impact of future exogenous shocks.
As ECOWAS marches into its 37th year of existence, riding on the crest of “continuous survival,” given that several similar organizations have disappeared, Akinterinwa says the challenge of “inadequate commitment” by regional leaders including delay in the payment of assessed dues, must be addressed so as to lift the “financial burden on Nigeria, which often rushes to the rescue.”
Further more, the NIIA boss argues that ECOWAS and African leaders in general should see industrialization as a critical component of development, driven by human capital development.
“Africa needs to harness its abundant intellectual resources; utilizing its intellectuals, experts and specialists in various human endeavours to help draw up a road map for the future,” he said, warning that “perpetually looking up to Europe or America would be counter-productive in the long run.”
According to Akinterinwa, ECOWAS should provide leadership to the West African region with comprehensive engagement and development dialogues involving not just Heads of State and Government and cabinet Ministers, but extended to key actors including professionals, the media, civil society, and community citizens at large.
On the whole, all seem agreed that ECOWAS is headed in the right direction. But since a multinational organisation is only as strong as its weakest member state, all stakeholders - Governments, Community Institutions, civil society, the media, partners and ordinary citizens - must play their part to make ECOWAS a truly people-oriented, progressive, prosperous and united community.
It was no accident that the ECOWAS Commission recently honoured former Nigerian Head of State General Yakubu Gowon and the late Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema, two distinguished founding fathers, along with Nigeria’s Professor Adebayo Adedeji, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and Togolese Diplomat Edem Kodjo, a former Secretary General of the defunct Organization of African Unity (now African Union), for their exceptional contributions to the ideal, vision and mission of ECOWAS.
It is heartening that this and similar awards have been institutionalized to serve not only as an acknowledgment for distinguished efforts but as a source of encouragement to individuals and institutions for future sterling contributions to the sustenance of regional integration under the ECOWAS Project.
Ejime is with the Communication Department, ECOWAS Commission,