ECOWAS At 45 And The Dream Of Its Founding Fathers

*By Paul Ejime |

After almost five decades of existence, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), arguably Africa’s most successful Regional Economic Community should be proud of its modest achievements, especially in the political, peace and security domain. But any celebration could be muted by the realisation that the accomplishments are still short of the goals set by the founding fathers and the aspirations of the Community’s more than 370 million people.

With the recent death of Édouard Kodjovi (Edem Kodjo), Togo’s third Foreign Minister and one time Secretary-General of the defunct Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the list of the dramatis personae in the formation of ECOWAS through the 28th of May 1975 Treaty of Lagos, is unfortunately dwindling. The major actors of blessed memory include the former President of Togo Gnassingbé Eyadéma and Prof Adebayo Adedeji, Nigeria’s former Finance and Economic Reconstruction Commissioner/Minister, who earned the sobriquet of ‘Mr ECOWAS,’ because of his tireless efforts in the birthing of the organisation.

Thankfully, still alive today is Nigeria’s former military leader, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who gave Prof Adedeji the ‘command’ to undertake with Mr Kodjo, the diplomatic shuttles and groundwork, that culminated in the signing of the Lagos Treaty by an unprecedented number of regional Heads of State at one sitting. This was despite the stout resistance by France and some regional leaders, especially the late Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had instead supported the formation of a France-Afrique union. The ECOWAS idea prevailed with a compromise under which Cote d’Ivoire’s Aboubakar Diaby Ouatarra was appointed as the first Executive Secretary.

ECOWAS’ core agenda under the founding and revised treaties underscore the fostering of economic integration. Gen Gowon in an interview during celebration to mark ECOWAS at 40, noted: “There were niggling challenges (including colonial history, cultural and language differences), but thanks to the determination and political will of the leaders at that time, virtually all the member States were represented and signed the Lagos Treaty,” with economic and social integration as the primary concern then.

But for almost two decades, including what is often referred to as the ‘lost decade‘ (the late 1970s to the 1980s), and even up to early 21st Century, ECOWAS was bogged down with fighting political fires in a region, then notorious for military coup d’états. Of note were the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, and later Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and other countries.

In 1990, the military juntas in Nigeria and Ghana with the support of a few other regional leaders set up the regional peacekeeping force, the ECOWAS Peace Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). Under ECOWAS leadership, the United Nations later joined the interventions by deploying its peace Missions. Some level of political stability was then restored in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire, but at huge costs in human lives, property, displacements of millions of people and financial losses.

Although the wave of pluralistic democracy that swept across the African continent in 1990s actually started in the ECOWAS region (Benin), the region is still bedevilled by socio-economic and political upheavals.

Today all the 15 ECOWAS nations are practising the democratic system of government with levels of imperfection. And in the words of Prof Adedeji in a 2015 interview at his Ijebu-Ode town in Western Nigeria: “ECOWAS (remains) the only region in Africa where citizens can visit and stay in a country other than their own for at least 90 days without a visa.” This was in reference to the ECOWAS 1979 flagship Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Rights to Residence and Establishment. Also in 1979, the region adopted the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) to promote cooperation, regional economic integration and common market.

To revamp the organisation’s normative instruments, the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State issued the Declaration on Political Principles in 1991 reaffirming the Community’s commitment to democracy and free market.  And in response to emerging financial challenges, the ECOWAS Revised Treaty of 1993 prescribed the 0.5% Community Levy payable by member States, on imports from third party countries. This has since become a major source of income for the ECOWAS Commission (formerly Executive Secretariat), effectively replacing the unsustainable and irregular annual contributions.

The Revised Treaty also addressed issues of political governance, sustainable peace and security in the region, resulting in several instruments including the 1999 Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security (or the Mechanism). Indeed, this inspired the adoption of a similar Mechanism by the African Union several years later. Article 25 of the ECOWAS Mechanism provided for the creation of a regional Mediation and Security Council and peace and security interventions, including preventive diplomacy. This was followed two years later by the adoption of the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which sets minimum constitutional convergence criteria for ECOWAS membership based on shared values of democracy and a free market, separation of powers, popular participation, democratic control of the armed forces, and guarantees of basic freedoms.  Another key provision of the protocol is ‘zero tolerance’ for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.  This was followed in 2008 with the adoption of the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF) to recalibrate the regional peace and security architecture.

In enforcing the zero-tolerance clause of the Supplementary Protocol, ECOWAS has exerted impactful pressure on ‘wayward regimes’ to change their ways through a combination of sanctions and preventive diplomacy. Between 2009 and 2011, three member States – Guinea, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire – were suspended for violating the Protocol. The ECOWAS Commission under the leadership of Ambassador James Victor Gbeho also refused to send observers to The Gambia’s presidential election in 2011 and withheld recognition of the result of that election in which the now-deposed President Yaya Jammeh claimed victory. Earlier, under Dr Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the ECOWAS Commission had resisted an attempt by Niger’s former President Mamadou Tandja to elongate his tenure with a dubious constitutional change through a botched referendum in 2009.

Indeed, ECOWAS has been able to restore constitutional order and legality, supported peace and security and the conduct of credible elections in its member States, working unilaterally or in partnership with the international community – African Union, United Nations System, especially the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), now headed by Dr Chambas, European Union, German Development Agency (GIZ -Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), Danish Agency for International Development (DANIDA), World Bank, African Development Bank (AfDB), Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), West Africa Network for Peace building (WANEP), and several other organisations and nations. Even today, ECOWAS military missions are in The Gambia and Guinea Bissau on peace and security duty.

There has also been some progress in infrastructure development, in regional roads, environment, electricity/energy Power Pool and Gas Pipeline projects, and other Community programmes, as well as in gender and humanitarian affairs synergy, collaboration on electoral matters through the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC) and the ECOWAS electoral assistance to member States.

The organisation continues its efforts to reconcile differences with the EU on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which is designed to replace the old Cotonou Accord between the two regions and open up markets for reciprocal commercial exchanges. These are all commendable efforts.

However, with the rash of governance challenges in several member States, especially over electoral disputes and the tendency for the ruling political parties to manipulate national constitutions either for presidential tenure elongations or in favour of the government in power, and the intolerance of opposition, many political observers believe that ECOWAS should be more proactive and assertive. This can be done by leveraging existing instruments including sanctions and suspension of erring member States as happened in not too distant past. For instance, there are festering political disputes in some member States such as Benin, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Togo, The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, to name but a few, which must be addressed before they escalate into major conflicts or civil wars, that the region can ill-afford at this time.

Also, with the on-going global financial crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, ECOWAS leaders must take the sustainability of the regional organisation more seriously.

For instance, the transformation of the ECOWAS Executive Secretariat to a Commission in 2007, with all its good intentions would seem to have created room for wastage. That move was reportedly in line with the African Union Commission and the European Commission structure. Ironically, ECOWAS is older than the African Union Commission which came into existence in 2002, and the European Commission is now effectively emphasising its unity through the nomenclature of the European Union. ECOWAS, too, should be moving towards greater union consistent with its motto of an ‘ECOWAS of People and not ECOWAS of States.’

Initially, seven Commissioners plus a Vice President and President were contemplated for the ECOWAS Commission. But it now has 15 Commissioners with the attendant huge increase in personnel and running costs and the unhelpful tendency of some Commissioners operating in silos, protecting national interests at the expense of the Community goal. Some of these statutory appointees allegedly take directives from their home governments in dealing with Community matters and therefore see the organisation as ‘a regional cake.’ Despite the eyebrows raised two years ago, the 15 Commissioners are still in place and with the global financial crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; many countries have been hit hard, including oil-producing regional economic power Nigeria, ECOWAS’ major financial contributor. The implication is that ECOWAS could face dire financial strait, similar to its experience in the 1990s when the Executive Secretariat was unable to pay staff salaries. The AU does not have a Commissioner for each of its 54 member States and neither does the EU, which can afford it. With ECOWAS statutory positions rotated, increasing the number of Commissioners to 15, even with unlimited resources makes no economic sense. But if all its member States should insist on having Commissioners at the same time, perhaps every member should separately foot the bill, as once suggested. This will save the organisation the unnecessary financial burden of additional staff salaries and other financial implications of an expanded structure, including new directorates, office space and equipment, and additional running costs.

Another area of serious concern in ECOWAS’ survival is its unsatisfactory stride toward achieving a common market and a single monetary union, which are critical to regional economic integration.

France, acting in collaboration with Cote d’Ivoire, has effectively hijacked the ECOWAS proposed currency name, Eco, to replace the CFA franc, used by former French colony member States in ECOWAS. While ECOWAS has been slow on its single currency programme, which was to come into effect next July after several postponements, the move by Paris and its allies is not only condescendingly audacious, but also smacks of a ploy to undermine the ECOWAS integration agenda. There are a thousand and one names they could have chosen. The substitution of CFA with Eco also leaves much to be desired, because it appears driven by the ruling class without public support. France will still have a strangle hold on the economy and financial destiny of its former colonies and like with the CFA franc, the exchange rate of the proposed Eco would also be pegged to the Euro.

By and large, ECOWAS could be justifiably proud that today, due to its interventions including preventive diplomacy, democratic culture is gradually taking root in the region with incumbents losing elections to oppositions. Still, peace and security remain fragile in the region.

Going forward, the regional economic grouping must rediscover its teeth/assertiveness in holding its leaders and member States accountable to the instruments and protocols they have signed and/or ratified.  After 45 years of existence, it is not enough for ECOWAS to be basking in past glory, because to whom much is given, much is also expected.

Prof. Adedeji had during the Ijebu-Ode interview, made a passionate appeal to ECOWAS member States to work towards the harmonisation of policies, laws and regulations to consolidate regional integration, as envisaged by the founding fathers. Even more optimistic and with justifiable reason is Gen. Gowon, who is advocating a West African government to serve as a building block for the proposed United States of Africa.

But it takes an unwavering commitment, determination, persistence and concrete actions to turn dreams into reality!

*Paul Ejime is a veteran journalist, Consultant on Media, Corporate Communications and Visibility, and Elections

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About Cholo Brooks 12549 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.