ECOWAS At The Crossroads

*By Paul Ejime

After 46 years of existence, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) can look back with pride on a number of its achievements, especially in the domain of peace and security, conflict prevention, management and resolution.

For more than two decades following its formation through the Treaty of Lagos on 28th May 1975, the 15-nation organisation originally headquartered in Lagos, but now in Abuja, was seized confronted the myriad political and security crises that bedevilled many of its members. This was at the expense of its core agenda of fostering economic integration, but the preoccupation then was understandable, given that peace, political stability and economic development are intertwined.

Liberia had ignited the fire with its civil war in December 1979 followed by Sierra Leone and then the crises in Guinea Bissau, later Guinea Conakry, Cote d’Ivoire and other countries.

In 1990, Nigeria and Ghana with the support of a few other regional leaders set up the regional peacekeeping force, the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which with the support of the international community ended the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. ECOWAS recently ended a similar Mission in Guinea Bissau, but still has one in The Gambia.

The regional organisation has equally made huge strides in other areas such as its 1979 flagship Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Rights to Residence and Establishment, which makes it 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. Also in 1979, the region adopted the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) to promote cooperation, regional economic integration and common market.

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 wave of pluralistic democracy that swept across the African continent in 1990s actually started in the ECOWAS region (Benin), but the region has since become the epicentre of the World’s socio-economic, political and security upheavals.

All ECOWAS Member States profess to practising democratic system of government, but the bitter truth is that in the past decade, democracy is actually in regression in the region going by the quality of governance and destabilising 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. 

Political and religious intolerance and ethnic conflicts are on also the increase, accentuated by high rate of youth unemployment, poverty, deprivation and repression, with military coups even resurfacing!

In response to these recessions, ECOWAS, once praised as a trail blazer among the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in Africa, appears to have lost its teeth, becoming ever reactive and therefore, ineffective in tackling the regional and even its own existential challenges.

For instance, there are festering political disputes in Benin, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Togo, The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. Mali has seen two military coups within nine months and Niger recently reported an attempted putsch.

The prognosis looks very grim with the on-going global financial crisis and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, not helping matters.

ECOWAS keen watchers blame the current situation on a combination of factors including weak, ineffectual and the lack of political will by the leadership. They warn that unless drastic remedial measures are taken, the organization could become completely irrelevant.

Nigeria, given its strategic position as a regional power and the pivotal role it played with Togo in setting up ECOWAS has a responsibility to work with committed and like-minded member States to rescue ECOWAS from imminent collapse. The same zeal that propelled the birthing of the regional organisation must be rekindled to counter all the forces working against the regional integration project.

The rescue mission for ECOWAS must begin in earnest as the regional leaders gather on Saturday in Accra, Ghana for their regular Summit, which will discuss regional security, health issues and especially, the much-touted Institutional reform.

Part of the organisation’s problems has to do with its top-heavy management structure, flawed recruitment system, capacity deficiency and non-utilization of existing human capital, muted rivalry among the language groups and external interference.

But these can be addressed from the Heads of State and at the ECOWAS Commission levels.

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 said to be consistent with the African Union Commission and the European Commission structure. But ironically, ECOWAS is older than the African Union Commission which came into existence in 2002, and the European Commission is also emphasising its unity through the nomenclature of the European Union.

ECOWAS is expected to move toward greater union and integration consistent with its slogan of an “ECOWAS of People instead of ECOWAS of States.” But the Commission, from an initial seven Commissioners plus a Vice President and President 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.  

Also, some 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 opposition 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 relied on Nigeria for the payment of staff salaries.

With ECOWAS statutory positions rotated, increasing the number of Commissioners to 15, even with unlimited resources makes no economic sense. But should member States insist on having Commissioners at the same time, each member should be made to foot the bill, as once suggested by Nigeria. 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 on 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.

Granted that ECOWAS has been slow on its single currency programme with several postponements for is take-off, the move by Paris and its allies is not only in bad taste, but smacks of a ploy to undermine the ECOWAS integration agenda. There are a thousand and one names to choose from, instead of substituting CFA franc with ECO, while France maintaining its stranglehold on the economy and financial destiny of its former colonies and with the proposed ECO expected to be pegged to the Euro.

The changes to ECOWAS statutory positions due in February/March 2022 is a golden opportunity for drastic and forward-looking measures that will enable ECOWAS to regain its past glory and make greater strides. Apart from recruiting competent hands the recruitment criteria for the leadership of the Commission and Community Institutions including the President and Commissioners must be more rigorous, tack-record and performance-driven.

There are existing robust normative frameworks or instrumentalities, and if possible, this is the opportunity to effect the relevant changes and undertake strategic house-cleaning exercise and install effective new leadership with vision, dynamism and the political will to reposition ECOWAS.

For instance, to effectively deal with the region’s current malaise, ECOWAS has instruments such as the 1991 Declaration by Heads of State on Political Principles reaffirming the Community’s commitment to democracy and free market, the Revised Treaty of 1993, which created the Community Court of Justice and the ECOWAS Parliament, and the 1999 Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security (or the Mechanism).  

Article 25 of the Mechanism provides for the creation of a regional Mediation and Security Council and peace and security interventions including the use of the Council of (Elders) the Wise, for preventive diplomacy.

There is also the 2001 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.

A key provision of that protocol is ‘zero tolerance’ for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means, which 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 exerted impactful pressure on ‘wayward regimes’ to change their ways through a combination of sanctions and preventive diplomacy. Three member States – Guinea Conakry, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire – were suspended for violating the protocol between 2009 and 2011.

The ECOWAS Commission also refused to send observers to the presidential election held by The Gambia in 2011, and withheld recognition of the result of that election in which the now-deposed President Yaya Jammeh claimed victory. Much earlier, the 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.

But similar or worse scenarios are currently repeating themselves in the region with ECOWAS looking rather helpless. The problem is not so much the absence of the enabling instrumentality, as the lack of political will and strong leadership character to act selflessly on behalf of the estimated 410 million Community citizens. But the time to act is now rather than later!

*Paul Ejime, an Author and former Diplomatic/War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Communications, Media, Elections and International Affairs.

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