“The Accidental Ecowas & AU Citizen”:
*From the Archives*: “Thirty Years of
ECOWAS: An Appraisal”
By E.K.Bensah Jr
There is a saying that when France sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold. In the wake of the
French - followed by Dutch - rejection of the European constitution, fears abound that much of Europe
will follow suit.
In West Africa, Nigeria is the sneezer to watch out for - when Nigeria sneezes, the rest of West Africa
is bound to come out with a dripping nose - or a bloody one. Take May 2004 when Nigeria urged
Ghana and other ECOWAS countries to support its ban on selected goods from within the region. The
impetus behind Nigeria’s provisional ban is that it does not want to be a dumping ground for goods
from other ECOWAS countries.
Nigeria is also not as receptive to the new regional currency, the ECO, now slated for 2009. Indeed, it
is believed that the Governor of the Bank of Nigeria, Charles Soludo, is not too keen on seeing the
ECO come into fruition. From his point of view, this probably makes sense, as Nigeria is an oil-rich
country with a strong currency, the Naira, and one of the three biggest economies in West Africa.
Hence the regional outcry over, what Professor Bolaji Akinyemi - author of the article “How Nigeria is
letting down the black race” - has dubbed the “Pax Nigeriana”.
Yet, here is also a country that has contributed significantly to peacekeeping, helping out to settle
conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire under the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). And a
country that has contributed a great deal to the establishment of the ECOWAS protocol on the free
movement of citizens within West Africa. As Ibn Chambas, Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, pointed
out to “New African” magazine recently, ECOWAS is indeed the only region in Africa where it is
possible to travel without a visa.
Of course, open borders also provide opportunities for traffickers and other criminals. This is one of
the reasons why ECOWAS Police Chiefs and Interior Ministers met in 2002 to plan the establishment a
regional criminal investigation and intelligence bureau. These attempts at nipping trafficking in the bud
only serve to underscore the importance that ECOWAS leaders attach to the maintenance of peace
and security in the region.
After all, for outsiders, West Africa is still most often associated with conflicts such as those in Liberia,
Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire or Guinea Bissau. However, all these conflicts have been resolved, to a
large extent thanks to the extraordinary efforts of ECOWAS’ peacekeeping force ECOMOG. That
ECOWAS has focused much of its attention on conflict management is therefore not surprising.
Yet, ECOWAS has progressed beyond peacekeeping operations: from the free movement of people’s
protocol to the ECOWAS passport (regrettably, as yet only issued by Senegal and Benin), ECOWAS is
setting an example for the rest of Africa. One New African article has called the organization
“tempered like steel” because of its resolve to overcome its trials and tribulations.
Recent achievements include a $500m cross border pipeline project (WAGP) that will transport natural
gas from Nigeria to three other ECOWAS countries -Ghana, Togo and Benin. This project is only one of
a handful of regional partnerships with the private sector that ECOWAS has managed to establish. A
venture that has been in existence since 1985 is ECOBANK, which is now a full-service regional
banking institution with 57 branches and offices in 12 countries across West Africa.
That said, other than the WAGP, few ECOWAS nationals know that ECOWAS has a container-handling
facility, based in Lome, called ECOMARINE. It was established in June 2001 with funding from the
World Bank. A regional airline, ECOAIR - also a first for the continent - is being planned since 2000,
with Nigeria and Ghana, among others, owning shares. Regrettably it has yet to attract sufficient
capital to see the project take off, indeed. Then there is the ECOWAS Community Court that functions
in an advisory capacity, as well as the ECOWAS Parliament that is essentially a forum for dialogue,
consultation and consensus among representatives of West Africans. Its main aim is to promote
regional integration. And, in recognition of the prominent role of agriculture within the region,
ECOWAS recently adopted a Common Agricultural Policy (ECOWAP).
Issues to be resolved
While ECOWAS deserves to be hailed for its achievements, West Africa remains a turbulent region and
there are several issues that have yet to be resolved.
Thanks to ECOWAS and its ceasefire-monitoring group ECOMOG, war-ravaged Liberia will be going to
the polls this year. of incumbent Nigerian President Obasanjo, who also doubles as Chairman of the
With Nigeria chairing the African Union (AU) for a second term, and Nigerian troops having contributed
significantly to ECOMOG, the emergence of Nigeria as the regional hegemon could probably not be
more visible. Regrettably, as mentioned earlier, the country is developing a penchant for banning
goods entering its markets. At the time of writing, the government of Ghana is, according to a private
newspaper in the capital, putting together a position paper on Nigeria’s ban - which is effective as of 1
July 2005 - on certain products, including rice, poultry and textiles.
Although Nigeria has signed up to the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (TLS), which stipulates
that member countries are free to export and import items into each other’s country devoid of quotas
or any forms of restriction, this latest ban has created unnecessary tension. It contravenes the very
aims of the TLS - that is, to promote and facilitate intra-ECOWAS trade. Moreover, it contributes to an
atmosphere conducive to retaliatory measures instead of co-operation.
To be fair, current tensions are not all Nigeria’s doing. For starters, the region has grown progressively
poorer. Twelve out of the fifteen ECOWAS member states are classified as Least Developed Countries
(LDCs). In the UNDP’s development index, the last ten countries have consistently been ECOWAS
members. It is also highly unlikely that ECOWAS will meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
Secondly, security issues and international interventions continue to loom over the region’s effort to
promote cross-border trade. The establishment of the WAGP has shown that the US is already in the
region in a very big way, especially with Chevron Texaco owning 36.7%. Also, in its effort to fight
terrorism, the US has been training troops across Northern Africa since the beginning of June.
However, a report of the Voice of America dating from mid June, revealed that U.S. military forces are
also present in the ECOWAS region. On an air force base near Bamako, Mali, they have established a
temporary operations center. At the time of writing, troops from nine West African countries will also
With respect to the ECOWAS monetary union, international interventions are also complicating
matters. A recent paper of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), entitled “A Single Currency for
Africa” (December 2004), concludes that the ECO will probably not work, mainly because of Nigeria.
“Given the country’s much greater size, large budget deficit, and lack of evidence of fiscal policy
discipline” the IMF forewarns, “Nigeria will make a difficult partner for the rest of West Africa”.
The observations of the IMF raise, to say the least, a few question marks. First of all, since when is the
mere fact of “being big” prevented a country from participation in a regional a regional currency
scheme? Secondly, neither a “balanced budget” nor so-called “fiscal policy discipline” is a pre-requisite
for membership of a monetary union. Take Greece, which, as has become evident, falsified its
statistics to comply with the 3% (of GDP) deficit requirement in order to join the EU monetary union in
If Greece managed to polish up its real deficit of 3.8% of GDP, yet has managed to remain in the EMU
without any major problems, why would Nigeria not be in a position to join the ECO?
Whilst it is true that a degree of fiscal discipline is necessary for a successful monetary union, as
Jeremy L. Jordan of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland observes in his paper “Money, Fiscal
Discipline, and Growth” (1997), the most important success factor “centers on whether people
understand the potential real economic consequences of monetary union and whether they are
prepared to meet challenges.” Now, that is certainly a recommendation for the countries of the West
African Monetary Zone (WAMZ)
Other regional projects
Perhaps a greater thorn in the flesh of ECOWAS’ efforts toward regional integration is that its
members are typically also involved one or more other regional projects. I recently interviewed the
Assistant of the Honorary Consul of Senegal in Accra. He gave me some insight into patchwork of
overlapping organizations in the region. For instance, alongside ECOWAS, there is the Community of
Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), a brainchild of Libya established in 1998. Ghana joined CEN-SAD at
the beginning of June 2005, bringing the membership of the organization to 23. Currently, thirteen of
According to the diplomat, the aims of CEN-SAD do not necessarily conflict with those of ECOWAS.
CEN-SAD’s aims are currently focused on improving agriculture in the region, although as far as
Nigeria is concerned, (speaking at the meeting last June, which saw the admission of Ghana and
Sierra Leone to CEN-SAD), the Community should also address environmental issues, especially
For ECOWAS, perhaps the greatest challenge is to engage the region’s 257 million citizens with the
project of regional integration. The irony of the “bad publicity” that ECOWAS has received because of
the conflicts in the region is that, whether we like it or not, it is publicity after all. Even if outsiders
continue to see West Africa as a turbulent region, ECOWAS is firmly ensconced in most West African’s
consciousness. ECOWAS doesn’t do referendums. However, you will be hard-pressed to find a Liberian,
a Sierra Leonian or an Ivorian who has not heard of ECOWAS.
Contrast that with Europe, where most citizens may very well be aware of the fact that they are EU
citizens but are otherwise oblivious or indifferent to the nature of the European project. Incumbent EU
Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso pledged that his tenure would see the coming into force of
Europe as one of the most competitive economies in the world. He forgot that this prospect does not
quite resonate with the aspirations of most Europeans. For many of those, the EU is not so much a
spearhead in global competition, but a vehicle for the creation of a more social and democratic region
that is the envy of many.
For ECOWAS, the lesson from Europe is that, even though West Africans may know about ECOWAS,
public support is a central plank of the ECOWAS project. As the Senegalese diplomat with whom I
spoke put it: “la conscientisation de la population” remains important.
Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, once said, that “to understand Europe you have to
be a genius or French”. It seems that to fully appreciate ECOWAS, you either have to be a genius… or
[Emmanuel wrote this article in 2005. You can read it from the website of the Review of International
Socialist Questions (risq.org: http://www.risq.org/article464.html)]
In 2009, in his capacity as a “Do More Talk Less Ambassador” of the 42 nd Generation—an NGO that promotes and discusses PanAfricanism--Emmanuel gave a series of lectures on the role of ECOWAS and the AU in facilitating a Pan-African identity. Emmanuel
owns "Critiquing Regionalism" (http://www.critiquing-regionalism.org). Established in 2004 as an initiative to respond to the
dearth of knowledge on global regional integration initiatives worldwide, this non-profit blog features regional integration initiatives on
MERCOSUR/EU/Africa/Asia and many others. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org / Mobile: 0268.687.653.