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ECOWAS and the dream of single government

IT is quite appropriate that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), founded 40 years ago, has been in the news especially in commemoration of its landmark fourth decade.
General Yakubu Gowon

General Yakubu Gowon,

IT is quite appropriate that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), founded 40 years ago, has been in the news especially in commemoration of its landmark fourth decade.

Four decades after its founding is indeed an auspicious time to look back and ask the self-appraising question: How far and how well? And even more appropriate is that General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s former Head of State and one of the founding fathers of the organisation is leading the way in this soul-searching.

Which is why, taking a sweeping view of the travails of the regional organisation against the background of his own vision 40 years ago, it is hardly surprising that Gowon still has the dream and the emotional instincts to conclude that time is now ripe to consummate one final part of the original dream: the single government vision for West Africa.

It is worthy of note that the Nigerian leader then and his Togolese counterpart, the late Gnassingbe Eyadema poured their hearts as well as resources into the dream and toured the region in support of the West African integration idea in 1972.

Indeed, sundry bilateral agreements among countries were to be streamlined into a single document approximating the needs and aspirations of the community.

Their efforts culminated in the Treaty of Lagos in 1975, which birthed ECOWAS. The Treaty of Lagos, though initially limited to economic policies, has overtime been expanded to include the following principles contained in Article 3 of the ECOWAS Treaty: quality and inter-dependence of Member States;

solidarity and collective self-reliance; inter-State co-operation, harmonisation of policies and integration of programmes; non-aggression between member states; maintenance of regional peace, stability and security through the promotion and strengthening of good neighbourliness;

peaceful settlement of disputes among member-states, active co-operation between neighbouring countries and promotion of a peaceful environment as a prerequisite for economic development; recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; accountability, economic and social justice and popular participation in development; recognition and observance of the rules and principles of the community;

promotion and consolidation of a democratic system of governance in each member-state Of course, beyond these components of economic vision, lurking in the background and a fundamental building brick has always been the idea of a single government for the sub-region which is also tied to the bigger vision of a continental government originally championed by Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah.

However, this vision is also inherently dogged by a number of factors such as the diversity of the region, the meddlesomeness and neo-colonial designs of erstwhile colonial masters, such as the overwhelming French presence in West Africa’s Francophone countries, the language barriers which is yet to be transformed and, of course, micro-nationalism of leadership in the member states.

These are obviously daunting and the counterweight of geopolitics calls for their transformation through unity of purpose.

It is against this background that the unity government for West Africa has been difficult and an increment of cooperation has been more sustainable. Collaboration is indeed possible and should be encouraged for growth and development.

While ECOWAS’ vision of a single government is the bigger picture of the future, and a compelling one too, given global economic integration processes such as the European Union (EU) and North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA), it is important to take a critical look at areas where progress has been made with a view to strengthening those for now.

ECOWAS has made progress in evolving a unified passport and visa-free protocol, trans-border trading activities are taking place, a functioning ECOWAS parliament and ECOWAS Court of Justice are in place and there is security cooperation exemplified by the ECOWAS Monitoring Group and above all, there is a flourishing transnational citizens cooperation, especially in the civic space.

With an estimated 362 million people spread across 15 sovereign states, occupying about 5.1 million square kilometres, the economic potential for the sub-region is huge.

With trans-border trading activities and social division of labour through the encouragement of specialisation in areas where member states have economy of scale the region should be a haven of sustainable prosperity.

So these existing, even thriving areas of cooperation need strengthening ahead of the bigger goal of sub-regional and continental unity.

Synergy is required in areas of marketing boards; road infrastructure is underdeveloped. So is air transportation connectivity.

There is obvious absence of curricula focus on West Africa in the educational systems of member-states and extortionate border checks other than true security preponderate. These impediments need to be transformed to achieve the key goal of economic and social integration through trade liberalisation in the sub-region.

Gowon’s prescription of “trust and respect for one another; respect for different institutions and governance systems of each country, and above all the compelling need for good governance” is critical to the realisation of the ECOWAS principles in practice.

It must finally be said that in seeking to consummate the ECOWAS vision for the people of its member-states, the commitment and consistency of the founding fathers of the body such as General Yakubu Gowon and the late Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo are the least expected of the sub-region’s contemporary leadership.