Saturday, 30th September 2023

ECOWAS at 40: A griot’s tale

By Adekeye Adebajo
27 May 2015   |   11:25 pm
WEST African griots are fabled story-tellers and troubadours who preserve the history of their people for successive generations. The tale that we tell here is of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which turns 40 today (28 May), though still struggling to increase trade among its 15 members. West Africa is a sub-region…


WEST African griots are fabled story-tellers and troubadours who preserve the history of their people for successive generations. The tale that we tell here is of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which turns 40 today (28 May), though still struggling to increase trade among its 15 members. West Africa is a sub-region rich in oil, gas, gold, iron ore, uranium, cocoa, cotton, and cashew nuts, but has some of the poorest populations in the world. This is despite the fact that there are many cultural links across borders which should facilitate regional integration: Yorubas inhabit Nigeria and Benin; Hausas, Nigeria and Niger; Ewes, Ghana and Togo; Mandingos, Liberia and Guinea; while Balantas are spread across Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Gambia.

Nigerian scholar-technocrat, Adebayo Adedeji, is widely regarded as the “Father of ECOWAS”. He had outlined a vision for regional integration in West Africa in a journal article in 1970, before turning theory into practice. As Nigeria’s Minister of Economic Development under the administration of General Yakubu Gowon, Adedeji convinced 15 West African leaders to establish ECOWAS by 1975, following three years of tireless “shuttle diplomacy” – with the Togolese government – across the sub-region.

ECOWAS has recorded four key achievements. First, the organisation has successfully established a protocol as early as 1979 that allows the free movement of its 340 million citizens across the sub-region. The legendary women traders of West Africa have taken advantage and acted as motors of regional integration, while 68% of West Africa’s international migrants remain in the sub-region, enjoying one of the world’s most impressive mobility rates. Second, ECOWAS – under the leadership of Guinea’s Lansana Kouyaté – established the continent’s first sub-regional security mechanism in 1999. The mechanism built on the lessons of the Nigeria-led ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peacekeeping interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s in which over 2,500 West African peacekeepers died so that both countries could live. Sub-regional peacekeepers have subsequently been deployed to Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau.

ECOWAS’ third main achievement was to create a governance protocol – under the leadership of Ghana’s Mohammed Chambas – in 2001, which helped with some of the difficult democratisation challenges in Guinea, Niger, and Togo. Contrary to the autocratic days of sub-regional “big men” who sought to cling to power with iron fists, after the end of the Cold War, alternance – the change of regime from one ruling party to another – has occurred in Benin, Ghana, Senegal, and most recently, in Nigeria. The organisation has also played an important role in Burkina Faso’s current democratic transition following the toppling of the 27-year old autocracy of Blaise Compaoré last October. The fourth important achievement of ECOWAS is the creation of an innovative community levy in 2000 to help fund the organisation. Although the levy is irregularly paid, other African regional bodies could learn lessons from this scheme to reduce their dependence on the vagaries of external funding.

Despite this progress, ECOWAS has also suffered four key failures. Between 1960 and 1990, West Africa was Africa’s most coup-prone sub-region, accounting for 37 of the 72 successful putsches. This culture of militarism remains rife in Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Gambia, and Togo. Even in Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military autocrat, will assume office tomorrow (29 May). The increasing violence of insurgent groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Mali’s Ansar Dine and the Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) as well as Algeria’s Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has expanded ECOWAS’ security complex beyond West Africa to Central and North Africa, threatening regime security in Nigeria, Niger, and Mali, as well as Chad and Cameroon.

ECOWAS’ second failure involves the penchant of its leaders to engage in bouts of political alchemy and their inability to build durable sub-regional institutions. West African leaders have dreamed up schemes such as trans-regional highways, railways, factories, a power pool, a gas pipe-line, and a monetary union, most of which have failed to materialise. Intra-regional trade remains an anaemic nine per cent after four decades, as industrialisation has stalled and an economic union appears a long way off. Most countries also have too small markets, with only Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana having populations over 20 million. Even as domestic parliaments and courts struggle to consolidate their legitimacy, a sub-regional parliament and Court of Justice have been established in a fit of “euphoric planning.” Despite progress in the free movement of persons, smuggling remains rampant while extortion of sub-regional travellers by customs officials remains rife. ECOWAS’ West African Health Organisation (WAHO) seemed helpless in tackling last year’s Ebola epidemic which ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, killing 11,120 people in the three countries.

The third failure of ECOWAS is the continuing ubiquitous and negative presence of French neo-colonialism in West Africa. Paris had sought to break up Nigeria during its civil war in 1967-1970 in order to reduce the country’s potential influence on the sub-region’s eight francophone countries. It also encouraged francophone countries to form rival trade blocs that contradicted ECOWAS’ integration goals. Today, the currency of these countries is still tied to a French-backed euro, while Paris maintains a 3000-strong military presence in Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal; as well as an air force and drones in Niger. French companies also continue to dominate many of the strategic sectors in these countries, though there is a growing Chinese presence in the sub-region.

It is often said that whenever Nigeria sneezes, West Africa catches a cold. The final failure of ECOWAS has been the lack of vision and leadership by the sub-region’s potential hegemon: Nigeria. The country – which hosts the ECOWAS secretariat in Abuja – accounts for about 80% of West Africa’s economy, half of its population, and 16 of its 20 largest banks. Nigeria also sells $350 million worth of goods to its ECOWAS neighbours. Any successful regional integration in the sub-region must thus necessarily be built on a solid Nigerian foundation. West Africa’s Gulliver has, however, suffered from visionless leadership, debilitating corruption, infrastructural decay, widespread poverty, and a failure to achieve an industrial take-off, negatively affecting ECOWAS’ progress. As Adebayo Adedeji scathingly put it: “No country that is confronted with a long period of political instability, economic stagnation, and regression, and is reputed to be one of the most corrupt societies in the world, has a moral basis to lead others. If it tries to, it will be resisted.”

Looking ahead, Nigeria is clearly a more natural hegemon in West Africa than France. Paris is a hyperactive power whose delusions of grandeur and pretensions to global power are being embarrassingly exposed. The Gallic power continues to suffer a serious financial crisis that has damaged its leadership credibility in Europe, and will surely eventually force it to reduce its presence in West Africa. For ECOWAS to achieve its integration goals in the next four decades, it will, however, be important that Nigeria provides the able political, economic, and military leadership that can fulfil ECOWAS’ region-building aspirations. This griot’s tale can still have a happy ending.

Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa.