Last week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) rounded up activities to mark 40 years since it was founded. ECOWAS is a regional organisation of 15 West African countries established in 1975 with the goal of promoting economic integration among member states.
Efforts to form a West African economic community were started by Liberia’s President William Tubman in 1964. An agreement was signed among Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in February 1965 but this came to nothing. In 1972, Nigeria’s Head of State General Yakubu Gowon and General Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo re-launched the idea, drew up proposals and toured 12 countries, which led to a meeting in Lomé 1973. The meeting studied a draft treaty which was further examined at a meeting of experts and jurists in Accra in January 1974 and by a ministerial meeting in Monrovia in January 1975. Finally, 15 West African countries signed the ECOWAS treaty (also called Treaty of Lagos) in 1975.
ECOWAS was founded to achieve collective self-sufficiency for the member states by means of economic and monetary union and by creating a single large trading bloc. It was designated as one of the five regional pillars of the African Economic Community (AEC) alongside COMESA, ECCAS, IGAD and SADC. These bodies signed a Protocol on Relations in February 1998. However, slow progress towards economic and monetary integration under the Treaty of Lagos led to its revision in Cotonou on 24 July 1993.
In 2000, five ECOWAS members formed the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ) aimed at establishing a currency called “eco” to rival the CFA franc. The eventual goal is for CFA franc and Eco to merge and give all of West and Central Africa a single currency. The new currency’s launch is being prepared by the West African Monetary Institute based in Accra, Ghana, intended to be the forerunner of a common West African central bank. However, the WAMZ countries suffer from weak currencies and chronic budget deficits.
Mr. Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso and current President of ECOWAS Commission said at the anniversary celebration that the idea of an economic integration for West Africa was a bold move considering the huge differences between member states’ political systems and legal and their administrative traditions. Ouedraogo said the magnitude of the challenge confronting the Community did not deter it from building a common future based on fundamental unity and genuine solidarity.
According to him, though the sacrifices made were enormous and the risks of failure often actual, no one today can deny the relevance of the decision to establish ECOWAS nor the wisdom in continuing to believe in its underlying ideas. He said the Abidjan-Lagos Highway Project under the regional infrastructure development program would be completed. He listed other ECOWAS goals to include march to create a single currency by 2020, adoption of a single biometric identity card and boosting capacity for regional response to challenges such as Ebola and terrorism.
It can be said that ECOWAS has not totally succeeded in the area of achieving free movement of citizens and goods. Linguistic differences have continued to make the integration process slow and cumbersome. The Authority stresses the need to step up the process for the establishment of the common market in order to increase the volume of intra-Community trade, make the free movement of persons and goods a reality and pay particular attention to strategic sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure, energy and human capital.
An annual report presented at the celebration said positive strides have been made in the harmonization of macroeconomic policies, implementation of the Common External Tariff (CET), multilateral surveillance, research and youth empowerment, trade liberalisation, Customs Union, favourable industrial policy, mines development, agriculture and environment, infrastructure, telecommunications, energy and transport. The economic bloc has made some strides in the last 40 years but much more is still expected from it. The treatment meted out by some member states to nationals of other member states shows that there is still a long way to go. Despite the teething problems, regional economic integration is the way to go for West Africa. We wish ECOWAS many more successes in the years ahead.