ECOWAS and the political kingdom

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch19 Nov 2015Abdourahmane Idrissa

With the onset of globalization and the failure of national development agendas in the 1980s, regional integration grew into a practical paradigm and a new hope in Africa at the turn of the 1990s. Yet while it was rhetorically embraced as useful, and in fact necessary for development, it has generally remained more of an experiment rather than a transformative process across the continent. What tends to be neglected is that although the objectives of regional integration are chiefly economic, it is chiefly a political project.

As no one wants to reinvent the wheel, West Africa’s leaders, awestruck by the progress of European integration, resuscitated the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the late 1990s which was then all but brain-dead. ECOWAS received a mandate very similar to that of the European Union and took direct inspiration from the EU’s treaties and architecture. It is now home to several regional institutions, including a Community Court of Justice that has increasing relevance for states and citizens.

The struggling ECOWAS

ECOWAS, however, has not quite become a functional integration organization. The resources and the teeth to build compliance with its policies are not there, and for much of its regular work, it depends on external aid chiefly from the EU. One can say for it that it is a useful regional platform for donors and investors and, importantly, a political and sometimes a policy forum for the leaders of its 15 member-states. For the rest, it is struggling.

This is not surprising. Regional integration, despite its economic discourse, is profoundly a political idea, with all the complications this suggests. The most frequent lament about ECOWAS one hears is the ‘lack of political will’ or ‘political commitment’ from member-states, as if these could ever have been automatic responses. Integration is artificial. There would have been no ECOWAS at all without the energy and actions of Nigeria’s President Gowon and Economic Development Minister Adedeji – helped by Togo’s President Gnassingbé – who fought for it in 1973-75.

When the organization later declined, it was mostly due to ‘political will’ in the other direction, especially from the European Economic Community, which – under French influence – was reluctant to work with it. The Francophone states, which – again, under French influence – preferred to consolidate their own little clubs, the CEAO and the UMOA. If ECOWAS was successfully revived in the 1990s, it was chiefly because the politics of integration had radically changed in that period, with the EU becoming supportive of regionalism in Africa and France altering its ‘African policy’ after 1994 (a year of two shocks: the Rwandan genocide and the devaluation of the Cfa Franc). However the importance of these factors point to the fact that the local push formerly provided by Nigeria is missing.

In search of a quid pro quo

The experts working at ECOWAS have produced a doctrine that claims to remedy this. They envision the organization operating through a system of ‘tiered’ states. A core group of wealthier states (Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal) would play the leading role in funding it and, notably, in effectively compensating the landlocked ‘third tier’ countries of the Sahel (Niger, Burkina, Mali) for the losses they would sustain through market integration. Such economic transfers would be recouped through the benefits of said market integration, in which the wealthier coastal states could expect much greater gains than others.

As ‘rational choice’ goes, the doctrine (if it can be called one) makes sense. A unified consumer market of nearly 350 million people would be a bounty for Nigerian banks, Ivorian manufactures or Senegal’s public works industry – something that would help them grow into regional champions. This is also the only way for these countries to diversify their economy through expansion as they cannot dream to penetrate the markets of their main trading partners in the developed world, beyond selling crude oil and bananas.

National power trumps regional leadership

Again, to prompt collective action, political leadership is more decisive than economic reason. Until he was killed in a gutter in October 2011, Gadhafi of Libya in his madcap style was making something of the CEN-SAD – an odd jumble of Sub-Saharan states from diverse corners of the continent that he brought to life – and it mattered more to people in Cotonou or Bamako than ECOWAS. As the Gadhafi case shows in a way, one key hurdle to the emergence of such leadership is the struggle for political power in national contexts.

Democracy has made great strides in the region since the 1990s. At present, perhaps the only West African countries that are not serious about this are Togo and the Gambia. But in general, democracy has only created different incentives for what remains the priority of many rulers in the region: the protection of their power and regime, even against the requirements of economic development, social progress or state-building. ECOWAS can suffer from this, when – as has recently been the case during an ill-starred coup attempt in Burkina Faso – it appears to side with regimes against the people.

More fundamentally, most West African states are captive of regimes that feel threatened by a strong state – that is, a state in which technical and political institutions enjoy the level of operational autonomy vis-à-vis the executive power required by their optimum efficacy. Authoritarianism dreads constitutions and an efficient state because these come with laws and rules that hedge and regulate its power. Yet an organization like ECOWAS implements its decisions through states and not through regimes. This realization is fundamental to an improved understanding of regional integration in Africa and its advancement. Indeed we should have never forgotten, as was once said by Kwame Nkrumah, the man who led Ghana to become the first country on the continent to secure independence from colonial rule, that in Africa the political kingdom must be conquered first.