ECOWAS’ Existential Blues

Monday Philips Ekpe argues that West Africa is not too disadvantaged to successfully fight for its own survival

The recent joint announcement by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to withdraw from the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) may have come at an unkind time. Surely, those who question their right to disengage from the body haven’t considered history, both distant and recent, properly. Britain left the European Union (EU) not long ago, for instance. Even ECOWAS was ditched by Mauritania in 2000; only to later return and seek associate membership in 2017. While decisions to leave regional bodies go with consequences, not unexpectedly, the liberty to do so mustn’t be denied. Not in an age characterised by heightened clamour for and awareness of personal and group freedoms. That January 28, 2024 declaration is both unprecedented and momentous, however, and potentially course-altering.

Here is how. Some critics have dismissed the action of the three countries as mere grandstanding taken too far. But one couldn’t have followed the events there since their present leaders grabbed power via military coups without noticing their willingness to challenge the status quo and carve out lasting legacies for themselves. They have since wrestled their erstwhile almighty colonial master, France, to the ground and stripped it of virtually every badge of imperialism within a short period. The military threats issued by ECOWAS to them to return their nations to democracy achieved practically nothing. Even their suspension and the economic blockades imposed on them, though painful, haven’t produced the desired effects. More significantly, the populism that ushered the soldiers to the centre-stage in the first place hasn’t yet faded away as earlier predicted by some pundits. There appears to still exist enough fire to sustain the idealistic rulers in their quest to make a difference, no matter what that actually turns out to be in the long run.     

Check out the roll call of the men of history who signed the Treaty of Lagos in 1975 that gave birth to ECOWAS: General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria, Aboubakar Sangoule Lamizana of Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, Ahmadou Sekou Toure of Guinea, Mathieu Kerekou of Benin Republic, Moussa Troure of Mali, Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Seyni Kountche of Niger Republic, Sir Dauda Jawara of The Gambia, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, Felix Houghouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, now Cote d’Ivoire, Ignatius Kutu Acheampong of Ghana, Siaka Probyn Stevens of Sierra Leone, Mukhtar Ould Daddah of Mauritania, Luis Severino de Almeida Cabral of Guinea Bissau and William Richard Tolbert of Liberia.

It is noteworthy that democracy hadn’t yet become a mantra on this side of the globe five decades ago. Not to mention its lofty attributes like two terms maximum in office. In fact, many of the architects of the West African group were either military adventurers or politicians and nationalists who felt entitled for their ‘messianic’ accomplishments. Such was the character of the era that witnessed the fight against colonialism. Houghouet-Boigny, physician and politician, commonly called “Papa Houghouet” or “Le Vieux”, ran the show in Abidjan from 1960 right up to the end of his life in 1993. His colleague, Eyadema, military officer turned politician, replicated same in Lome for nearly four decades, ending in 2005 with his death and succeeded by his own son, Faure.   

Those ECOWAS founders knew exactly what they wanted, least of which was the doctrine of representative governance. And understandably so. Economic activities among African nations and the rest of the world were becoming more competitive. Establishing the Commission was their own major response to that critical need. They needed a network that would facilitate integration and inclusivity. The subcontinent’s jaundiced and highly militarised political composition notwithstanding, that was truly a giant leap. But, symbolically, even when the pact was revised in 1993 in Cotonou, the name wasn’t changed, meaning the institution’s core objectives like a liberalised business environment, free movement of goods and people, and enhanced tourism remained top priorities. Anyway, what exactly is the outstanding impact of the metamorphosis of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to African Union (AU) on the continent? Put differently, do these organisations really satisfy the basic expectations of Africans?

Those questions were reflected in the arguments of Captain Ibrahim Traore of Burkina Faso, Colonel Assimi Goita of Mali, and General Abdurrahmane Tchiani of Niger when they pulled their countries out of ECOWAS. In their view, the Commission only plays out the scripts of foreign interests; has deviated substantially from the goals of the wise men who established it; has failed woefully in tackling current predicaments like terrorism and backwardness; and has chosen the path of sanctioning them instead of taking more agreeable steps towards lasting resolutions and peace. These points could easily be dismissed as dangling excuses meant to frustrate the restoration of democracy in the beleaguered nations. Some cynics have even suggested that the non-conforming countries be ignored, that after their ‘tantrums’, they’ll return to ‘common-sense’.

The seeming relatively inconsequential profile of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger may have contributed to that uncharitable posturing. Although the three Sahelian nations account for a little more than half of the region’s entire landmass, their present economic credentials are not as flattering. Their population constitutes less than 14 percent of the West African total. Their gross domestic product, GDP, is even less, at about $30billion or five percent of the region’s. And, being landlocked and situated thousands of kilometres from the two closest seas, Atlantic and Mediterranean, occupying arid lands that include chunks of Sahara Desert and generally encumbered by a harsh climate haven’t helped at all.

But these obvious disadvantages do not automatically render the trio helpless and useless. Not at all. Their high-worth, globally competitive solid minerals are too important to be brushed aside. Ask France. They have also at various points served as refuge for citizens of neighbouring states fleeing from calamities. Nigerians who had been dislodged by terrorist elements likes Boko Haram benefitted immensely from the hospitality of Niger, in particular. We may also recall that in the mid-1970s when drought and starvation descended on the self-styled Alliance of Sahel States, people from there flooded their neighbours, especially those towards the south. These enduring beneficial, symbiotic relationships and goodwill shouldn’t be squandered.

Approaching its 49 years of existence, ECOWAS has indeed come a long way, remarkably far from an analogue to a digital world. Issues surrounding goals-setting, collective capacities, hopes fulfilled or punctured, the relevance of prioritised agenda, institutional accountability, and the corporate fidelity of member-states are equally consequential and have now become more pertinent. Luckily, the Commission, even with its obvious shortcomings, can still lay claims to modest strides. Apart from the moderate successes in its cardinal targets, many of which could be better, its past responses to transnational emergencies did register appreciable outcomes. The defunct ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) lived up to its assignments considerably in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also on record that the human, material and financial costs were shouldered with equanimity.

More of that is needed urgently. The democratic testimonials of most West African countries are weak. Only few days ago, President Macky Sall of Senegal unilaterally shifted his country’s presidential poll in a move to elongate his stay in office indefinitely. How can someone like that sit in judgment over Tchiani and his co-travellers? West Africa’s apex body can’t afford to continue as a house of contradictions. The forced gradual exit of Paris from Francophone countries and their emerging romance with Moscow and, to some extent, Beijing clearly present fresh puzzles to ECOWAS. Its leadership must liberate itself from inertia, lack of focus and inferiority complex. So much is at stake.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

Related Articles