West Africa: Ecowas At 49 - Successes in Regional Integration, Despite Emerging Challenges

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu addressing the ECOWAS Summit in Abuja on the Political Situation in the Republic of Niger.

Interview with Ambassador Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was founded in 1975 to promote economic integration in the region. Forty-nine years later, the regional bloc boasts significant successes in integration, peace and security and good governance, but also faces some challenges. ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Ambassador Abdel-Fatau Musah, participated in a high-level event at the UN headquarters in New York in June 2024, focusing on regional unity, peace and security in West Africa. In an interview with Kingsley Ighobor following the event, Ambassador Musah, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, highlighted the organization's achievements and challenges, as well as ongoing efforts to strengthen integration. These are excerpts from the interview.

Ambassador Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security ECOWAS was founded on 28 May 1975. What are its achievements so far?

The achievements of ECOWAS over the last 49 years can be encapsulated in one key point: we have transitioned from creating an organization to building a community.

ECOWAS was created at the very height of the Cold War. The only possible area for people to come together and find common ground was economic integration, not political or ideological.

The protocol on the free movement of persons, goods and services (1976) permits citizens the right of abode in any member state and has been an ECOWAS calling card over the years. It is a major achievement that people in West Africa do not have to think about a visa when they cross borders within the region.

There was a lot of turmoil in Africa post-Cold War; without ECOWAS the whole region could have been engulfed in fratricidal wars. If you remember, a war started in Liberia towards the end of 1989 and continued throughout the 1990s, spreading to Sierra Leone and affecting Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.

There is a lot the region can be proud of--the fact that ECOWAS is now a trademark, a pioneer in regional integration on the continent.

ECOWAS intervened through its multilateral armed forces, the Economic Community of West African States Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which stabilized the situation and eventually provided a soft landing for the United Nations peacekeepers who came in subsequently.

On economic integration?

On economic integration, we can talk about many achievements. It is not just about the free movement of persons; it is also about creating a common market for the region. It is about helping countries develop infrastructure--energy, internet connectivity, and building road networks across the region. This is ongoing. However, learning from the sad events of the 1990s characterized by civil wars and implosion of States, ECOWAS had no choice but to pivot to security matters and good governance.

Today, the values of democracy and human rights are very much embedded in West African culture, and ECOWAS is part and parcel of that process. West Africa is the only region in Africa that does not have an open, high-intensity conflict, despite the activities of Violent Extremist Groups.

There is a lot the region can be proud of--the fact that ECOWAS is now a trademark, a pioneer in regional integration on the continent. It provided a lot of the basis for the African Union's frameworks.

ECOWAS morphed from an economic bloc into both an economic and political union. Is this correct?

Yes, it is.

Some ECOWAS members have indicated their intention to pull out of the group. Are there efforts to ensure they remain?

ECOWAS is a community. We have solidarity. We may have challenges or differences, but pulling out is not the answer. The countries intending to pull out talk about their Pan-African ambitions and other things, but the basis of Pan-Africanism is integration. Given that disintegration will not promote Pan-Africanism, we are doing everything we can to have them remain in the fold.

However, it is important to note that a country cannot just decide one day to withdraw from ECOWAS. There are procedures to follow, in accordance with Article 91 of the ECOWAS Treaty.

Several diplomatic engagements are going on behind the scenes to reunite the ECOWAS bloc.

What gives you hope these efforts will succeed?

What gives us hope is that ECOWAS held its extraordinary summit in February 2024 and lifted the severe sanctions against Niger, and we further encouraged them to return to the Community. We hope they understand that the advantages of being together far outweigh the disadvantages.

Talking about advantages, what further incentives do you provide these countries to encourage them to maintain their membership?

I spoke earlier about ECOWAS' free movement of people, goods and services. About 10 million citizens of these countries are spread across the region. As we speak, 4.5 million Burkinabe citizens live in Côte d'Ivoire alone. If they withdraw from ECOWAS, the status of their citizens will change dramatically. They will have to regularize their stay, and those who cannot regularize will need to return to their countries.

We talk about trade liberalization. Intra-African trade is just about 15 percent. Within the ECOWAS region, exports from these three countries to other parts of West Africa do not go beyond 17 percent. What ECOWAS gets from them is meat products, vegetables and so on. Whereas they get energy and many manufactured goods from the other countries with virtually no tariffs attached.

The values of democracy and human rights are very much embedded in West African culture, and ECOWAS is part and parcel of that process.

Do not forget the three countries are landlocked. They will need outlets to the sea, which is being provided today under very favourable conditions within the framework of regional integration. If they pull out, they will have to find alternative outlets or pay higher freight charges and tariffs. It will take a lot of time and resources to do that.

We are also about community solidarity, which is something people take for granted. In fact, the three countries together consume more than 52 percent of the ECOWAS strategic food reserves, which is about 15,000 tonnes of food. Landlocked countries or those ravaged by cyclical droughts need such support.

Finally, the most effective way of combating violent extremism is by sharing intelligence and cross-border military cooperation. If they separate from us, how do they effectively fight violent extremists? We need them back in the family and I hope they rescind their decision.

Could their withdrawal have reputational consequences for ECOWAS?

A withdrawal will neither be good for them nor for ECOWAS because in international diplomacy today, strength lies in numbers. If we remain 15 member states, our influence in international diplomacy is greater. If they leave, ECOWAS will be weakened. This is something we must consider.

Remember that ECOWAS is an organization of solidarity. If you are seeking positions in international organizations like the UN and others, ECOWAS comes together and backs a candidate. For the sake of solidarity, we will back those who are within the community.

So diplomatically speaking, security-wise, politically, it is bad for both sides. But on balance, it is very much not in their favour.

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