ECOWAS, a light in the dark continent

Who follows the African politics was certainly pleased by the military and diplomatic intervention in Gambia performed by ECOWAS in early 2017. Code name: Restore democracy.

After the defeat in the December election, the incumbent president Yahya Jammeh, who led the country for 22 years of terror and repression, refuse to relinquish power. This opens a constitutional crisis and millions of people fled in the near states, fearing a retaliation by government forces. On 19 January, the election winner Adama Barrow was sworn in as President in the Gambian embassy in Dakar; the same day the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) obtained a mandate by the UN Security Council to negotiate the presidential transition. The Senegalese and Ghanaian armed force entered in Gambia, while the Nigerian Navy blocked the coast of the country. After two day of diplomatic negotiation between ECOWAS leaders and Mr. Jammeh and without firing a single shot, the president decided to step down.

In an age of rising authoritarianism and in a continent more used to civil wars then to democratic transition the ECOWAS ability to maintain peace and the rule of law is a good news indeed.


It’s a long way to the integration

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is a trading union established in 1975, today it counts 15 members and its aim is the promotion of economic integration in the area. It’s one of the eight pillars of the African Economic Community.

Member countries making up ECOWAS are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo. Eight of them have a common currency, the West African CFA franc, controlled by a single Central Bank; these eight states formed the West African Economic and Monetary Union inside the bigger ECOWAS, and had developed with it a common plan of action on macroeconomic policy convergence.

Compared to the other African Economic Pillars, the ECOWAS shows good economic performances. The Gross domestic product (GDP) has an important positive trend since the 2000’s (figure 1), maintaining a reasonably stable rate of growth in an extremely more volatile Continental landscape (figure 2).

Figure 1 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD


Figure 2 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD

With regard to the trading relationships with the rest of the world, the ECOWAS does not stand out compared to other regional blocks (figure 3), neither it seems particularly able to attract foreign investments (figure 4).

Figure 3 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD


Figure 4 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD

Let’s see now the level of economic integration in the Economic Community of West African States. Intra-regional trade refers to trade that focuses on economic exchange between countries of the same economic zone and it’s a good indicator of the region’s economic integration.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the lowest share of intra-regional exports relative to total export (figure 5), Though we can observe an upwarding trend starting from 2008, which led the area to overcome Developing America as of 2015. It’s important to point out that unlike some other regions, such as Developing America and even Developed America and Europe, SSA has not seen its intra regional exports decrease. Nevertheless, it’s still a long way to catch up with other developing areas such as Asia in terms of integration.

Figure 5 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD

Since the 1990s intra-regional trade flows within SADC have taken off, as shown in figure 6, while the value of ECOWAS internal exports increased modestly, only to drop in the recent years. The lack of regional integration progress is most pronounced when presented as a share of total exports (figure 7), where only Central Africa has a worse performance.

Figure 6 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD


Figure 7 – Source: adapted from UNCTAD

The causes of the stagnation of the intra-regional exports can be different. According to the United Nation Commission for Africa, a first reason can be found in Customs Union being not effective, that resulting in the persistence of tariff and non-tariff barriers, uncompetitive products and high transaction costs; most member countries also complain about obstacles to the free movement of goods. Another obstacle is the lack of quality transport infrastructure and of industrial companies, as well as of information on potential business opportunities in the region.

A highly sticking point is the unwise choice of ECOWAS to establish market integration primarily on trade liberalization, while making little effort to promote the development of diversified production. In fact, most of the West African countries have little else to trade in, except commodities that they sell on the world market. The West Africa’s main exports consist of two categories of resources: the mineral resources, namely oil, of which it is the largest exporter in the continent, manganese (34% of world production), iron (27% of African production), bauxite (almost all African production), uranium (main reserve in Africa), gold, etc. The other products include cocoa (over 60% of world supply), cotton (5% of world supply), coffee, rubber, and fruit. Imports are dominated by consumer goods, including fuel and food.

Another element to be considered is also the European Union’s Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs); the EU is the first ECOWAS’ economic partner, it accounts 23% of the ECOWAS exports, and the EPAs promote the export of African commodity and the import of finished European goods, at the expense of the inter-area trade and product diversification.


A better gendarme than a merchant

But let us return to the democratic crisis. In 1999 the West African states signed the Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peace-Keeping, and Security. The Protocol gives the authority to ECOWAS to order military interventions in sovereign states in order to stop wars or, more importantly, to re-establish the rule of law during an unconstitutional attack to democracy. Decisions are taken by a two-thirds majority of the Mediation and Security Council, formed by 9 rotating members, where there is no veto. Similar rules are an unicum in the international community, thought the African Union and the Southern African Development Community chose to adopt a similar intervention protocol.

Over the years, the ECOWAS has shown to be quite effective as peacekeeper. This occurred during its military intervention in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia, while African Union or UN intervention in Africa usually struggled to obtain results. It Must be underlined that all the missions taken place in relatively small countries, while the ECOWAS prefer not to intervene with regard to larger security threats such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara; as troubles occur in a francophone country it tends to follow the same approach

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