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From Economic Cooperation to Collective Security: ECOWAS and the Changing
Imperatives of Sub-Regionalism in West Africa
Charles Ukeje
Department of International Relations
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria
Tel.: +234 803 717 0055
Email: [email protected]
[Abstract of paper for CODESRIA’s 30th anniversary Celebrations, West Africa sub-Regional
Conference, Cotonou, 6-7 September 2003]
Coming almost a decade-and-a-half after the flush of independence, the establishment of the
Economic Commission of West African States, ECOWAS, in May 1975, was a direct response to
the subsisting and dire challenges, both national and transnational, that confronted and threatened
the ultimate consummation of the nationalist and nation-state projects in the sub-region. In many
ways than one, ECOWAS was the product of a West African as well as global ‘mood’ in favor of
economic integration and regionalism. In the wisdom of its architects, then, ECOWAS was
envisioned as a transcendental sub-regional institutional framework, complementary to the
various national developmental efforts of member-states, for accelerating and achieving the goals
of self-reliance and sustainable development in the sub-region. At the global level, its formation
was encouraged, in fact significantly boosted, by the bourgeoning emphasis placed on economic
integration in the more advanced regions, most especially the European Economic Community
(EEC). There was a burning consciousness among the midwives of ECOWAS that if more
advanced countries could see good judgment in drawing closer to one another, weaker and
peripheral economies have little choice than to follow suit. In short, this bold move brought
together states with varying sizes and diversities in historical, political and economic
backgrounds, to give practical expression to several failed attempts at regional economic
cooperation, as a strategy for fulfilling the nationalists’ dream in the sub-region.
Close to three decades of continuous existence, the ECOWAS project is a mixed grill of
achievements, mis/fortunes and challenges. Several decisions and protocols have been endorsed
relating to the progressive elimination of custom duties and charges; the abolition of quantitative
and administrative restrictions on trade among the member-states; the establishment of common
custom tariff and commercial policies; the removal of obstacles to the free movement of people,
services, and capital; the harmonization of the economic and industrial policies of member states;
the elimination of disparities in the level of developments; the harmonization of monetary
policies; and the establishment of a fund for cooperation, compensation and development.
Unfortunately, their observance have either been predominantly in the breach or in their
implementation have faltered.
Although it has failed to consummate some of its socio-economic mandates, in a twist of fate, the
Community has been very successful in re/defining the parameters for political and security
issues and relations within the sub-region, which was, for much of the 1990s, the theater of
prolonged armed conflicts, civil wars and complex humanitarian emergencies, especially in
Liberia and Sierra Leone. The outbreak of civil wars in those two countries, and the sub-regional
ramifications they assumed, have reinforced concern that economic integration alone was grossly
insufficient; that there was need to broaden the scope and mandate of the ECOWAS to grapple
with contemporary challenges within and outside the sub-region. Based on internal selfassessments conducted in the late 1990s, therefore, the Community established three new
institutions: the Community Parliament, the Economic and Social Council, and the Community
Court of Justice.
In the light of the above, the nagging questions at this historical juncture in the life of ECOWAS
are as follows: how relevant are the canonical notions behind the formation of the Community,
particularly in terms of making it relevant to the contemporary issues and problems facing the
sub-region? What are the salient thrusts of the internal self-assessment embarked upon by the
Community in the 1990s? What are the substantive factors and forces, internal and external,
driving the rethinking and reinvention of ECOWAS? How best can ECOWAS prepare itself to
address, first, its core mandates; and second, meet the ever-increasing needs and expectations of
the peoples of West Africa. What are the alternative futures for, and problems facing ECOWAS
in the 21st Century and beyond? What are the most innovative ways by which the Community can
grapple with these problems? Does the institution have the fiscal wherewithal and political
goodwill to meet the myriad challenges facing it? What are the options are available to it now and
in the future? These are some of the questions to be addressed by the proposed paper.