Regional body ECOWAS deepens integration in Cote d'Ivoire and beyond

Founded in 1975 to promote economic integration in West Africa and eventually bring about full economic and monetary union, ECOWAS is made up of 15 members, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria (where the bloc is headquartered, in the capital Abuja), Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo. All have been members of the bloc since its inception, with the exception of Cape Verde, which joined a year later. Mauritania was also a founding member, but withdrew in 2000.

The Treaty of Lagos, through which the bloc was established, was revised in 1993 to increase its focus on economic and social integration between member states, as well as to address challenges such as environmental issues and human development. The amendments also gave increased emphasis to peacekeeping and military intervention.

Regional Population

The bloc’s population stood at 350.9m people in 2016, according to IMF estimates, representing 35.1% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria had the largest population of any member state, on just over half of the total (52.3%), followed by Ghana on 7.9% and Côte d’Ivoire on 6.9%. Cape Verde was the smallest country in the bloc by number of inhabitants, accounting for 0.15% of the total. The population of the bloc as a whole grew by an estimated 2.7% over the year, identical to the figure for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole in 2015. Mali was the member state with the fastest-growing population, on a figure of 3.2%.

Regional GDP

ECOWAS member states had a combined GDP of $628.9bn in 2015, according to figures from the October 2016 update of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database (which includes estimates for some countries). This was equivalent to 41.9% of the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. Nigeria – also the biggest economy in Africa – is by far the largest country in the region by GDP size, on a 2015 figure of $493.8bn, or 78.5% of the bloc’s total economic output. The next largest economy in the region was that of Ghana, on $37.7bn (6%), followed by Côte d’Ivoire (5%).

GDP Per Capita

The ECOWAS region had a GDP per capita of $1841 in 2015, slightly above the average of $1589 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.

Cape Verde was the wealthiest country in the region on a per capita basis, with a figure of some $3056, according to figures from the IMF, followed by Nigeria on $2763 and Ghana with $1402. Niger was the bloc’s poorest member in GDP per capita terms, with a figure of $407. In purchasing power parity-adjusted terms, Liberia was ECOWAS’s poorest member state, with a figure of 875 international dollars. The top three countries remain unchanged after adjusting for purchasing power.

Economic Growth

The bloc’s economy grew by 3.1% in real terms in 2015, according to OBG calculations based on World Bank data, in line with the figure of 3% registered by sub-Saharan Africa as a whole for the year. Member states that witnessed particularly strong growth during the year included Côte d’Ivoire on 9.2%, Senegal (6.5%) and Mali (6%).

However, the rapid decline in the price of oil in 2015 – which had a negative impact on the bloc’s largest economy, Nigeria – weighed heavily on the region’s economy. Growth in Nigeria fell to 2.7% in 2015, down from 6.3% in 2014 and 5.4% in 2013 – as well as on second- and third-largest economies of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which also produce significant quantities of hydrocarbons. The impact of the 2013-16 Ebola virus outbreak also negatively affected growth in the region in 2015, with GDP declining by 20.6% in Sierra Leone and growth rates of 0% seen in Liberia and Guinea.

Political Structure

ECOWAS is chaired on a rotating basis by the leaders of its member states, for respective 12-month periods. Its current chairperson is Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the president of Liberia, who replaced President Macky Sall of Senegal in the role in June 2016.

The bloc’s main decision-making body is the Authority of Heads of State and Government, which is made up of its members’ political leaders. The Council of Ministers, which comprises the minister of ECOWAS affairs from each member state, also has some decision-making powers.

Ecowas Commission

The community’s executive branch is the ECOWAS Commission (known until 2006 as the ECOWAS Secretariat), which is responsible for routine administration and the implementation of strategic projects.

Since April 2016 the commission has been presided over by Marcel de Souza, the former minister of development, economic analysis and forecasting for Benin. The commission also includes a vice-president and seven commissioners who cover different fields, namely administration and finance; agriculture, environment and water resources; human development and gender; infrastructure; macroeconomic policy; political affairs (which includes peacekeeping and military interventions); and trade, Customs and free movement.

ECOWAS also operates an advisory body known as the ECOWAS parliament, which has 115 members drawn from the legislative bodies of member states. The number of seats allocated to each country depends on the size of its population; Nigeria, the largest member state, has the most seats (35), while the eight smallest member states – Benin, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo – have five each.

Development Vision

In 2007 the bloc launched its Vision 2020 strategy to promote greater regional integration and economic cooperation, with the aim of raising living standards across the region. In the words of the document’s vision statement, it seeks “to create a borderless, peaceful, prosperous and cohesive region, built on good governance and where people have the capacity to access and harness its enormous resources through the creation of opportunities for sustainable development and environmental preservation”.

The vision is based around five pillars, including boosting the development of human capital through greater investment, in particular regarding women and youth; deepening economic integration through measures such as the creation of a single market with a common currency; boosting private sector growth; and ensuring peace in the region through regional defence and security cooperation.

Common Tariff

In order to establish a regional Customs union – a goal since the organisation’s founding – ECOWAS member states in 2006 agreed to bring in a common external tariff on imports, under which goods entering the zone would pay a single unified tariff, after which they would be able to move freely within the region without paying additional tariffs when crossing internal borders. The common external tariff was initially due to be implemented in 2008, a date that was subsequently pushed back to 2011 and then again to 2015.

Implementation Progress

Officially, the new regime came into effect as planned at the start of that year, marking the launch of the bloc’s Customs union, the second on the continent after the SADC. However, as of mid-2016 only nine countries had actually implemented the regime.

In August 2016 ECOWAS agreed that the common external tariff would be implemented by all member states from 1 January 2017. The agreed tariff schedule applies a range of five tariff bands depending on the type of imports, running from 0% for essential social goods to 20% for consumer products and a 35% tariff imposed on some goods in order to allow for economic development of certain sectors; member states are also permitted to deviate by up to 3% of all tariff lines in order to safeguard their economies from problems such as dumping. The bloc has taken a number of measures to help member states implement the common external tariff, including efforts to build capacity in each state and the creation of a Customs valuation mechanism.


The launch of the common external tariff should help to boost levels of trade within the bloc, which had previously remained low despite long-standing efforts to boost regional integration. Intra-regional imports were worth 3% of GDP in 2013, for example, compared to 6.6% for the SADC and 19.7% for the EU, according to figures from the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Barriers to intra-regional trade include high costs and lengthy administrative procedures. For example, according to the World Bank’s 2016 “Doing Business” report, the average amount of time it took for exporters to deal with border compliance was 86 hours, compared to eight in the EU – though ECOWAS performed significantly better than the SADC at 111 hours and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) on 200 hours.

Nigeria, which has by far the region’s largest economy, was the second-worst performer in the bloc, with a figure of 159 hours, indicating that the situation is worse in practice than the overall average suggests, as it is not weighted by the size of each country’s economy. Côte d’Ivoire was the third-worst performer, on 110 hours.

The average cost of such border compliance procedures across the region stood at $477, compared to $95 in the EU (again the bloc performed better than the SADC and ECCAS). Within ECOWAS Nigeria the worst performer on $786, while Côte d’Ivoire, performed comparatively well, on $364, the fourth-best. A similar picture emerges regarding documentary compliance for exports, and the bloc performed worse than the SADC – although not ECCAS – in terms of the time and cost of documentary and border compliance for imports.

Other factors – such as large number of checkpoints along main transport corridors, a lack of coordination on import and export procedures and underdeveloped transport infrastructure – also add to the costs and time involved in cross-border trade within the region. For example, the bloc’s largest economy by far, Nigeria, scored just 2.4 out of seven (with seven the best possible score) in the infrastructure category of the World Economic Forum’s 2016-17 “Global Competitiveness Report”, ranking it 123rd out of 138 countries worldwide.

An inadequate supply of infrastructure in that country was rated by respondents as the greatest obstacle to doing business there.

Making Progress

However, the UN Economic Union for Africa and the African Union Commission recently noted that ECOWAS has “made significant progress in implementing transport facilitation measures”. The bloc also has a range of initiatives in place that should help to facilitate internal trade, including a Regional Road Transport and Transit Facilitation Programme, an initiative to establish border posts under joint control along borders within the bloc and a Lomé-based infrastructure projects preparation and development unit.

The latter was created in 2014 and charged with preparing regional infrastructure projects in the transport, energy, water and communications sectors through measures such as identifying priority infrastructure projects for regional integration, mobilising resources and promoting public-private-partnership-based infrastructure financing.

Monetary Union

Monetary union, one of the key founding aims of the bloc, already exists between the eight of ECOWAS’ 15 member states that together form the UEMOA, which uses the CFA franc – namely, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

In 1987 the bloc launched the ECOWAS Monetary Cooperation Programme, under which it planned to have established a single central bank and have a single currency in place by the year 2000. Such plans were not fulfilled, and in 2000 member states agreed on a deadline of 2015 for the creation of a single currency zone for six of the states that were not members of the UEMOA zone, namely The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, to be known as the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ). Given the inclusion of Nigeria and Ghana, the zone would account for the overwhelming majority of the bloc’s GDP. This in turn was to be merged with the UEMOA to create an ECOWAS-wide monetary union by 2020.

While the WAMZ was not launched as planned in 2015, the bloc retains the goal of region-wide monetary union by 2020, with a regional presidential task force in 2014 recommending that it instead opt for a “gradual” implementation that would see member countries that meet the bloc’s four primary convergence criteria for the union adopt the planned currency (to be known as the eco).

However, a number of significant obstacles to currency union remain in place. Participants at the Technical Meeting of the ECOWAS Macroeconomic Policy Committee on Multilateral Surveillance in December 2016 noted that the recent depreciation of the Nigerian naira was likely to further complicate the goal. In June 2016 the Nigerian monetary authorities abolished a dollar peg introduced in March the previous year that saw the value of the naira fall from the pegged rate of $1:N197-199 to around $1:N281 by the end of June 2016; as of mid-February 2017 the rate stood at $1:N313. Economic and political problems faced by the eurozone in recent years may also have dampened enthusiasm for the project in regional capitals.

Peacekeeping & Interventions

The bloc has provided peacekeeping forces for and intervened militarily in a number of conflicts and crises in member states since its founding.

The first such intervention was in Liberia in 1990, when troops from the bloc intervened in the country’s civil war, marking the first time a regional security bloc had sent troops to fight in a conflict within one of its own members. During the conflict, the bloc created the ECOWAS Monitoring Group, which continues to lead its peacekeeping missions.

Nigeria has traditionally provided the bulk of both the funding and the manpower for the force. In 1993 ECOWAS revised the Treaty of Lagos, its foundational document, in order to increase the emphasis on its peacekeeping role and interventions. The force was deployed again in 1997 in Sierra Leone’s civil war, and then in 1999 in Guinea-Bissau.

In recent years the bloc has taken a strict line regarding the preservation of democracy in member states, including several occasions on which it has shown willingness to intervene militarily to enforce this. Such interventions occur under the authority of its supplementary protocol on democracy and good governance – under which it has “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means” – and its mechanism for conflict prevention, management, resolution, peacekeeping and security. The latter was adopted in 1999 and authorises intervention in conflicts between or within member states that “pose a serious threat to peace and security in the sub-region”. In 2009 ECOWAS suspended Niger’s membership after the country’s then-president, Mamadou Tandja, ran for and won a third term in power, in contravention of a constitutional provision limiting presidents to two terms. The crisis was resolved in 2010 when military officers overthrew Tandja and held new elections.

ECOWAS also suspended Côte d’Ivoire’s membership of the bloc and threatened to intervene militarily in the country during the crisis that followed the country’s December 2010 presidential elections, in which incumbent president Laurent Gbago was declared the winner after votes in northern provinces were annulled, a decision opposed by Gbago’s opponent Ouattara and most of the international community. In the end Gbago was overthrown by a combination of pro-Ouattara Ivorian forces and a French military intervention.

Gambia Mission

The bloc’s most recent intervention occurred in mid-January 2017, when around 7000 troops constituting the so-called ECOWAS Standby Force entered The Gambia from Senegal as part of a military intervention in order to enforce the results of the former’s December 2016 presidential election, which was won by Adama Barrow and which previous ruler Yahya Jammeh initially refused to accept. ECOWAS leaders authorised a military intervention against Jammeh in late December.

The majority of the troops taking part in the mission were provided by Senegal, backed by Nigerian warplanes and helicopters; other countries – including Mali and Ghana – also contributed forces. The intervention was short-lived – in January Jammeh agreed to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea, ending the stand-off and bringing about a halt to the operation, though ECOWAS announced that some troops would remain in the country on a temporary basis.


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Cover of The Report: Côte d'Ivoire 2017

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