The primary regional body of East Africa, ECOWAS, represents a grand ambition. Dedicated to establishing a single currency and Customs union, with fully integrated economies and open borders, the path ahead is a challenging one. The tribulations of the EU bear witness to the complexity of establishing a truly common market, and the idiosyncrasies of West Africa make the task no less difficult. It is a region in which it is easier to import goods from Europe than to trade with neighbours, and where ageing infrastructure and uneven implementation limit openness.
However, the combined economic potential of the 15 member states of ECOWAS is enormous. The region boasts a population of 300m people, includes one of the largest oil and gas producers on the continent, benefits from huge deposits of mineral wealth, is home to some of Africa’s largest corporate institutions and represents major agricultural producers in key cash crops like groundnuts, oil palm and cocoa.
The first formal suggestion for a regional body came in 1964 from Liberian President William Tubman, who called for an economic community in the region. Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone signed on, but the plan saw limited progress. However, a tour of West African capitals in 1972 nudged the idea back to the top of the agenda, and delegates of the 15 states met in 1973 in Lomé, Togo. Together they produced a draft of what would become ECOWAS’s founding document, the 1975 Treaty of Lagos. It mandated a single economic community with a Customs and monetary union.
The 1993 revision to the Treaty of Lagos marked the start of a new era for ECOWAS. At the conceptual level, the treaty shifted the bloc from an organisation whose ultimate goal was furthering bilateral cooperation between states to a community that was aimed at bringing about closer social and economic integration. However, the headline change in 1993 was the addition of a military element. In response to conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone the group incorporated conflict-prevention measures into its scope, and it has won significant praise for how it has handled these problems.
In 1999 the group adopted the ECOWAS Protocol on the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, which outlines the objectives and methodology for peace and security of its member states. Protocols such as this – along with frameworks and conventions on munitions, governance and conflict resolution – are not binding for members, but ECOWAS has provided them as a guideline for those who wish to adopt them.
Despite the recent focus on peace and politics, ECOWAS’s roots and its headline goals for the future are economic. ECOWAS members are divided into two categories – those of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine, UEMOA), an economic bloc of eight mostly francophone countries with a common currency, and those still using national currencies. ECOWAS’s plan is to create a second regional currency for non-UEMOA countries, and then to merge the two groups into one monetary union. Currency union is the major task for the group, but there are other important jobs as well, including establishing a Customs union and a unified tariff regime.
Following a decade of trade negotiations, in 2014 ECOWAS approved an economic partnership agreement (EPA) with the EU.
As it now stands, the EPA will cover 75% of exports from the region over a 20-year period, with the EU committing €6.5bn in aid to help member states integrate with the global economy. The deal does come with stipulations, though: it prohibits the use of tariffs to promote industrial development, calls for export tariffs to be eliminated and requires ECOWAS to consult with the EU before giving any concessions to a third party with more than 1.5% of global trade.