The Evolution of the West African Regional Integration Process

In 1975, fifteen countries1 of West Africa agreed to build stronger bonds between their nations through the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In the Treaty giving a legal status to this Organization, the Heads of State and Government affirmed that “the ultimate objective of their efforts [is an] accelerated and sustained economic development of their states and the creation of a homogeneous society, leading to the unity of the countries of West Africa, by the elimination of all types of obstacles to the free movement of goods, capital and persons” 2.

Two main conclusions may derive from this statement: the regional integration process in West Africa is determined by economic development objectives, these objectives attained through free movement, one of the key elements that describe a Common Market. In 1975, it was clear that the framework of the West African regional integration would mainly be built on economic foundations. More than four decades later, there is no doubt that the ECOWAS has evolved to adapt the regional integration process to the challenges of a changing world. Built on the basis of economic objectives, the regional organization has progressively mutated and has changed its mandate to embrace the role that it is called to play towards the broader integration of the African Continent. This is illustrated by the revision of its treaty in 1993 and the way ECOWAS progressively included political aspects in his original economic mandate.

1. The revised treaty adopted in 1993 introduced several changes and provisions, highlighting the shift that the process of integration in West Africa was taking. From a legal perspective, it is interesting to note the changes in very key provisions, as the ones related to the objectives and the fundamental principles.

First, about the objectives, the 1975 Treaty was basically listing the areas of cooperation, the efforts the Members States were required to take in favor of trade liberalization, and a general clause of free movement of people, goods, and capital. In 1993, the objectives listed in the Treaty are much broader and introduce several innovations that would definitely change the course of the regional integration process: after stating a general goal related to the promotion of cooperation and integration, with a view to reinforcing relations between the West African States to raise the living standards of their peoples, Article 3 about the aims and objectives continues with a second paragraph in which fundamental concepts in a regional integration process are exposed. The Common Market, though somehow identified in the previous treaty, is now fully stated as an objective with three clear steps for its realization. The steps to be taken by the Member States are the establishment of a free trade Area, the establishment of a common external tariff and a common trade policy, and the removal, between the Member States, of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services, and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment3. In addition, the Treaty introduced the ambition developed by the Members States to create an Economic Union and a Monetary Union4. By expressing their ambitions to establish a Common Market, an Economic Union and a Monetary Union, the West African States move from what appeared to be a simple cooperation to a real integration. In fact, these policies are an expression of the will to build an integrated area beyond the existence of independent and sovereign States.

Secondly, the fundamental principles, inexistent in the 1975 treaty and introduced in the revised treaty of 1993, are synonymous with a redefinition of the dynamics of regional integration in West Africa. By affirming that the “High Contracting Parties in pursuit of the objectives stated in Article 3 of this Treaty, solemnly affirm and declare their adherence to [the principles of] recognition, promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and accountability, economic and social justice and popular participation in development”5,  the  State Parties appear to be giving more space for a citizen-centered process of integration beyond the role of simple economic agent using his Community freedoms. The principles of accountability, economic and social justice and participation to development, applied to the process of regional integration, are able to develop ownership within the civil society and the population of Member States.  Regarding the introduction of the human rights dimension in a process mainly related to economic development, it is a reaffirmation of the need to take into account the human dimension when pursuing economic development. Moreover, it is somehow a way to recall the necessary role to be played by the citizen in the realization of the objectives defined in Article 3 of the Revised Treaty.

The place of the citizens and the West African peoples in the regional integration was reaffirmed through the adoption, in June 2007 by the Heads of State and Government, of ECOWAS “Vision 2020”.  The ambition expressed by the highest authorities of the Organization is to replace the current “ECOWAS of States” with an “ECOWAS of Peoples” by 2020.   It is an acknowledgment of the fact that the collective effort developed towards the integration of the West African States cannot be fruitful without the full participation of the citizens of the Community. Involving the citizens beyond their role of economic agents opens the way to the development of a political aspect of the ECOWAS mandate.

2.   One of the main evolution in the West African regional integration process is certainly the introduction of a political dimension in the mandate of the ECOWAS. As stated earlier, the ECOWAS was established with a clear economic mandate, with an ambition to provide to West African countries better opportunities to trade between themselves and grow as a bigger market.   This ambition to focus on economic cooperation and integration was challenged by several political crises faced by the West African countries during the two decades following the establishment of the Community.  Considering the change of the context and acknowledging the fact that the pursuit of economic development is hardly possible in a context of instability and absence of peace, the Community came to develop several legal instruments and frameworks to address the political challenges arising in its geographical area.  It is to be noted that even before the existence of relevant legal frameworks and instruments, the Community had to intervene in several crises occurring in the sub-region. The Liberian Civil War is an illustration of the ECOWAS adapting to a situation without a clear legal framework in the Community Law.  Beyond its diplomatic action, the Community deployed a military force in Liberia with the mandate to maintain peace. In 1999, The Heads of State and Government signed the Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peace-keeping, and Security6, giving a legal basis for ECOWAS intervention on peace and stability issues. This protocol was reinforced two years later by a supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance7.  This protocol highlights the new ECOWAS political dimension by defining common constitutional principles such as “Zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”8 or “Popular participation in decision-making, strict adherence to democratic principles and decentralization of power at all levels of governance”9, and inserting provisions about the electoral process, the role of the Army in a democracy and prescribing sanctions in the event that democracy is abruptly brought to an end by any means or where there is massive violation of Human Rights in a Member State.

Once again, it appears that the citizens are taken into account in the new dynamics of the West African Regional Integration Process: the preservation of the democratic foundations of the States is a warranty of the respect of the will expressed by the citizens. The establishment of a Parliament as one of the Institution of the Community10 is another clue of the framework being progressively defined for citizens’ participation in the regional integration process.

This is where the main challenge is for the ECOWAS institutions: defining institutionalized frameworks in which citizens and non-state actors would be able to contribute to the realization of a better integration among the countries of West Africa.

Note: Published with The Federalist Debate, Year XXIX, Number 3, November 2016.


These countries were Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Cabo Verde joined later in 1976, while Mauritania withdrew from the Organization in 2000.

2 Preamble of the Treaty establishing the Economic Community of West African States, adopted in Lagos, 1975.

3 Article 3 of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, 1993.

4 Idem.

5 Article 4 of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, 1993.

6 Protocol A/P.1.12.99 relating to the Mechanism For Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, adopted on 10th December 1999.

7 Protocol A/SP1/12/01 on Democracy and Good Governance Supplementary to the Protocol relating to the Mechanism For Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, adopted on 21st December 2001

8 Article 1 of the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.

9 Idem

10 Protocol A/P.2/8/94 relating to the Community Parliament.

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