Tempered like steel: the Economic Community of West African States celebrated its 30th anniversary in May, 2005. One of the oldest sub-regional organisations, it has survived a turbulent period and come out stronger at the end. Anver Versi profiles the organisation in this special tribute feature.
There have been civil wars, coups and attempted coups. There are language problems as the member countries are divided between French and English speaking nations. Some of the states belong to the CFA currency zone; others have their own sovereign currencies. Nigeria has the largest population in sub-Saharan Africa; Guinea Bissau one of the smallest. There are similar wide disparities in the relative sizes of their economies with Nigeria once again the giant and Burkina Faso and Mali bringing up the rear.
Given such wide differences, it would seem that any attempt to create, let alone sustain an economic community, was bound to fail. Yet, despite all the trials and tribulations, the pull and push of contrary forces, Ecowas has continued to roll on, year after year.
In this, its 30th year, it appears stronger than ever, tempered in the fire of adversity. It has learnt valuable lessons, adapted and changed its tactics and strategy but kept its vision unclouded.
Ecowas came about largely following the realisation by some of Africa's most farsighted leaders, in particular Nigeria's Gen. Yakubu Gowan and Togo's late president, Gnassingbe Eyadema. Gowan had begun the massive healing and rebuilding process needed in his country after the trauma of the Biafran civil war (1967-1970) and was convinced that the forces of disintegration then stalking the subregion could only be kept at bay by a determined push towards unity. Eyadema was also aware of the vulnerability of his relatively small state. The two leaders began the processes which led to the formation of Ecowas in 1975.
Interestingly, another organisation, the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of countries was also formed at the same time and roughly for the same reasons: economic cooperation among member states and collective bargaining strength on a global level.
Ecowas was an acknowledgement that despite all their differences, the member states were essentially the same in terms of needs, resources and aspirations. It was also an acknowledgement that the integration of their relative small markets into a large regional one was essential to accelerate economic activity and therefore growth.
The founders of the organisation were just as convinced that artificial national barriers, created on old colonial maps, were cutting across ancient trade routes and patterns and that these barriers had to go.
However, this came about at a time when sub-regional organisations were looked on with a degree of suspicion and African countries, encouraged by Cold War politics, had become inward-looking and nationalistic.
In addition, the East African Federation, comprising Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania on the other side of the continent, had collapsed amid great acrimony as each former member determinedly set off on its own individual path.
Nevertheless, Ecowas managed to survive and mature. This was mainly because it remained loose, allowing great flexibility of movement for its members, even when some of those members became locked in internal conflicts.
Even today, 30 years after its establishment, Ecowas takes a softly-softly approach in its dealings with member states. An Ecowas common currency, the Eco, which would have led naturally and inevitably to a free-trade zone for the whole sub-region, should have begun rolling out this month (June) but hasn't done so because none of the 15 members have met the economic convergence criteria. However, it is an instrument whose time has come and it seems certain that the Eco will make its appearance in the near future.
One of Ecowas' successes has been in allowing relatively free movement of people across borders. Passports or national identity documents are still required but not visas. Senegal and Benin issue Ecowas passports to their citizens.
The Ecowas Secretariat in Abuja is working on modalities to allow document-free movement of people and goods. This might take time, as other regulations, such as residence and establishment rights have to be put in place first.
One of the organisation's most vital arms is Ecomog, its peace-keeping force. Ecomog was deeply involved in restoring peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone. West African leaders have used the office of Ecowas to mediate between warring nations and factions and were instrumental in ensuring that proper democratic elections were carried out in Togo following the death of Gnassingbe Eyadema.
Ecowas' day-to-day activities are dominated by its work in economic harmonisation and in simplifying trade and investment rules. Ecowas is working hand-in-glove with Nepad to create intra-regional synergies and with international institutions on large-scale, multinational projects. There are a number of sub-regional private/public partnerships such as Ecobank, Ecomarine and Ecoair. The most spectacular sub-regional development is the West African Gas Pipeline.
Over the 30 years of its history, Ecowas has been a raft tossed about on stormy seas but it did not go under; it is now sailing on far smoother waters and its ultimate destination is not too far over the horizon.