Obstacles to Sustainable Regional Integration in West Africa


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    Over the last two years, the regional integration agenda in West Africa, or more precisely, the agenda of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been dominated by the issue of conflict management. Beginning with the turmoil in Côte d´Ivoire at end of 2010, the region has not been able to escape from a series of troubles which are still ongoing in Mali and Guinea-Bissau. For ECOWAS, as the principal regional political actor, these problems are the top priority. This focus reflects the history of the regional grouping but also reveals shortcomings.


    Initially created in 1975 to boost intra-regional trade among West African States and to enhance cooperation for development, ECOWAS first became known trough its peacekeeping efforts during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s. While progress in the economic sphere is very slow and deadlines for the completion of a common external tariff and the installation of a single currency are regularly postponed, ECOWAS achievements have mainly focused on peacekeeping and security. It has become somewhat of a model in this sector, particularly because of a huge conceptual output and by integrating into the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). However, the practical performance of ECOWAS so far is average. It will be tested again in Mali now.

    Obstacles – The problem of policy formulation

    While in Europe, crises have time and again pushed the integration process forward, the permanent state of crisis in West Africa seems to prevent significant progress. It is true that some measures have been implemented like, for example the transformation of the ECOWAS Secretariat into a Commission, following the EU model. In spite of this, a major problem in West African regional integration continues to be the formulation of effective policies. For this, several reasons can be mentioned: first, a comparatively low economic and political interdependence of West African countries which hampers interest creation for regional solutions. Second, exaggerated ambitions contradicting with a striking lack of capacities and resources. Moreover, the little capacities often seem to be uncoordinated and sometimes badly managed.

    Apart from these structural shortcomings, the monopolistic setting of decision-making and the vested interests of the Member States are often transferred to the regional level. This is also because the regional integration process in West Africa is and has always been a project of “political elites”. European integration has also been an “elite process”, and this has contributed positively to the continuity of the integration process. However, the “driving forces” not only came from the political but also from the private sector. In West Africa, it is this “drive” that is missing. ECOWAS is aware of this fact. It is pursuing the goal of transforming ECOWAS of States into an ECOWAS of the people by 2020. However, as in other policy fields, this ambitious plan does not yet match with current realities. Reform needs time, but more could be done. The pluralistic societal setting is not missing, but it is somewhat unconnected to decision-making in ECOWAS.

    Steps forward

    How can these shortcomings be addressed? An external and an internal perspective should be distinguished.

    The influence of foreign powers on West Africa, even 50 years after the end of colonialism, is still high. However, as West African stakeholders continue to emphasize, the number of alternatives has increased because of the growing interest of emerging powers like China, India and Brazil. The relationships of ECOWAS, either with the EU or with the emerging powers may still be of an asymmetric nature but interdependence has increased. This new leverage can be an incentive to develop strategies on how to jointly profit from the new opportunities. This kind of West African regional foreign policy is missing so far.

    The main problems from an internal perspective have already been outlined above: a lack of institutional coherence and coordination, a lack of resources, exaggerated strategic ambitions and little inclusiveness. These circumstances negatively affect policy formulation. Therefore, first of all, there is a need to have a more knowledge-based regional decision-making so as to achieve sustainable results and to avoid disappointment. Only on the basis of a clear and realistic assessment of policies and their determining factors, is it possible to develop approaches in a pragmatic way. This connection between academia, think-tank work and politics is widely missing in West Africa.

    Even without a more detailed analysis, there are already several suggestions that can be made in the short and medium term: a more targeted capacity development to train qualified human resources to work for regional integration; the establishment of innovative structures for dialogue within and between ECOWAS institutions as well as between ECOWAS, the private sector and civil society; the strengthening of institutions like the ECOWAS Court of Justice and the inclusion of independent research and analysis. These measures can contribute to constrain monopolistic structures of decision-making, to increase the legitimacy and transparency of regional policies and also to balance the one-sided focus on peace and conflict issues.

    This article summarizes part of the outcome of the first study meeting in the framework of the ZEI-WAI research cooperation on “Sustainable regional integration in West Africa and Europe” held in Praia from 1-2 October 2012, a 2012-2016 project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF); see www.zei.de.

    Matthias Vogl is a Junior Fellow at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI), Bonn, Germany and Dr. Wautabouna Ouattara is Program Director at the West Africa Institute (WAI), Praia, Cape Verde.

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 1, Issue 9 (November 2012)


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