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Towards a People-Driven ECOWAS: Challenges and Opportunities

The mantra “ECOWAS of the people” became popular when the ECOWAS vision 20/20 was launched. Since its launch, many citizens remain skeptical about the people-driven agenda that the vision espouses. Sadly, the dividends of this vision are yet to be felt by the community citizens. Therefore, it seems that there is an essential need to deepen broad-based civil society engagement and multi-sectoral collaboration in the regional integration process. This feeds into the general consensus among citizens and other stakeholders in the region that organised civil society, many of which have earned the trust of common people, must play a crucial role in informing constituents and in bringing their concerns to the fore of regional policy making. 

This could be nurtured through citizen-led platforms and mechanisms that:
-Boost civil society’s awareness of its role in regional integration processes;
-Establish avenues for accessibility between ECOWAS and community citizens;
-Strengthen the operational capacity of CSOs to articulate and influence regional integration policies;
-Disseminate the requisite knowledge on the history, policies of ECOWAS to CSOs;
-Determine areas of comparative advantage on regional integration initiatives among civil society and between civil society and ECOWAS and;
-Support networking and collaboration among civil society, policy makers and the private sector on regional integration issues.

The vast experience of West Africa in nurturing the integration of its people is not in doubt. The region boasts of 40 inter-governmental organisations (IGOs). Most of these organisations are subject-specific or represent loose forms of regional cooperation.

The first of these to be established was the West African Economic Community (CEAO) in 1972, through the conversion of the much older customs and economic grouping, the Union douanière et économique de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (UDEAO). Disbanded on 14 March 1994, CEAO has been supplanted by the West African Monetary and Economic Union (UEMOA). The other economic communities are the Mano River Union (MRU), established in 1973, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), formed in 1975. In terms of prominence and influence, ECOWAS stands out as the region’s most successful integration project.

The region faces a number of common problems including the slow pace of economic integration, the lack of enforcement mechanisms in treaties and agreements, difficulties resulting from states’ juggling multiple commitments of multiple regional economic communities, the excessive control over the integration process by the executive branches and the Heads of State, and the difficulties associated with the implementation of protocols concerning free movement of individuals between countries.

Past regional integration initiatives have often focused on removing barriers to free trade in the region, increasing the free movement of people, labour, goods, and capital across national borders, reducing the possibility of regional armed conflict, for example, through confidence and security-building measures, and adopting cohesive regional stances on policy issues, such as the environment. Interestingly, there is a concrete consensus among actors that for this project to be successful it must move from being state-centric towards people-centered.

However, civil society continues to play an insignificant role in integration initiatives. This is largely due to the lack of information and the capacity to engage. Where engagement has taken place it has been perceived as hostile and confrontational. The number of civil society organisations that engage with the sub-regional community is limited and hence there is a clear disconnect between community actors and the work of ECOWAS.

In addition, the majority of civil society actors are not aware of the history, policies and institutions within ECOWAS. The revised 1993 ECOWAS treaty called on the regional community to cooperate with regional CSOs and encourage the broad participation of citizens in the integration process. This marked an important change in both the structure and character of West African cooperation. There was a shift to a more “people-centered” agenda as opposed to the “overly state-centric approach of the past”.

It is encouraging to see that civil society organisations are playing an increasingly visible role in engaging directly with ECOWAS around a diverse set of policy issues, including civic engagement, governance, early warning, small arms proliferation, gender, elections observation HIV/ AIDS, women’s rights, debt, trade, human rights and the culture of impunity. Space for this autonomous, direct civil society interaction with ECOWAS is of critical importance to promote the ability of civil society to contribute to ECOWAS.

This development presents opportunities for citizens’ groupings to take deliberate actions to bring ECOWAS to the doorstep of the people. Civil society should leverage on this opportunity to:

-Widely distribute information about ECOWAS and adapt it to different audiences, including the media, academia, parliaments, and schools: Civil society has a responsibility to ensure that the ECOWAS of the people’s vision is popularised to the largest extent.
-Increase coordination around autonomous interactions with ECOWAS Ministers and Heads of State meetings and make greater efforts to transmit civil society conclusions and recommendations to government officials: This will stimulate a people-driven ECOWAS and increase the effectiveness of civil society advocacy and help to ensure a genuine dialogue between West Africa’s citizens and leaders.
-Mobilise resources and support to strengthen the engagement between ECOWAS national units and civil society: This would help facilitate access for West African citizens to ECOWAS institutions and disseminate information about ECOWAS processes as widely as possible.

As a civic activist, it has become clear that economically, it is not viable to exist in individual countries because the region stands to profit from bigger markets as one bloc. It has also become clear that the agenda to promote a people-centered regional integration project hinges on the quality of collaborative initiatives between civil society, governments and the private sector. This agenda directly affirms that the role of civil society within the region is gradually transforming from a ‘watchdog’ position to that of a robust bridge between policy makers and community citizens.

* The author is the Head, Capacity Development Unit at WACSI.*

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