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West Africa – A Novel Approach to Regionalism

Published 20 Jun 2020
Thomas Shortridge

The decades-long transition from the European Coal and Steel Community into the modern European Union established a model that regional integration projects will likely follow. Economic integration is commonly seen as essential if other elements of regional integration are to be achieved later. The success of the European Union has prompted other regions worldwide to emulate this path to regionalisation. ASEAN, Mercosur, the EAC in East Africa, the SADC in Southern Africa, APEC in the Asia-Pacific, the Carribean Community, and likely every regional organisation one can think of has begun with the goal of economic integration. Similarly almost no regional organisation, even among the most economically interconnected, has managed to achieve policy coordination in legal, political, or military arenas.

Yet, Western Africa and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) has undertaken a markedly different trajectory. First established in 1975, ECOWAS is made up of 15 nations in West Africa, ranging from Nigeria with a population of nearly 200 million to Cape Verde with less than a million people. There, relatively little economic integration has been successfully achieved. About 10% of the region’s trade is generated by intra-ECOWAS trade, compared to 65% in the EU and around 25% in ASEAN. The trade that does occur within ECOWAS is itself largely a result of the trade within the two sub regional groupings in ECOWAS: the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), made up of West Africa’s Francophone nations and the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ), comprised of the region’s Anglophone nations. These two groups have their own common external tariffs and free trade agreements separate to ECOWAS. As a result, only 1.5% of these nations’ trade is from trade between nations that are part of ECOWAS but that do not belong to the same sub regional grouping, further reducing the role of ECOWAS in encouraging economic integration.

Despite the limited extent of economic integration, which would normally undermine further attempts at regional integration projects, ECOWAS has actually developed a number of particularly powerful institutions, which are granted the authority to intervene in the sovereign affairs of member nations.

The ECOWAS Community Court is one such institution. It allows litigants from any nation in the region to seek justice for crimes perpetrated by their state or abuses that have been passively facilitated by their state’s inaction. Different from other international courts, it also does not require that domestic legal options be exhausted before an application can be made to appear before the court. The court has had verdicts upheld and complied with by states, even those against powerful nations in the region. In 2011, it ruled that Nigeria had failed to adequately fund schools, violating its citizens’ rights to access education and in 2010, the court found Nigeria had allowed Multinational Corporations to destroy communities and the environment in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. Other verdicts have focused on slavery, sexual assault, the torture of journalists, and the awarding of damages to those who were victims of police violence or misconduct. In a region where national governments commonly manipulate or coerce domestic courts, it appears near-miraculous that they have permitted, facilitated, and funded a supranational body like the ECOWAS Community Court.

Similarly, the ECOWAS Protocol on Mutual Assistance and Defence, established in 1981, permits the formation of a regional peacekeeping force to intervene in cases of civil unrest. This was first invoked in 1990 to create the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to assist with peacekeeping efforts in the first Liberian Civil War. Since then, peacekeeping interventions have been undertaken on eight separate occasions in six different nations. Even the EU, as the most developed supranational body, does not have this manner of regional military force, instead they have opted for a Common Security and Defence Protocol—which has never been invoked to deploy troops in a member state.

ECOWAS subverts many traditional expectations about regional integration. It has developed in a region with many characteristics that are nominally counterproductive for encouraging cooperation—diversity, dictatorship, underdevelopment, and instability. As such, pessimistic conclusions for the possibility of regional communities in developing regions struggle to account for West Africa’s ongoing successes. The peculiar pattern of regionalist success in ECOWAS also poses a challenge to traditional ideologies that centre market-oriented policies of trade liberalisation and market opening as fundamental prerequisites for future regionalisation. Regional communities and organisations are the best options for nations in the global South to collectivise and communally develop. The focus of global attention on European regionalism does a great disservice when explaining the origins and potential impacts of these essential groupings.

Thomas Shortridge is undertaking his Bachelor of Arts honours year in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. He has previously interned at the United Services Union and currently oversees the New South Wales Debating Union. As a debater himself, he has been a semi-finalist at the world championships and a top 10 speaker at the Australasian championships. His research interests focus predominantly on comparative politics, African politics, authoritarian regimes, and democratic transitions.

Thomas is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.