ECOWAS: from economic cooperation and development to security. A revision of the mandate or progress towards future rules? – PART 1

ECOWAS was created on 28th May 1975 with the signing of the Lagos Treaty by 15 Western African countries[1]. It represents one of the major examples of regional integration in Africa. Since the 1990s it strengthened its role in favouring economic partnerships and in keeping political stability in the Member States affected by conflicts through peacekeeping missions. Despite all that, ECOWAS did not result from an easy process and it has not reached yet a complete monetary and political integration because of both internal and external reasons.

Therefore, this paper discusses about the integration process of this subregional organisation in the contest of African regionalism examining its regioness, its major achievements, its problems. It briefly focuses on the major partnership, the EU, and the most important new actor, namely China.  It also investigates on the paradox that characterize ECOWAS, an organisation born precisely for economic purposes, but which is having greater success thanks to its peacekeeping missions. Finally, despite the competing visions of regionalism in Africa, this paper will address some specific problems that must be overcome in order to turn ECOWAS into a successful experiment.

The idea of ECOWAS came in 1964 from the idea of Liberia President William Tubman of creating an “African western community”. The process was slow and it only became successful in 1973, when General Gowon from Nigeria and General Eyadema from Togo created a road map that suddenly became the basis of Laos agreement.

The headquarters of ECOWAS are in Abuja in Nigeria and it is composed of several organs with different functions. The highest and most important meeting is the Conference of Head of States and Government that meets once a year and determines the guidelines and priorities of the Organisation [2].

The ECOWAS was born with the aim of implementing and increasing trade, cooperation, growth and sustainable development in Western Africa and of creating a free trade zone and free movement of people and goods (article 3 of the ECOWAS Treaty).[3] Because of its pan-African origins, since the 1990s it challenged itself towards economic integration, political cooperation and monetary union. It was in 1993 that Member States (MS) decided to have a Parliament, an Economic and Social Council and a Court of Justice. Since the introduction of these institutions, ECOWAS has established new priorities: among the most important, the pursuit of peace and the creation of programmes to reduce poverty, increase the development of infrastructures and food security.

Anyway, the first and foremost aim of the organization is to accelerate the economic cooperation and development of its MS and of the sub-region as a whole and the achievement of a full economic Union is envisaged in the Organisation’s founding Treaty.

Despite all good intentions, after almost 40 years, all this seems too far to reach. Market integration is still little and industrial development programmes are too difficult to be implemented. Nonetheless, there have been some important achievements, namely the first telecommunications programmes (INTELCOM I 1995 and II in 1997) interconnecting the 15 capitals. Furthermore, there were progresses in trans-national highways and agriculture and energy, and water control.

ECOWAS operates in a wide area with more than 300 thousand million inhabitants. All Memeber States are ex-colonies. This fact has often created problems not only from the religious ethnic field, but also for the political and economics one. The greatest cleavage is between ex-french and ex-english colonies. Indeed, francophone states still have a stroing relationship with la patrie using french CFA  and they have been members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) since 1994. France, from its part, has an important role in the regional balances 

Anglophone member states have instead a different relationship with the United Kingdom. Actually they went out of the Commonwealth. These states have had a good level of growth, increasing economic foreign exchanges and also foreign direct investments (FDI). Moreover, the quality of life has increased considerably face the francophone former colonies.

For example, Nigeria growth’s rate has been increasing steadily despite the internal and political problems, becoming the major regional actor in the entire region and one of the “African Tigers”.

The aforementioned economic element of distinction has indeed slowed down and hindered the pursuing of the Union, as stated above.

Needless to say, francophone countries are also quite adverse to this project because they would lose their privilege coming from the membership to UEMOA and the strength of CFA.

As a consequence, Anglophone states responded creating in 2000 the Western Africa Monetary Zone (WAMZ). Its aim has been to envelope all ECOWAS states in a single currency, the Eco, by 2015.[4]

Despite these internal “conflicts”, both the parties agreed on cooperating to harmonize their programs and to coordinate their activities in common interest areas like a custom union for West Africa, economic policies convergence, a multilateral surveillance mechanism and harmonisation of sectorial policies like agriculture, transports and energy.

There are six main aims agreed between member states to achieve regional integration and to improve development, namely:

  1. Good governance, justice and conflict prevention;
  2. Infrastructure development and a competitive economy;
  3. Cooperation and sustainable development;
  4. Economic and monetary integration;
  5. Institutions enforcement;
  6. Stronger role in global market.[5]

ECOWAS has invested many resources in the economic field, and its growth rate has been increasing till the crisis widespread, and even after the breakout of crisis it has continued its slow but steady growth.

Its lands are full of natural resources and the agriculture is one of the most important sectors in all member states (60% of the GDP). Except for Nigeria and Ghana,[6] all member states are considered ‘developing countries’. This is why it is extremely important for the ECOWAS to develop economic policies of stabilisation as a means for gaining economic convergence and for supporting growth and sustainable development. Unfortunately, this problem is not easy to solve, as many countries have a high foreign debt, lack of internal infrastructures, high levels of inflation and unemployment.

In order to modernize agricultural policies and promote competiveness in this field, in 2005 the ECOWAP (Regional Agriculture Investment Programme) was created.[7]

Internal trade is a fundamental element for economic and monetary integration, but still today there are many duties and commercial restrictions that impede the realisation of an interregional competitive market. The 1990 attempt to solve these problems with the creation of the Ecowas Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) ended up unsuccessfully indeed. In 2010 the ECOWAS Commission showed its concerns on the low level of regional trade (only 4% in 2010): this is why it announced the objective of increasing interregional trade of 40% by2013.

One of the main problems behind that is the huge bureaucracy, lack of proper infrastructures, corruption and almost no competitiveness in industrial sector.[8]



Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)



[1]Benin, Capo Verde, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togolese.

[2] A highly developed institutional framework modelled on EU.

[4] Last update 05/06/2014.

[6] Nigeria is the country with the higher population and GDP rate. Its oil production improved in huge numbers in the latest years. Ghana owes gold, diamond, magnesium and bauxite mines. It exports 90% of gold. From: Nigeria,, Last update: 04/06/2014.

[8] The commercial itinerary Ghana-Togolese-Benin-Nigeria is characterized by 18 control check-points of the police and custom officials, precarious and unsecure railways, high costs, taxes, bribes and no respect of ETLS.