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ECOWAS: Political and Economic Catalyst

Brahima Kaba, Ph.D. 


Posted July 29, 2008

ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, was established by the Heads of  States of all the independent countries of West Africa in a treaty signed on May 28, 1975. The goals of this cooperation were to promote cooperation between, and development of, the member states in all fields of economic activity.

These industries included transport, telecommunication, energy, agriculture, natural resources management, commerce and finance. The countries would also work together in social and cultural matters. It is interesting to note that from the onset, "political matters" were not included although these issues constituted, at the time, the most serious challenges to the newly independent countries.

Economic Background of the Community

ECOWAS represents a 2001’s estimated population of more than 175 million, and the 16 states of the community have a substantial and diverse mineral and agricultural resource base. Agricultural and food products, other than those produced purely for domestic consumption, include cocoa, coffee, rubber, bananas, timber, palm products, citrus fruits, sugar, groundnuts, livestock, marine products, palm products, cotton and copra.

Mineral resources are equally diversified and comprise the following: bauxite, iron ore, diamonds, gold, phosphates, petroleum, chrome, copper, manganese silica, and uranium. The region also possesses a substantial hydroelectric power

For most of these products, the region accounts for a leading share of the world output. Thus the Ivory Coast (currently in a midst of a serious civil crisis) alone produces two thirds of the world cocoa and Guinea accounts for 75 percent of the world’s known reserve of bauxite. The Firestone Plantation Company of Liberia has the largest single rubber plantation of the world with over 100,000 acres of planed rubber trees on a one million acres concession of rubber. It is widely estimated that Sierra Leone produces close to 60 percent of all commercial jewelry diamonds in the world.

These resources provide a strong stream of foreign exchange and the possibility to import from the industrialized countries many of the necessary heavy machinery and related raw materials for modern agricultural and industrial development projects. If properly managed, these valuable resources will provide a sound basis for establishing self-sufficiency in key sectors of the $17.2 billion in exports and $14.3 billion in imports. However, much of this trade is linked to resources extraction, mainly in oil in Nigeria and diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Mechanisms of Economic Integration

Two of the most valuable protocols of ECOWAS in terms of achieving the above mentioned aims of economic integration and development are the following:

  1. The protocol for the free movement of all ECOWAS citizens within the territory of the 16 member organization; and

  2. 2) The Protocol for the free movement of locally produced agricultural and manufactured goods and services obeying certain graduated tariff regimes.

The free movement of people across the borders has accelerated the development of transport between all the 16 nations. Today, in spite of the relative poor condition of the road infrastructure, especially in the Western part of the region (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia), road transportation is available throughout the year within the entire region. This protocol has proven to be a strong instrument of both socio-ethnic regrouping and economic integration. It has laid the basis for the potential of a solid exchange of good and services between the nations of the region. The protocol has particularly accelerated the development of a strong and vibrant cross-border informal sector.

Recent Developments and Constraints

Over the past years, ECOWAS has planned to create one currency market regrouping - Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ghana. But many of these countries have not met the required budget balancing aspect of the project, and it has therefore been postponed from 2003 to a later date.

A plan is underway to create a regional airline ECOAIR and talks have reached the level of technical implementations.

Security continues to be the greatest constraint to development in the sub-region. The continued unrest in the Mano River Basin, which affects Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone drained major resources from the sub-region and is now spreading to Cote d’Ivoire, longtime a land of stability.


NOTE: The article was culled from the Africa Journal  January 2003 edition published in Washington DC.

The Author:  Brahima Kaba, Ph.D.  in Sociology, is currently a professor at the University of Maryland in the United States, and is a former Liberian Ambassador to Egypt, and ex-minister of Commerce  and Transportation.