The Economic Community of West African States this month sent troops to surround Gambia in an ultimately successful effort to push Yahya Jammeh, the West African country’s illegitimate leader, from power. But what was an economic organisation doing dispatching soldiers in the first place? It is as if the International Monetary Fund decided to send a gunboat to North Korea.
Ecowas has long been better at peace and security than at regional integration, its original mission. Founded in 1975, its stated goal was to achieve “collective self-sufficiency” through the creation of a single trading bloc among its members. In that it has failed. More than 40 years later, its 15 countries barely trade with each other, even though its citizens can travel freely between member states. Ecowas exports going to other Ecowas countries amount to less than 12 per cent of the total (not counting informal cross-border trade), according to the USAID development agency. That compares with more than 60 per cent for the EU.
Lack of cross-border trade is hardly surprising given the economic failings of Nigeria, the colossus of Ecowas, whose economy is about 10 times the size of Ghana, the second-biggest member. Nigeria has pursued a misguided policy of exporting oil and importing just about everything else.
Far from being self-sufficient, it relies almost exclusively on pumping out crude oil, exports of which make up more than 90 per cent of foreign earnings. Though not endowed with Nigeria’s vast oil reserves, to varying degrees most Ecowas members — exporters of everything from coca and palm oil to gold and iron ore — follow broadly the same pattern. Liberia, one of the world’s biggest rubber producers, has never made a single tyre.
With trade practically a non-starter, Ecowas has turned to security. In 1999, it signed a protocol on conflict prevention and, in 2001, another one on good governance and democracy. Given impetus by the collapse into civil war of first Liberia and then Sierra Leone, the protocols have proved more than hot air.
Though its record is far from perfect, Ecowas has slowly squeezed the space for autocrats in a region where coups were once endemic. Almost unnoticed, term limits and democratic transitions have become more or less the norm. That process culminated in 2015 when Nigeria had its first civilian transfer of power since independence.
In this, Ecowas has led the way. By contrast the 15-member Southern African Development Community has proved toothless, unable and unwilling to face down autocrats such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When it comes to trade, however, Ecowas is lagging. The East African Community, a six-member grouping that only properly got going in 2000, has made far swifter progress. Already, some 20 per cent of its members’ exports go to other EAC countries. Transport links have improved and interstate bureaucracy cut. Oil and gas pipelines and expanded rail routes will knit the countries together. Rwanda, a landlocked state with a strong development agenda, has helped chivvy the process along. Both it and Uganda have invested in a project that gives them better access to ports (and markets) in Kenya and Tanzania.
Regional integration is out of fashion in Europe, where Britain is leaving the EU, and in the US, where President Donald Trump is threatening to shred the North American Free Trade Agreement. But in Africa, a continent chopped into pieces at the Berlin Conference of 1884, few doubt the economic rationale of closer trade links. The challenge is to go beyond rhetoric. Larger regional markets would give small countries the incentive to develop specialist manufacturing or processing capabilities. More fundamentally, they could help African countries break the trade habit inherited from 100 years of colonial subjugation: ship out raw materials and import finished goods.
There are good reasons why Ecowas, divided into former British, French and Portuguese colonies, has not done as well at trade as it is beginning to do at democracy. Gilles Yabi, founder of the West African Citizen Think Tank, points out that you cannot have trade without security and you cannot have enforceable regional regulations if the rule of law does not apply at home. Ecowas, he says, “did not have a choice but to be involved in politics and security”.
It is, however, high time to build on that success. Today, Ecowas is celebrating a job well done in Gambia. Now it should look back to its roots and make trade a priority too.
David Piling, FT
David Pilling is the Africa editor of the Financial Times. He was previously Asia editor and also formerly Tokyo Bureau Chief for the FT.