The mantra “ECOWAS of the people” became popular when the ECOWAS vision 2020 was adopted in June 2008. Since its adoption, many citizens remain skeptical about the people-driven agenda that the vision espouses. Many 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”. Sadly, the dividends of this vision are yet to be holistically felt by West African citizens. For instance, casual conversations with businesspersons and persons who travel in the region will vividly highlight the ordeals that many local companies and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) citizens go through in travelling to each other’s countries.
ECOWAS of the People?
There are documented challenges by local industrialists meeting strong resistance at both land, air and sea entry points because the authorities in those countries would not let them export their locally manufactured products which are of international standards. These are the sad and sometimes anecdotal stories of many companies and citizens. In addition, the extensive number of check points on major roads in some ECOWAS member states are a source of great challenge to the promotion of free trade and regional integration. It is mind boggling that after 45 years of regional integration and diplomatic relations such a practice would exist in the region.
A more recent reminder of the challenges with the region’s integration project was in October 2019 when Nigeria closed its borders to the movement of goods. The move, aimed at curbing smuggling, led to price rises, and threatened free trade across the region. The measures are in breach of the protocol on the free movement of goods, services and people established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to which Nigeria belongs and in which it wields significant political and economic clout.
All these examples clearly demonstrate that the ECOWAS’ Vision 2020, aimed at facilitating a transition from an ‘ECOWAS of States’ to an ‘ECOWAS of the people’ is facing serious drawbacks. This vision was adopted to ensure that citizens enjoy the benefits of a borderless, prosperous and cohesive region. However, it is conspicuously evident that this agenda – an ECOWAS of the people - will not be achieved at the end of 2020.
The Role of Civil Society and the Media
Therefore, it is increasingly evident that there is an essential and urgent need to deepen broad based civil society engagement and multi-sectoral collaboration in the regional integration process. This feeds into the consensus that organised civil society, many of which have earned the trust of common people, must play a crucial role in informing constituents and bringing their concerns to the fore of regional policy making. The revised 1993 ECOWAS Treaty called for the broad participation of CSOs and all citizens in the integration process. 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 with civil society playing a key role.
However, the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in regional integration continues to be insignificant. 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 numbers of CSOs that engage with the `regional community are limited and hence there is a clear disconnect between community actors and the work of ECOWAS.
This disconnect can be repaired through multi- stakeholder mechanisms that:
- Boost civil society’s awareness of its role in regional integration processes;
- Establish avenues for accessibility between ECOWAS and its 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.
It is encouraging to see that CSOs are playing an increasingly visible role, albeit insufficient, in engaging directly with ECOWAS around a diverse set of policy issues. These include but are not limited to; 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 meaningfully contribute to ECOWAS’ people-centred and preferably, people-driven agenda.
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 Minister’s 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 social justice activist, it has become clear that the agenda to promote a people-centered regional integration hinges on the quality of collaborative initiatives between civil society, governments and the private sector. Reimagining a more coordinated relationship between these three sectors will give the region a better chance of achieving the ideals of Vision 2020 in 2030.
* The Author, Charles Kojo Vandyck is West Africa Civil Society Institute’s Head, Capacity Development Unit