The ECOWAS Of Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow


Nigeria’s late Professor Adebayo Adedeji and Togo’s Edem (Kodjovi) Kodjo would likely be turning in their graves in disappointment if not utter shock at what has become of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which they laboured with others to establish in 1975.

After its civil war of 1967-70 and the uncoordinated support from foreign powers, the then-Federal Military Government of Nigeria under the leadership of Gen. Yakubu Gowon, wanted to recalibrate the country’s foreign policy thrust based on the concentric circle model, driven by the axiom that charity begins at home.

As a young military officer then, saddled with the huge task of governing a complex country like Nigeria, Gowon, now arguably the only surviving “founding father” of ECOWAS bought into the idea canvassed by international relations experts that Nigeria must first master the art of “a big fish in a small river, before rubbing shoulders with the Big Boys at the global stage.”

Adedeji, a brilliant, full-fledged professor of Economics at age 36, as Nigeria’s Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Economic Development and National Reconstruction (1971-75), sold his boss, Gen. Gowon the idea of a regional body with Nigeria as the hegemon.

Adedeji passed on in 2018, but his legacy as a development pioneer lives on. Relating his experiences to an ECOWAS delegation, including this writer that visited him at his Ijebu-Ode home in Western Nigeria in 2013, he recalled the “marching order” given to him by Gen. Gowon to make ECOWAS a reality after he had convinced him about the need for an organization that would foster regional integration.

Given the cultural, language and colonial differences of countries in the region, Adedeji recalled the “shuttle diplomacy” he undertook to various capitals in his days as Minister and the pivotal roles played by Gen. Gowon and his Togolese counterpart Gnassingbé Eyadéma in the formation of ECOWAS.

The Anglophone-Francophone dichotomy and rivalry between France and Nigeria for regional influence dates back to the early post-independence period of African States, yet Eyadéma was the first convert to the Gowon-Adedeji idea of regional integration.

As Gowon did to Adedeji, Eyadéma volunteered Kodjo, who was his finance minister from 1973-77 and Foreign Minister from 1976-78 for the ECOWAS birthing project.

The two government ministers did not disappoint. According to Adedeji, thanks to their relentless shuttles and diplomatic suavity, the Lagos Treaty of 28th May 1975 on the establishment of ECOWAS was one of the few Treaties signed by all Heads of State at a sitting.

Senegal’s then-President Sedar Senghor was eventually convinced to abandon his initial reservations and after much persuasion, involving facilitating his transportation from Abidjan to Lagos and the concession of making an Ivorian the first Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, President Felix Houphouet Biogeny of Cote d’Ivoire also “suspended” his opposition to the ECOWAS idea in preference to the formation of a France-Afrique Union and joined other regional leaders to initial the Lagos Treaty.

ECOWAS Member States grew to 16, until the year 2000 when Mauritania left but now wants to rejoin.  Other countries, even outside the region are also seeking ECOWAS membership.

However, like most inter-governmental organisations, ECOWAS has had its fair share of internal crises and divisions between and among Member States, but until recently, it had managed the conflicts, fault lines and differences effectively to record tremendous achievements as Africa’s trailblazer Regional Economic Community.

“This (ECOWAS) is the only region in Africa where citizens can visit and stay in a country other than their own for at least 90 days without a visa,” Adedeji had enthused in 2013, in a reference to the ECOWAS 1979 flagship Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Rights to Residence and Establishment.

Moving forward, Adedeji had enjoined ECOWAS Member States to work toward the harmonization of policies, laws, and regulations to consolidate regional integration.

He and Kodjo were able to take their visionary and dynamic Pan-Africanist advocacy beyond the West African region.

Mentioned in a 2006 publication as one of the world’s 50 influential thinkers on development, Adedeji after the setting up of ECOWAS advanced his integration campaign to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa where he served as UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary for 16 years (1975-91).

His dynamism under the UNECA platform also resulted in the creation of two more Regional Economic Communities (RECs) – the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in 1981 and 1983, respectively. The professor will also be remembered for his other unique initiatives, such as the Lagos Plan of Action (1980), and the Final Act of Lagos (1980).

When the World Bank and the IMF hoisted the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) on hapless so-called developing and least developed nations – many of which are in Africa – Adedeji and fellow pan-Africanist thinkers raised an alarm and developed the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programme (AAF-SAP, 1989) followed by the African Charter for Popular Participation (ACPP, 1990), as legendary blueprints for the continent’s home-grown development and governance paradigms.

Kodjo, before he died in 2020, had also served as Togo’s 3rd Prime Minister from 1994-96 and before then, as finance and foreign minister (1973-77) and from 1978-83 as the 4th Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002.

He called it quits with internal politics in 2009, but until his death, continued to profess his pan-African beliefs despite his several unsuccessful attempts to be elected Togo’s president, and his controversial romance with the regimes of the late Eyadéma and his son, current President Faure Gnassingbe.

In 2016, Kodjo served as the African Union’s mediator in a dispute between the government and the opposition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the fixing of national elections. Kodjo also founded a magazine, Afrique (Africa) 2000 and in 1985 published a book, Africa Tomorrow.

The greatest tribute Africans can pay their departed great sons and daughters is to immortalise their pan-Africanist legacies, values, and selfless service to lift the people and continent from pervasive poverty, hunger, deprivation, backwardness, mismanagement, corruption, and underdevelopment.

However, it is doubtful whether Adedeji, Kodjo and their contemporaries would be proud of the present leadership of the AU and its eight RECs, including ECOWAS, which once received international acclaim for achievements, especially in conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

The same ECOWAS that ended the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and resolved conflicts in other Member States now appears spineless and even unable to issue a statement or take any effective actions against member States that violate its protocols/instruments.

Particularly worrisome is Nigeria’s palpable weakness and incapacity to play its role as a regional hegemon, despite its strategic position, quality of human capital and the size of its population, (more than 220 million out of Africa’s estimated 1.3 billion people are Nigerians).

The AU and its RECs require visionary and dynamic leaders to put Africa in its rightful place among the regions of the World. Those in leadership positions in Africa must be reminded that it is not about themselves, but the future of a continent and its people, who “labour like elephants but eat like rats.” Thousands of African youths are dying on perilous journeys to escape from the continent, endowed with abundant natural resources.

African rulers must change their ways; lead by example and educate themselves on the goals and objectives of pro-people Pan-Africanism. Africa is not poor, but badly managed/governed. Its present situation is unjustifiably unsatisfactory and must change for the better.

The citizens themselves must elect servant leaders and demand accountability from them.

In the same vein, given the hope pinned on Nigeria by Africans and Blacks worldwide, the country and its leadership must rise above internal crises or divisions to play its destined role as a regional hegemon, from ECOWAS to the continental level and beyond.

– Ejime is Global Affairs Analyst


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