Dakar- Senegal (PANA) -- ECOWAS leaders hold their 25th Ordinary Summit in Dakar, Senegal, 20-21 December, to review the Community's integration programmes under the shadow of a raging US-led global war against terrorism.
The international pre-occupation with the terrorism struggle in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on America has been so engaging that many African governments have been trying to outdo each other in their show of solidarity with Washington.
Without diminishing the importance of the global campaign against terror, a heinous crime that must be defeated, pan-African political observers, however, warn that literally suspending action on other equally serious malaise in Africa would be playing to the gallery.
This salient fact should not be lost on the Dakar Summit of the Economic Community of West African States, which should be seized as a forum by leaders to critically assess the integration process of their 26-year-old Community.
To a large extent, the Nigeria-based 15-nation Organisation is better known for its military intervention force, ECOMOG, which brought Liberia's seven-year civil war to a successful end in 1997, and has since moved over to neighbouring Sierra Leone, another Community member in political turmoil.
But while political stability and economic progress are inter- related, ECOWAS' over-concentration on security issues has been at a great expense to its primary objective to foster economic integration within a sub-region having some of the poorest nations in the world.
To be sure, political instability remains a monumental problem for ECOWAS governments and the Community's more than 200 million citizens, traumatised by civil strife.
A review of the political report card since the last Summit in Bamako, Mali last year illustrates the grim picture.
Nigeria, the Organisation's most populous nation, which only emerged from a prolonged military rule in 1999, is still dogged by worrisome ethnic and religious crises that hamper economic progress.
Guinea-Bissau suffers bouts of army mutinies, while the Mano River Union countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Conakry) remain perpetually unstable from internal and inter-State clashes, with the three governments trading accusations of destabilising each other.
While the peace process in Sierra Leone toddles, with post-war election now fixed for May 2002, the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) shifts the peace goal-post at the slightest provocation, accusing the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of bad faith in the implementation of the UN and ECOWAS- supervised plan to end that country's 10-year-old civil war.
Liberia, which is under UN sanctions for arms-for-diamonds smuggling with the RUF, is also fighting sporadic battles in its northern Lofa County with dissidents, which Monrovia accuses the Guinean government of supporting.
And Guinea, after playing host for several years to thousands of refugees from the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, would appear to have exhausted its goodwill to the displaced population, some of whom are now accused of supporting dissidents seeking to destabilise the host country.
Cote d'Ivoire, which won world attention when its political crisis in 2000 unleashed a people's revolt against military dictatorship, in an unprecedented move on the African continent, is battling to pick up the pieces through a tenuous National Reconciliation Forum under President Laurent Gbagbo.
The story is not much different in other ECOWAS Member countries.
In real terms, the only apparent light in the dark tunnel was the generally peaceful national election in Gambia, which international observers, as usual, said was tainted by some irregularities, though "not sufficient" to affect the outcome of the polls.
But in what could have gone down as a plus for Africa, defeated presidential candidate Ousainou Darboe, in an American Al Gore's style, after conceding defeat and congratulating President Yahya Jammeh for winning re-election, has changed mind.
Darboe has now faulted the electoral process, even though he admits his challenge is perhaps only for the records.
The list is endless, but waiting until all the political or security crises are settled before tackling the problems of human misery, such as hunger, corruption, disease, economic retrogress amid abundant resources, lack of transparency, and the debt burden, will defeat the goal of sub-regional integration.
Observers believe a major drawback to the fulfilment of ECOWAS dreams lies in the lack of political will or outright lack of commitment by Member countries toward its goals.
They cite how the implementation of the first protocol on the free movement of persons and goods remains contradicted by national laws and counter-measures manifested in countless roadblocks on highways and shameful extortion at the borders.
The single monetary union planned for 2000 has already missed the target, prompting a new date of 2004 for a convergence policy by the Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) CFA francs zone and the non-UEMOA group.
Nigeria and Ghana are leading the move for the non-UEMOA currency under a "fast-track" approach, which President Olusegun Obasanjo believes, will ginger Community Members into action.
But that urgency and dramatic change in attitude are still to be seen, with many countries in financial contribution arrears to ECOWAS, while they remain up to date in outside Organisations.
An ECOWAS Traveller's Cheque, launched more than a year ago to facilitate business transactions and reverse the dismal low level of intra-Community trade, has not received the much- anticipated enthusiasm, while a similar fate has befallen the recently unveiled ECOWAS Passport.
A Community Energy scheme and the much-trumpeted 430-million- dollar West African Gas Project meant to pipe Nigeria's natural gas first to neighbouring Benin, Togo and Ghana, and then to other ECOWAS countries - to help address the acute sub-regional energy problem - are progressing at a pace below the expectations of the citizens.
So too, are the ECOWAS Telecommunications project, the road network scheme and other laudable programmes designed to jump-start the integration process.
Instead of getting bogged down by the issue of terrorism, which is better handled at the OAU or African Union level and the UN, the Dakar Summit will do well to tackle the myriad of socio- economic problems retarding the progress of the sub-region.
One of such issues is corruption or the mismanagement of national resources.
The Summit, to be preceded by the Council of Ministers meeting 15-17 also in Dakar, should give teeth to the anti-corruption Protocol, which ECOWAS experts adopted at the October meeting in Accra to address the cancer worm.
The protocol seeks to "strengthen, promote and develop effective mechanisms to prevent, repress and eradicate corruption and promote collaboration among Member States," towards ensuring the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures and harmonising national anti-corruption policies.
The designation of the host countries for the ECOWAS Parliament and Court of Justice, which had been functioning from the ECOWAS Secretariat, are already on the Summit agenda.
Those two key institutions should strengthen the Community in the fight against corruption and organised crime as well as enhance the protection of citizens' rights and freedom.
Another issue of serious concern is trafficking in children, which has brought negative publicity to several ECOWAS Member States.
There is also the need to strengthen the ECOWAS Moratorium on production, circulation and sale of small arms, blamed for fuelling wars on the Sub-region.
More importantly, the Dakar Summit will be electing a new Executive Secretary to take over from Guinea's Lansana Kouyate, whose extended term ends this month.
It is unclear if Kouyate, who has been credited with lifting the organisation into substantial visibility, would seek re-election after his failed bid in July to become Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
The former UN diplomat, who became the fifth ECOWAS Executive Secretary in September 1997 after taking over from his ailing compatriot Edouard Benjamin, has strengthened the Information Division of the Secretariat, in a move to tackle the publicity dearth facing the Organisation.
Critics feel much still needs to be done for citizens and outsiders to understand ECOWAS and what it is doing.
Meanwhile, Jeggan Senghor of Gambia, Modibo Sidibe of Mali, Mohammed Ibn Chambas of Ghana and Albert Tevoedjre of Benin have declared their interests for the top ECOWAS job.
A new Chairman is also to be elected by the Dakar Summit to succeed President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali, a strong-believer in integration, who has chaired the Organisation for two one-year consecutive terms.
In choosing candidates for the two positions, especially that of Executive Secretary, the Summit must recognise that the Community requires an effective and forward-looking leadership to steer its affairs in a globalising world, where regional integration is the key to pulling a marginalised continent like Africa out of the woods.