Nigeria: At 39, ECOWAS on irreversible path to regional integration (Feature by Paul Ejime, PANA Guest Writer)

Abuja, Nigeria (PANA) - The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Africa’s flagship Regional Economic Community, deserves credit for surviving a myriad of political, security and socio-economic distractions and remaining focused on the principal goal of its founding fathers.

This is largely due to the resolute political will and iron commitment of the Community leaders and the undying determination of its estimated 350 million citizens.

At 39 this year, the Community - through strict adherence to its zero-tolerance principle for ascension to power other than through democratic means - has ensured that all its 15 member states are governed by democratically-elected governments.

Following the transformation of the organisation from an Executive Secretariat to a Commission in 2007 and consistent with the spirit of inclusiveness and the region’s Vision 2020 for a citizen-oriented Community, the membership of the ECOWAS Commission, which coordinates the activities of all the Community Institutions, has been enlarged from nine to 15. This is part of ongoing institutional reform with the number of directorates/departments under each Commissioner now more manageable, better-focused and result-oriented.

There have also been changes in the leadership of other Community Institutions such as the West African Health Organization (WAHO), the Inter-Governmental Group Action against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA) and the Community Court of Justice, where a new set of seven judges has been inaugurated.

President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana has also taken over the rotating chairmanship of the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government from his Ivorian colleague, President Alassane Ouattara, who had held the position for two years.

For more than two decades after its inception, ECOWAS was dogged by political crises. Pockets of those crises still persist while new ones have erupted despite the organisation’s best efforts in collaboration with partners. Indeed, the fragile political stability in the region has been rendered more vulnerable and volatile by a new wave of security challenges including terrorism, piracy, human and drug trafficking and other transnational organized crimes.

The result is that since assuming office in March 2012, Commission President Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, and his management team have hardly had any respite, shuttling between state capitals within and outside the region and working the phones in high-level consultations and intensive trouble-shooting diplomacy. At the same time, the team continues to coordinate regional efforts to deliver on the organisation’s principal mandate of people-centred economic development and regional integration.

Whether acting autonomously or in concert with partners, ECOWAS continues to demonstrate exemplary leadership in prevention, management and control of conflicts as shown in recent cases in Mali and Guinea-Bissau. The transitional programmes/road maps facilitated by the organisation remain the inevitable template and reference point for the restoration of peace, stability and democratic governance in both countries in the aftermath of political and security crises that engulfed the nations, including separate military coups in 2012.

And thanks to the Community’s strict adherence to its zero-tolerance principle for the ascension to power other than through democratic means, all the 15 ECOWAS countries are governed by democratically-elected governments.

Equally noteworthy is ECOWAS’ collaboration with all stakeholders including the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of Central African States and similar organisations in an effective coalition to deal with the emerging security challenges posed by extremist/terrorist groups threatening to destabilise the region, particularly the Boko Haram terror group, whose heinous violent activities have attracted global attention.

The Community’s sustained economic progress is captured in the 2013 and latest annual report of the ECOWAS Commission. Entitled "ECOWAS’ Adaptation to Climate, Security and Development Changes,” the Report provides a comprehensive account of the status of implementation of the Community Work Programme and outlines key challenges and prospects for the region going forward.

The Annual Report highlights positive growth forecasts for West Africa, making the region one of the best performing regions on the continent, with a projected GDP growth of 7.1 percent in 2014, up from 6.3 percent in 2013 and 6.7 percent in 2012. Eleven of the 15 ECOWAS countries with high growth rates in 2013 were (Benin, 6.5 percent; Burkina Faso, 7 percent; Cote d’Ivoire, 9.1 percent; The Gambia, 8.5 percent; Ghana, 8.0 percent; Liberia, 6.8 percent; Mali, 6.6 percent; Niger, 8.2 percent; Nigeria, 7.4 percent; Sierra Leone, 14.0 percent; and Togo. 6.0 percent).

On monetary integration, the Report cited progress in the harmonisation of economic and financial policies of member states within the framework of the ECOWAS Multilateral Surveillance Mechanism as well as the monitoring of effective implementation of the road map for the ECOWAS Single Currency Programme towards the realisation of the 2015 target date for the launch of the second West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ) and a regional single currency by 2020.

The Community has also made significant progress in the development of a competitive and enhanced regional investment climate for private sector development. Key achievements in this area include the completion of the draft ECOWAS Investment Policy (ECOWIP), finalisation of report on ECOWAS Investment Climate indicators, commissioning of a feasibility study on the establishment of cross-border payment and settlement systems, establishment of the West African Market Integration Council and an Investment Guaranty Mechanism in ECOWAS.

Towards attaining the ECOWAS Customs Union, the region is moving towards the adoption of regulatory texts of the ECOWAS Common External Tariff (CET), with continued supervision of the implementation of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS); harmonisation of direct and indirect taxes; and fiscal transition programme and the directives governing its implementation.

Five years have been fixed as the transition period for the application of Import Adjustment Tax while the CET is to become effective from 1st Jan. 2015. To this end, the ECOWAS Commission has started putting in place a fiscal transition programme to mitigate anticipated fiscal revenue losses that could arise from the customs dismantling when the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), being negotiated with the European Union, comes into force.

The Commission is also undertaking a critical review of the region’s flagship Protocol on Free Movement to remove impediments to seamless implementation of the Protocol which, even as is, makes ECOWAS the only REC in Africa with a free-visa regime. The ultimate aim is for the introduction of a biometric identity card for intra-community travel to replace the existing travelling certificate and the abolition of the residency permit requirements for citizens.

In rendering the Annual Report, President Ouédraogo traced the progress achieved during the period under review to the commitment and determination of the Heads of State and Government, coupled with the support of friendly countries and the international community.

The down side of the Report could be that the estimated 6.3 percent economic growth rate in 2013 still falls short of the seven percent threshold necessary to create the best conditions to guarantee the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly poverty reduction. There is also the impression that community citizens are still expecting the full impact of the impressive growth on the rising unemployment rate and the poor fiscal performance that resulted in a widening of budget deficit (excluding grants) of 4.3 percent of GDP in 2013 up from 3.6 percent in 2012.

Some member states are also still struggling with high wage bill and increasing demand for capital expenditure compounded by low revenue mobilisation.

Nonetheless, going by the body language of its leaders, ECOWAS remains committed to intensifying efforts for the alleviation of poverty and resolving the issues related to fiscal performance and unemployment within the Community.

Moving forward, and in line with its transformation from an ECOWAS of States to an ECOWAS of People, the regional organisation has stepped up actions in all the vital sectors to adapt to the new circumstances with a view to achieving its major objectives.

For instance, through the Commission’s support and coordination, efforts are being intensified to ensure early delivery of the Lagos-Dakar Highway project, a 1,028-km road linking the region’s major capital cities and ports as part of efforts aimed at boosting trade as well as free movement of persons, goods and services in the region.

On energy, the Commission continues to work with regional institutions and agencies such as the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA), the West African Power Pool (WAPP) and the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP) to address the challenges of energy availability and accessibility in the region.

Furthermore, under the coordination of the ECOWAS Peace Fund Unit, the Support to ECOWAS Peace and Development Project (PADEP), funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB), has continued to provide humanitarian support to hundreds of thousands of Community citizens displaced by conflicts.

The Peace Fund is also being used to fund the ECOWAS Volunteer Programme under which young professionals are providing vital services to help consolidate peace, national reconstruction and recovery of post-conflict Member States.

In the same vein, the ECOWAS Youth and Sports Development Centre (EYSDC), through its Capacity-building programme for youth empowerment and employment, has continued to provide ECOWAS youth with a wide range of vocational training and professional skills including in agriculture, air conditioning, refrigeration and motor mechanic among others fields, to enable them find or maintain gainful employment and sustainable standard of living.

Another major achievement is in the health sector through the ECOWAS Malaria Elimination Campaign. Aptly dubbed a 'War', the campaign has attracted the interest and support of partners, resulting in a Tripartite Agreement by the ECOWAS Commission, Cuba and Venezuela for the construction of three factories in three ECOWAS member states (Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria) for the production of biolarvicide product for massive anti-mosquito spraying across the region.

The ECOWAS anti-malaria war, which focuses on the strengthening of vector control strategy and environmental management, has the strong backing of the armed forces of member states, which have been mobilised to rid the region of mosquitoes and malaria, working with national malaria control programme managers, civil society organisations and the endemic communities.

By and large, ECOWAS - despite daunting challenges - remains focused and continues to re-position itself for effective performance as it marches towards its milestone 40th
-0- PANA PE/SEG 15July2014

15 july 2014 12:42:17




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