Backgrounder No. 19

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established on May 28, 1975 to facilitate a common socio-economic space for West Africans. The ECOWAS Commission is comprised of 15 member states – the Republic of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Four years later, in 1979, the Commission’s Protocol on Free Movement was conceived as an instrument to enable free movement of ECOWAS citizens within the sub-region (ECOWAS, 2011a: 2). This protocol was projected as an integral part of institutionalizing a single regional socio-economic space where all citizens can benefit from opportunities in member states, including the utilization of arable land by indigenous agriculturists, access to coastal areas by landlocked member states, employment of English and French language experts and, most significantly, unrestricted access to natural resources by member states.

But since the inception of the Commission, free movement of persons and goods within the sub-region has not been fully realized. Incompatibilities in immigration and customs policies, monetary zones, and official languages among member states, have impeded productive migration and integration within the sub-region. These limitations have compelled ECOWAS to transform its conceptual notion of “ECOWAS of States” to “ECOWAS of People,” in which the people would be the focus of regional unification, rather than the state (ECOWAS, 2010: 1–3). Having identified the ineffectiveness of state-led approach to migration and integration, the ECOWAS now embraces a bottom-up approach that is more communal in focus.

This backgrounder explores the process of the ECOWAS’ transmutation from the ECOWAS of states to the ECOWAS of people, including the existing problems and cogent possibilities inherent in the process of attaining free movement of persons and goods within the sub-region. 

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