ECOWAS— An Arena of Mediocrity & Dysfunction

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By Mathew K Jallow, Madison, Wisconsin

The Economic Community of West African StatesECOWAS, is not exactly distinguished as a paragon of ethics and morality in politics; on the contrary, its apparent lack of membership qualifying criterion, other than geographic location, has proven to be a heart-breaking setback for an institution that largely appears both clueless and without principles. The arbitrary way in which West African countries continue to qualify for ECOWAS membership, without any form of litmus test, has crowded contradicting political philosophies and divergent interests and goals together into a single arena of institutional mediocrity and dysfunction. It can be argued, with a high degree of veracity, that ECOWAS seems more effective in show-boating than achieving tangible results for its citizens, and nothing exemplifies this truism more than the absolute failure to promulgate term-limits across the institution’s geographic sphere of influence. At its founding, ECOWAS was an idealistic vision with noble goals and lofty objectives, but without the pretext of professional knowledge in institutional development. After decades of existence marked by ineptitude and indifference, its founders’ professional limitations and administrative short-comings have become more evident as its challenges have morphed into the civil wars that have plagued much of West Africa for nearly four decades. The absence of membership qualification into ECOWAS is a gigantic mistake that must be corrected in order to frame the institution’s administrative practices to comply with the growing global political paradigm. The European Council, in its 1993 “Copenhagen Criterion,” defined three basic membership eligibility criterions to the European Union; the most crucial of which remains the existence of “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.”

Pursuant to its defined values, the precursor of the EU, the European Economic Community, in the 1960s and 1970s, barred European countries under the burdens of military dictatorships and tyrannical regimes from acceptance into the EEC institution. The EEC thus forced Turkey and Greece into making deep political and economic changes to meet its basic qualifying standards. Today, one would have expected it to be a foregone conclusion that ECOWAS would, at the very minimum, enshrine “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”.as the highlight of its governing Charter. In spite of the pathology of ignorance and indifference that underlies ECOWAS’s administrative failures, it is not all doom and gloom in West Africa, but it is not for something ECOWAS has done. It is clear that, significant strides have been made on the journey to regional democratization and the establishment of the rule of law, but it is a slow walk, and lot still remains to do and undo, in order to totally bring ECOWAS into the 21st. Century political experience. But citizens of West Africa; from Guinea to Chad and Senegal to Ivory Coast, frustrated with ECOWAS’s inaction, foot-dragging and acquiescing power and authority to its member nation leaders, began rebelling against the political tyranny that held them down in misery and abject poverty for decades. In case after case; from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Chad and Niger, ECOWAS has been largely reactive, but even far worse than that, the institution appeared taken by complete surprise by the flaring of civil unrest in these countries.

The formulation of effective policies and anticipation of events could have pre-empted the sad tragedies of Liberia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. ECOWAS’s administration, in an atmosphere of divergent and contradictory political philosophies, is not a recipe for success in preventing the kind of civil strife that ravaged Liberia and Sierra Leone and sparked the fires of discontent in Guinea-Conakry, Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Like Greece and Turkey’s rejection by the EEC in the 1970s, the political volatility in West Africa has shifted to The Gambia and Togo; two countries whose human rights records and political systems would disqualify them from membership in a properly defined ECOWAS with eligibility standards and democratization bench-marks.. But by deferring authority on the region’s political leaders, ECOWAS continues to malign citizens of the region who remain disgruntled by the deleterious political circumstances they cannot change through the normal democratic electoral process. ECOWAS and African institutions like it are the true definition of a system of patronage that remains stubbornly embedded in African cultures, which has made the transition to corruption-free and accountable societies, nearly impossible. For Gambians, it may or may not be a stroke of luck that Senegal’s President Macky Sall is the new ECOWAS chairman. It remains to be seen if President Sall, who more than anyone, understands that the challenges of Gambia’s tyranny, is a long-term destabilizing factor. Senegal’s President Sall will once again have an opportunity to morph into Yahya Jammeh’s Kryptonite, but it remains to be seen if he hears the laments of the Gambian people and the heart to seize this opportunity to be on their side. Meanwhile, Gambians await with cautious optimism, but are not holding their collective breaths.


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