An anonymous uniformed officer, the brim of his cap pulled down near his eyes, stares imperiously into a TV camera and sets out the terms under which he will rule. It’s a nightmare image of military interference that many policymakers hoped would be firmly consigned to West Africa’s chaotic past.
But for those tasked with integrating the fifteen countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the abortive coup in Burkina Faso provided at least one reason for optimism.
Within days of the takeover, the bloc had hosted an emergency summit in Abuja and dispatched a high-level delegation to the troubled country. Days later, constitutional rule returned.
“The integration project is ongoing and in spite of the political hiccups and maybe some of the events that have occurred lately, I still think it is on course because there’s an overall commitment to making it happen,” Hanna Tetteh, Ghana’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, tells New African.
Yet if ECOWAS’s swift response showed a commendable unity when dealing with the bloc’s common security problems, long-planned economic integration across the region continues to falter.
This year’s African Economic Outlook concludes that weaknesses at national and regional policy levels and an overall lack of resources continue to be ‘major constraints’ to effective regional economic development in ECOWAS.
Despite that downbeat assessment, Tetteh – speaking to New African at the African Leadership Forum in New York – believes that forging common economic policies across the bloc is still every bit as essential as building unity on the security front.
“When I talk about integration I’m talking about integration both at the level of our economies and political systems because those two have to go on simultaneously. Even though it’s a difficult process and it’s taking quite a bit of consensus-building to make it happen, I still believe it is something that has to happen,” she says.
Tetteh is certainly not alone in noting the importance of economic integration for Ghana and its neighbours. Barely a week goes by without the continent’s economic pundits calling for visa-free travel, the abolition of border posts and the dismantling of restrictive trade barriers.
On 29 June, the ECOWAS Commission and its development partners pledged to continue to work towards a common regional trade strategy, build a monetary integration programme, and implement a Common External Tariff (CET).
Yet the reality on the ground remains frustratingly short of the lofty ambitions of policymakers.
Nevertheless, Tetteh hopes that the long-planned implementation of the CET – a system which will ensure that the same customs duties apply to goods regardless of country of entry – will provide the necessary spur for member countries to make headway on a more ambitious agenda.
“We are all at various stages of implementing this but by 2016 we are going to have the same customs and tariffs bands in respect of imports into our region. It’s an important first step to creating a customs union,” she says.
Last year, ECOWAS also signed an Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, despite Nigerian fears about losing out on tariff revenues and the effect on its local industries. According to the African Economic Outlook, West Africa now accounts for 40% of the total African, Caribbean and Pacific trade with the EU.
It is not only the efficient transfer of goods that the bloc is working to improve. Tetteh says that easing travel barriers between states is an essential step in allowing businesses to set up shop across borders. ECOWAS is planning to launch a biometric identity card in 2016 – an all-inclusive passport intended to ease the bureaucratic nightmare of regional travel.
“We are issuing an ID that is both an identification card, travel document, residence permit and work permit, and that will make mobility within the region something that is very fluid and easy,” says Tetteh.
Tetteh said that the new system is intended to build on a current programme which allows citizens visa-free access to other ECOWAS countries for 90 days at a time. The minister says that the biometric passport will be part of a wider process aimed at tackling the regulations that penalise local business owners at the expense of their international competitors.
“Because of investment promotion frameworks we had, targeting investors mainly from the western world, applying the same rules to our citizens made it almost impossible for them to meet minimum capital requirements and other regulations they needed to comply with. But if the principle is that we want more trade among ourselves, the important thing is to make it easier,” she says.
Overhauling technical regulations and making it easier for businesses to set up across borders lies at the heart of ECOWAS’s future plans. But if the bloc is to make real progress, says Tetteh, it will have to tackle the fundamental divide that has dogged the region for over a century – the language barrier. Tetteh says that more work is needed in undoing that particular colonial legacy – and that Anglophone West Africa could learn a thing or two from their increasingly bilingual neighbours.
“What has happened in Francopohone countries is that they teach English better than we teach French. So they invariably have more people with a working knowledge of English. That’s why integration is looking to harmonise these structures. What we do is influenced by our colonial past – none of this is easy.”
Despite the evident challenges of overcoming that barrier – and unifying a region of over 335 million people – Tetteh says that the integration project is finally on track to achieving its potential.
“It’s an important project. It’s a slow undertaking but it is definitely at a point now where I think there is no turning back irrespective of the political mishaps that have taken place,” she says.