By Gifty Arthur
Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration Minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, has underscored the need for members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to be more committed to regional economic integration, saying though it may be painful, it is the “most direct, fast and broad-based approach for development of the Community”.
According to Madam Botchwey, it is the most effective way to deal with the limitations of small internal markets and reduce the high rates of poverty and unemployment plaguing the continent.
The Minister, said this at a four-day international conference of the ECOWAS Court of Justice in Accra. The conference is themed: “Economic integration of West Africa: Challenges and prospects”.
Her comments come on the back of a decision by the Nigerian government to close its land borders to neighbouring countries within the region for well over two months leaving member states like Ghana in a state of despair.
The conference attracted some 142 participants, including judges and staff of the ECOWAS Court, Chief Justices of ECOWAS member states, members of academia, heads of ECOWAS institutions and development partners.
Madam Botchwey, who acknowledged the significant strides made in the course of the 40 years that ECOWAS has existed said it has afforded citizens the opportunity to enjoy many rights as a result of the institutional frameworks and structures put in place.
She added, the introduction of the Common External Tariff (CEI) ECOWAS, Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) and the Protocol on free movement of persons, goods and services, as well as the right of people to residence and establishment as some of the achievements made so far.
“Citizens of our Community now enjoy many rights conferred by legal institutional frameworks and structures of the Community.
She charged the ECOWAS Court of Justice to play their respective roles in facilitating the process of establishing an Economic Union in West Africa.
The Minister said as the community’s principal legal organ, the Court of Justice, has a ver important role to play in driving the agenda of providing an enabling legal environment that promotes economic integration.
“The Court must effectively discharge its mandate consistent with the Revised ECOWAS Treaty and Supplementary Protocol of 2005”.
She also added that there is a need for a strong regional mechanism to resolve disputes relating to the integration process such as matters relating to the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme.
On his part, President Akufo-Addo, urged the political leaders of countries within the ECOWAS bloc to place the interest of the entire sub-region ahead of individual country interest.
He said, it was critical for the welfare of the 350 million people of West Africa that the leaders of the countries of ECOWAS demonstrate strong political will, to make it an economic and political success, and make the project of integration real.
The President noted that the principal reason for the creation of ECOWAS was to enhance inter-regional commerce and co-operation.
He explained that there was a clear recognition that the countries of West Africa would be a more effective economic bloc and have a stronger political voice, if they came together.
“Subsequently, provision was also made for solving inter-state conflicts, as well as grave intra-state ones too. Today, however, while the EU is central to the lives of Europeans, ECOWAS is, still, somewhat peripheral to the lives of most West Africans.
And it is not for the lack of plans or even rules and regulations. It is simply that the political will to make integration real has been less evident than in Europe,” he said.
The President diagnosed lack of leadership, as the bane of the Community adding that West Africa cannot make the bold transforming changes it needs to make without visionary political leadership.
“We need leadership that is focused on the region, and not on individual countries. The European Union took off because the political leadership of France and Germany decided to make it work. Once the political will is evident, we can then work together to make ECOWAS a true regional community,” the President noted.
Since the Court has exclusive responsibility for the interpretation and application of the ECOWAS Revised Treaty, Courts of Member States must be encouraged to refer questions of interpretation of the ECOWAS Revised Treaty and other community texts, in cases before them involving questions of the Treaty and community texts, to the ECOWAS Court of Justice, in order to ensure uniformity in the interpretation of the Treaty and the texts,” he added.
Using the European Union as a case in point, President Akufo-Addo said the interest of Europeans has been the main focus of the Union’s agenda however, same cannot be said about ECOWAS.
“While the EU is central to the lives of Europeans, ECOWAS is still, somewhat, peripheral to the lives of most West Africans.”
“And it is not for the lack of plans or even rules and regulations. It is simply that the political will to make the integration real has been less evident than in Europe.”
“Once the political will is evident, we can then work together to make ECOWAS a true regional community,” he said.
Ghana’s Chief Justice, Sophia Akuffo, said for the economic integration of Africa to be cardinal, certain legal issues must be addressed stressing the need for a judicial structure that would address transparency and help resolve conflicts to avoid impunity.
She also underscored the need for member states to amend their internal laws to reflect the ECOWAS instruments, laws and protocols.
President of ECOWAS Court of Justice, Justice Edward Amoako Asante revealed that since 1975, the Courts have achieved great milestones however; many are those that have not been achieved yet
He said “This conference will offer us a great opportunity to interrogate the challenges and prospects of our integration process. Over the years, ECOWAS has adopted a large body of laws, ranging from Protocols to subsidiary legal instruments on various subjects”.
Justice Asante mentioned that the 1991 initial protocol on the court (A/P1/7/91) was amended in 2005 by the Supplementary Protocol (A/SP.1/01/05) which granted the court jurisdiction to determine cases of violation of human rights.
Touching on the theme of the Conference, Justice Amoako Asante said the intention was to focus attention on the economic agenda of ECOWAS and the enabling legal environment for its attainment, the legal aspects of economic integration and the role of the Court in facilitating the economic integration objectives of the Community.
“We therefore cannot over emphasize the importance of this conference because the them and sub themes are linked to the economic integration objectives of the community and to the mandates of the various ECOWAS institutions”.
He was confident that the conference will produce meaningful outcomes that will be useful in charting the course of ECOWAS economic integration agenda in the years ahead.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which was established by the Lagos Treaty in May 1975, has a revised treaty which replaced the initial treaty that was adopted in 1993. The Revised Treaty is the fundamental charter of ECOWAS and the roadmap for the economic integration of the community.