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The unknown price of integration

THE ECONOMIC COMMUNITY OF WEST AFRICAN STATES (ECOWAS) was founded during a pivotal year for West Africa, 1975, coinciding with the end of centuries of Portuguese and Spanish rule along the continent’s western literal. Of the 15 member organizations, whose official languages are English, French, and Portuguese, Capo Verde, which joined the block in 1977, was emerging from over five centuries of colonial rule, while Guinea-Bissau had only been independent for a year. The rest of its members, including its largest, Nigeria, had only been independent for a decade and a half. Created to promote economic integration among its members, whose population now exceeds 350 million, making it the fourthmost populous economic bloc in the world after China, India, and the EU, ECOWAS has also participated in peacekeeping missions across the region, including Ivory Coast in 2003, Liberia in 2003, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, Mali in 2013, and The Gambia in 2017. Though its dream of allowing complete freedom of movement has fallen short of EU-like standards, it does offer 90-day visa-free travel for all participating nations. Furthermore, it has also been crucial to allowing Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo to all use the West African CFA franc, a currency pegged to the euro that is also guaranteed by the French treasury. With all this taken in mind, it is little surprise that Morocco is keen to join the flourishing organization in one of the fastest-growing regions on earth, both economically and demographically. Since launching its application for membership in early 2017, Morocco has been keen to leverage its privileged position as a conduit to Europe and North America to play a more comprehensive economic and diplomatic role within West Africa. Already enjoying free trade deals with the US and EU, the kingdom is uniquely well-placed to leverage its privileged position—economically, culturally, politically, and geographically—to become the world’s gateway into West Africa.

Unfortunately, it is precisely for these reasons that a number of ECOWAS’ most important members, chief among them Nigeria, are wary of its entry. As Mansur Ahmed, president of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, told the FT in 2019, Morocco could easily become a Trojan horse for American and European companies entering the market, dumping products, and giving Moroccan middlemen a significant advantage over other members. “What is Morocco going to bring to the table,” he asked reporters, and “what will be the benefits to the members of the community, particularly [Nigeria]?” With a common tariff program applicable to all member states, it is unclear how Morocco’s free trade deals with the US and EU would be affected by potential membership. One solution is to give ECOWAS member nations unreciprocated tariff-free access to the Moroccan market. Other fears abound that Morocco will not adhere to the body’s general rules on everything from tariffs to free movement of people. A far more developed country than the rest of ECOWAS, would it be willing to adopt the West African CFA franc? Moreover, how can it square the fact that many of ECOWAS’ members, including Nigeria, recognize the Polisario Front’s claims to Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony (1884-1976) that Morocco annexed after the death of Franco, sovereignty over which the local Sahrawi people have been fiercely fighting for nearly 50 years? That Morocco left the Union du Maghreb Arabe (UMA) in 2017 only bolstered its appetite for integration with West Africa. But it still has a ways to go before it convinces the region of its peaceful, treaty-abiding intentions.

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