One of the most important topics for discussion in West Africa at the moment is Morocco’s application to become a full member of the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), the continent’s most active regional economic community. At a high-level policy dialogue held in Abuja, Nigeria on 24 August, stakeholders convened to unpack the implications of Morocco’s inclusion.
The North African country already has observer status with ECOWAS since 2005 and has actively participated in the commission’s activities. Following its readmission to the African Union in January this year, Morocco formally requested to join ECOWAS. Since then, the country has relentlessly pursued this agenda, even designating an Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to ECOWAS, HE Moha Ou Ali Tagma, who presented his credentials to the commission in March.
The name ‘the Economic Community of West African States’ defines membership along contiguous states in the west of Africa. Morocco’s request therefore does not satisfy a geographical criterion for membership. According to the revised ECOWAS treaty, “region” means the geographical zone known as West Africa as defined by Resolution CM / RES.464 (XXVI) of the OAU Council of Ministers.
Morocco is a member of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) and hosts its headquarters in Rabat. This raises the question of whether the country intends to belong to more than one bloc, like Tanzania – a member of the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and Burundi – a member of both the EAC and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). However, the case of Burundi and Tanzania is different as they border the two regional economic communities (RECs). Morocco does not share a border with any of the 15 state parties who have ratified the ECOWAS treaty.
On the economic front, Morocco already has bilateral agreements with most, if not all, of the 15 ECOWAS state parties. In fact, since King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne, he is said to have visited the region 26 times, making the most number of trips (around eight) to Senegal. There is ongoing collaboration between Morocco and the Nigerian government, notably on the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project, fertilizer deals and agro business among others.
Recent figures from the 2017 African Economic Outlook place Côte d’Ivoire as the largest West African recipient of foreign direct investment from Morocco. Despite its contributions, there are fears that Morocco’s accession will be hugely damaging to the economies of member states, particularly Nigeria. ECOWAS membership would provide tariff-free access for Moroccan goods to permeate the huge market, which is dominated by Nigeria. And given Morocco’s standing as a manufacturing hub of European Union countries, EU goods would also flow freely into the region.
“There is ongoing collaboration between Morocco and the Nigerian government, notably on the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project, fertilizer deals and agro business among others.”
On the security front, Morocco has contributed to the maintenance and restoration of peace in the region. For instance, the country supported the French-led Operation Serval in Mali to oust Islamic militants and offered The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh asylum in return for accepting electoral defeat (although he rejected it).
In response to Islamic extremism in the region, Morocco has taken measures to combat terrorist threats, including establishing a training centre to guide clerics on promoting moderate Islam. Despite these positives, there are reports that ISIS is recruiting in large numbers in Morocco. ECOWAS’s free movement protocol would make it easy for recruits to travel within West Africa, posing a huge security risk to a region that is already battling Islamic militancy and Boko Haram.
ECOWAS recognises the rights of people in Western Sahara to independence and self-determination; Morocco does not. While the territorial dispute over Western Sahara is one argument against Morocco’s accession, a more significant point is the divisive role Morocco plays in the several blocs it belongs to. For instance, Morocco led several Arab countries in withdrawing from the Arab-African summit in 2016 due to participation from Western Sahara. King Mohammed VI also did not attend this year’s ECOWAS summit because Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited.
The body language, as we love to say in Nigeria, of several state parties suggests they are in favour of Morocco joining ECOWAS. Morocco is already heavily involved with the West African Economic and Monetary Union and claims that its greatest investment is in West Africa. Government officials in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal have all made favourable pronouncements, describing the accession as one that will herald an economic boom for West Africa.
In Nigeria, however, most believe that the accession of Morocco to ECOWAS is damaging to the country’s national and regional interests. At the recent policy dialogue organised by the Centre for Democracy and Development, the forum’s position was that Morocco’s accession will do more harm than good. It will diminish Nigeria’s “mother goose” role in ECOWAS, and could potentially affect the bloc’s growth, especially given Morocco’s own economic challenges and its hard-line stance on Western Sahara. Year in and year out, Nigeria has given financial, diplomatic and political support to ECOWAS. Forty-two years of investment shouldn’t be put at risk.
“Morocco is a monarchical system while all 15 member states of ECOWAS are democracies.”
Importantly, and in addition to the political and economic considerations mentioned above, Morocco is a monarchical system while all 15 member states of ECOWAS are democracies. In fact, one of the greatest achievements of ECOWAS is the promotion of democracy, term limits and constitutionalism. Morocco’s system of government is thus at odds with ECOWAS principles.
There are critical challenges to surmount before Morocco can join ECOWAS. This possible enlargement logically raises the issue of adapting the name of the organisation to the new configuration, and some amendments on the legal instruments of ECOWAS will be necessary.
While the heads of state remain the highest decision-making body in ECOWAS, it is important that they engage with citizens, civil societies and other stakeholders on this crucial issue – especially as the bloc aims to transition from an ECOWAS of states to an ECOWAS of people.
Hassan Idayat is the Director Centre for Democracy and Development