Morocco applying to join ECOWAS – Issues to consider

Morocco has recently expressed interest in joining the West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The news was received with mixed feelings across the region, and questions are being asked.

Located in North Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the distance between Morocco and Ghana in West Africa is some 2714km.

A country that takes pride in its Arab heritage and culture, in spite of the mixture of Berber and the influence of European cultures, Morocco is more Arab than anything else.

With a population of some 35 million people, Morocco until recently wasn’t even a member of the African Union (AU). The country left the continental organization for more than 30 years over the AU’s recognition of Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco laid claims to. Early this year, it reapplied to the AU and was readmitted. That wasn’t surprising, but Morocco’s recent expression of interest to join the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS is raising eyebrows.

ECOWAS is a regional bloc of some 15 countries close to each other, and mostly sharing borders. The countries are Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Benin and Cape Verde.

While this won’t be the first time that north African countries have joined organisations originally meant exclusively for countries in other regions of Africa, as Libya and Egypt are members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a group of countries in East and South Africa, Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS sounds bizarre.

The country Morocco

With its diverse Arab, Berber and influence of European culture, Morocco describes itself as a constitutional monarchy. In 2011 it adopted a new Constitution, which laid the grounds for what it describes as a more open and democratic society, with separation of powers and increased decentralization. Despite the claim to democracy, the monarchy has a tight grip on the country.

Its economy

The World Bank reports that after a good performance in 2015, the Moroccan economy is decelerating in 2016. Economic activity slowed to 1.4 per cent in the second quarter as a result of a 12.1 per cent contraction in agriculture production, while growth outside the agriculture sector remained sluggish at around 2.5 per cent. Inflation has remained muted at under 2 per cent, reflecting prudent monetary policy and the fall in international commodity prices.

The Bank further indicates that based on performance since the beginning of 2016, Morocco is expected to reduce its fiscal deficit to 3.5 per cent of GDP.

“This would be the result of strong revenue performance and the continued reduction in consumption subsidies. Morocco should thus be able to stabilize its central government debt at around 64 per cent of GDP,” it said.

The country’s trade deficit narrowed down in recent years as a result of fiscal consolidation efforts and the emergence of Morocco’s new industries, especially automobiles. The current account deficit should not exceed 1.5 per cent of GDP for 2016, and Morocco’s international reserves reached $24.9 billion—the equivalent of 7.3 months’ worth of imports at end-June 2016, the World Bank said.

Considering its sound economic performance, despite all the headwinds, which is an indication that Morocco might be seeking to take advantage of the West African economy – with a population of 335 million, West Africa has a GDP of $345 billion, and Morocco already has bilateral relations with almost all the 15 countries of the ECOWAS.

While Morocco might be a good trading partner as it is also one of the leading producers of phosphate in Africa, there are already existing trade relations with these countries, raising questions about the exact reasons behind Morocco’s interest in becoming a member of ECOWAS.

The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Governance

The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance Article 1, emphasizes on separation of powers, and among others the independence of the Judiciary and judges.

The Protocol is also clear on the secularism and neutrality of the State in all matters relating to religion, but does not preclude the right of the State to regulate with due respect to human rights.

Besides, ECOWAS protocols such as this one are binding. What that means is that, for a constitutional monarchy that operates quite differently, it remains to be seen how Morocco can subject itself to these universal principles of this particular ECOWAS protocol.

African integration dynamics

In March 2006, at an AU Summit in Banjul, the African Union — in its wisdom — decided and resolved to rationalise the numerous regional economic communities (RECs) from 14 to 8, so that each region would have its own “regional” reference. This meant that, for example, West Africa’s REC would be recognised as ECOWAS (even as there is UEMOA / etc); and in Central Africa (where discussions to rationalise the groupings there are far advanced than in West Africa), the only REC would be ECCAS.

Now, something seismic is happening in Africa’s integration. The request by North Africa’s Morocco to join ECOWAS does not only complicate Africa’s integration efforts, but makes nonsense of that 2006 decision as it will set a horrible precedent for any country to find justifiable and self-serving reasons to join any REC they want. We do know Rwanda re-joined ECCAS last year, and now belongs to both the East African Community and ECCAS. This may be problematic but not at the scale of Morocco wanting to join ECOWAS.

This Moroccan request has been troubling since the news broke. Algeria, long-term nemesis of Morocco, is deeply-troubled by Morocco’s request. In articles in both the Moroccan and Algerian press, it is clear there is no love lost between the neighbours, and that Algeria remains confused by Morocco’s apparently, inexplicable turn to West Africa.

In the event that Morocco’s adhesion to ECOWAS happens, it will serve a bad precedent for Africa’s integration by allowing any AU Member State to subject the flawed AU to its whims and caprices. Already, that Chad got the AU Commission position over Kenya’s Amina Mohammed by just two votes reflects, it is speculated, how Deby used his influence as AU Chair to leverage and rally support for the dark horse that was Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat.

Although one has yet to read of or detect any resistance from the West African diplomats in Abuja, what we now know is that, the Togolese government has registered its opposition. In a faux pas by the state-supporting republicoftogo.com, it posted days after the request to join ECOWAS on February 24 that the Togolese government “is not hostile to the adhesion” of Morocco. Now, an article on the same site that was posted March 3, explained that the Presidency had denounced the assertion that he would use all his influence to support Morocco’s bid.

A recent interview of ECOWAS Commission President Marcel de Souza to RFI sounds neutral in its opinion of the fate of Morocco. When you read between the lines, de Souza’s insistence that it will be up to the Authority of Heads of State to decide, — and that admitting Morocco will set a “precedent” — speaks volumes about the fate of Morocco.

Why Ecowas, and not CEN-SAD

Even more curious is why Morocco did not opt for the 28-member CEN-SAD, which was established by the late Qaddafi in 1998.

In 2014, at the cusp of Morocco’s hosting of A CEN-SAD meeting, Carnegie Endowment wrote “Of these alliances, CEN-SAD must be particularly attractive to Morocco, for several reasons. Its preeminence in the organization will likely go uncontested; no other member has the spur, stature, and stability to lead it. Other potential leaders (namely Nigeria and Kenya) are firmly ensconced as anchor states in existing, functional RECs—Nigeria in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Kenya in the East African Community (EAC), among others.”

It went on to argue, “Egypt remains deeply embroiled in regional diplomacy and its own internal affairs, and Algeria’s absence from CEN-SAD should allow Morocco free reign to guide the organization independent of its neighbor. Moreover, the Kingdom may enjoy novel forms of influence within a REC based on a projection of Africa’s Arab and Muslim North into the continent’s South; CEN-SAD, apparently an abbreviation taken from Arabic letters sin and sad (for al-sahil and al-sahara), covers over half of Africa’s nations, and what unites such a diverse set of countries—from the Gambia to the Comoros, and Somalia to Sierra Leone—more than any connection to ecoclimatic or environmental conditions, is Islam.”

Chad and Morocco share an important affinity: both have sought to become members of ECOWAS, and both have played instrumental roles in CEN-SAD, too.

The Chad factor

In 2011, Chad was, in fact, granted observer status of ECOWAS. Then the Mali coup happened in 2012 — and suddenly, Chad was offered support to the Africa-led support mission in Mali (AFISMA) to the tune of around 3000 troops, which is around a third of what all ECOWAS troops offered.

One of the critical reasons why Chad was an important country to look out for was what happened in February 2013 when Chad’s President Idris Deby hosted some eleven leaders of the CENSAD regional economic community. The capital N’djamena played host to what should have been twenty members of the populous grouping. Even if a little over a third of the Heads of State showed up, it was encouraging to see that the 17 other member states dispatched representatives. Furthermore, it has shown that the raison d’être for the establishment of the grouping might still be relevant.

Some of the major outcomes included a revision of the Charter, to reflect the fact that the organisation is interested in two major things: peace and security; and sustainable development. Two permanent organs will be established to this end, and Egypt is likely to host the peace and security organ. That Egypt was, in 2016 at a CEN-SAD meeting, recommended as the headquarters of the host of Counter-terrorism Centre, speaks to a level of confidence reposed increasingly by African states of North African countries on security matters.

One wonders, given Morocco’s acknowledged world-class expertise on counter-terrorism, why it did not consider using CEN-SAD as an opportunity to reinvent itself on the continental stage — as it appears it wants to do by joining ECOWAS. The real question — as may be asked of Tunisia that has also expressed an interest in joining ECOWAS — is whether ECOWAS really needs Morocco!

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi (edogbevi@gmail.com) & Emmanuel K. Bensah (ekbensah@gmail.com)

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