Morocco in ECOWAS? The AU and its impact on Africa’s integration dynamics

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Barely had the dust settled on Ecowas’ intervention in The Gambia, when the regional institution was confronted with what is arguably a headache of seismic proportions-a request by Morocco to join ECOWAS. That Morocco had formally joined the African Union only in January made the February request to join ECOWAS a matter to raise more than eyebrows.

In an unprecedented move by the regional organisation that had just turned 42, Authority of Heads of State accepted “in principle” the request, prompting ripples of speculation that something rather monstrous was afoot. Quite what it was was not made clear as the rather-Byzantine nature of Africa’s integration makes it difficult to make an immediate analysis.

It has then been to conversations by people outside Ecowas that concerns have been expressed. Key among the mounting opposition has been that of Nigerian civil society as well as former foreign policy experts.

The first group — the Nigerian Movement for the Liberation of Western Sahara — believes Morocco has nothing in common with any of the Ecowas member states, “especially as it maintains a grip on Western Sahara.” Convener of the group, Dipo Fashina, believes Morocco’s request is “a direct challenge to the leadership of Nigeria.” He has called on Nigeria to lead the way in rejecting the membership request by Morocco.

Jumping in into the mounting opposition to Morocco is a foreign affairs policy expert who has outlined no less than eight reasons why Morocco should not be accepted into Ecowas. Advanced by a former Minister of External Affairs, Bolaji Akinyemi, is the first point that, ECOWAS remains the “primus inter pares” of regional institutions in the sub-region prosecuting an agenda for the betterment of West Africans  — not North Africans.

West Africa is defined as a region in the revised Treaty(1993) of Ecowas as “the geographical zone known as West Africa as defined by Resolution CM/Res.464 (XXVI) of the OAU Council of Ministers.”

Second, the Kingdom of Morocco remains a member of the Arab Maghreb Union states, together with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia. Third, Morocco’s “move to join Ecowas is a deliberate ploy to whittle down the influence and strength of Nigeria for her role in the body.

The expert explains in his fourth point that, “there is no accession clause in the Ecowas Treaty”, invalidating Morocco from joining, while offering no justifiable basis under the Revised Treaty of Ecowas.

Fifth, Morocco’s monarchy invalidates her from joining Ecowas as it remains inconsistent with the Ecowas Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Sixth, Morocco may flood the sub-regional market with its own goods, and frustrate Nigeria’s opposition to the Economic Partnership Agreement.

Seventh, if it were possible for Morocco to join Ecowas, the “struggle of the people of Western Sahara for independence being championed by Nigeria” will be challenged.

Finally, Morocco’s refusal to recognise the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination,when all ECOWAS member States have subscribed to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights disqualifies her from joining.

Implications for Ecowas’ integration

Viewed through the perspective of what Morocco’s accession to Ecowas means for the establishment of the African Economic Community, it remains clear that, it is deeply problematic for a number of reasons. Key among which is the fact that it is inconsistent with the Seventh Ordinary Session of African Union(2006) decision to rationalize regional economic communities(RECs) from 14 to 8.

One of the central tenets of Africa’s integration after that 2006 meeting was to establish so-called “anchor” regional economic communities(REC) that would allow Ecowas, for example, to remain the central REC for West Africa, and Arab Maghreb Union the key REC for North Africa.

Morocco’s audacity to disrupt Africa’s integration narrative that sees the establishment of an African Economic Community by 2034 speaks volumes about its arguable disregard for the Pan-Africanist dream of a United Africa where each region has an anchor REC. Secondly, this “crossing the carpet” suggests it has lost confidence in the REC assigned to its own neighborhood.

This is a significant dynamic that prompts an important discussion about the Arab Maghreb Union. Morocco in the Arab Maghreb Union founded in 1989, the Arab Maghreb Union was established to promote regional cooperation among the five countries of Morocco; Tunisia; Algeria; Libya; and Mauritania. Commentators now widely consider the Arab-Maghreb Union a moribund enterprise even if it has made progress in recent years on trade agreements. According to European Council on Foreign Relations’ Andrew Lebovich, the Maghreb has been largely disunited, with north-west African integration being “piecemeal and determined largely by national interests.”

In a July 2017 report entitled “ Bringing The Desert Together: How To Advance Sahel-Maghreb Integration”, Lebovich advances how other West African states have pursued economic and political cooperation and integration within the framework of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but it does not for the moment link them to their neighbors to the north, and how, therefore, Morocco’s recent efforts to expand trade and investment links in sub-Saharan Africa are more “focused on countries with which Morocco has strong political bonds (such as Senegal and Gabon) and countries seen as sympathetic to Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara.”

Morocco’s arch-nemesis in Algeria is reported to historically-advocate for “resolving African political and economic issues within the institutional structures of the AU and appears to be increasingly interested in expanding economic ties with the Sahel.” Lebovich maintains the government, for example, held a large-scale African business forum in Algiers in December 2016.

However, he continues,  “Algeria’s bilateral relationships in the Sahel continue to centre on security and, to a lesser extent, migration concerns.” For Tunisia’s part, there has been some “economic and security investments in the region but remains focused on domestic politics and reform and on its security problems along its borders with Libya and Algeria.”

Simply put: political rivalries among Maghreb states, and their competing interests in the Sahel remain. This has fueled the growth of competing and sometimes redundant regional institutions, such as The Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD). Under former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Lebovich believes, it became “a tool for Libya to exert financial and political influence in the Sahel and West Africa.” It is now led by Morocco, but does not include Algeria.


There has been mounting criticism of Morocco’s decision to join Ecowas, with stentorian roars coming especially from the corners of Nigeria that believes it will be emasculated as a regional player. These views somehow have seemed to only embolden Morocco to embark on a publicity offensive informing the world of the benefits of joining Ecowas, and how becoming the sixteenth member would catapult Ecowas into superstar status in the context of the global economy.

Failing the approval of Morocco’s membership of Ecowas, would partnership agreement with Ecowas be a better option? Mauritania, for her part, has opted for that over full membership, even when Ecowas asked her to join formally. A preferential agreement would allow Morocco to benefit from a relationship with Ecowas, but not enjoy benefits that include the visa-free regime, and economic integration instruments, such as the Common External Tariff (CET).

As to whether Nigeria’s concerns will hold sway before the Lome meeting is anyone’s guess. What’s clear at this juncture is that Morocco will continue the publicity and charm offensive up until then, hoping and believing it will become a fully-fledged member, but may forget that a hegemony, such as Nigeria, did not get where it is in helping prosecute Ecowas’ integration without a legendary clout.

By E.K.Bensah Jr

Ecowas & AU Policy Analyst |  @ekbensah |


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