A top-ranking member of the Liberian House of Representatives, Senator Edwin Melvin Snowe Jr, has in an exclusive interview with this Reporter highlighted issues of Community Levy, Single Currency, Direct Election into the Community Parliament, Border Closures, Military coup as prevailing circumstances that the sub-regional body, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must grapple strategically with in moving forward with its agenda.
On the involvement of military officers into the political governance of countries in the Community, Sen. Snowe Jr. said governments in the Community must discourage all forms of military takeovers citing that he supports the decision of the Community Parliament not to swear-in MPs from Mali and the Parliamentary committing the matter to the ECOWAS Court of Justice.
“We should never allow or encourage leaders who come to power through the barrel of arms, anything to discourage this we must all put hands together to do,” Hon. Snowe Jr said.
On Community Levy (CL), Sen. Snowe Jr said as a former Vice Chairman of the ECOWAS Parliament’s Committee on Finance and Budget, he has been part of high-level engagements to encourage the government’s to pay the CL adding that, “ECOWAS survives through Community Levy and if governments don’t pay, ECOWAS will not be able to survive. We have been encouraging governments to meet their commitments including Liberia which owes about eight million or so United States dollars and there is a need for a payment plan.”
“We want to encourage other countries to pay because if they don’t pay there is no way that the ECOWAS will survive. The money we collect for ECOWAS is not money that countries are contributing, it is called Community Levy, what we do, every time you bring your goods into our commerce, four percent is taken away. Most governments collect and withhold this money.” He urged for caution on the use of sanctions to delinquent CL paying countries, adding that: “ This is a Community for solidarity and it is a difficult thing to impose sanctions. If there are sanctions then nobody will be here. To be honest with you, the records are showing that even Nigeria who is our biggest contributor is owing on the Community Levy, same for Liberia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, etc, all we need to do is to continue using Members of the Parliament to mount pressure on the different governments to make those payments so that ECOWAS will be able to survive or else, there will be no ECOWAS.”
He praised the good relationship between the Liberia Ministry of Finance and Foreign Affairs and the ECOWAS noting that the Ministers and other officials in Liberia have been holding good conversations with ECOWAS. “The President of Liberia is a former Member of the ECOWAS Parliament and believes in ECOWAS. We are going to continue to push. On my side, as Chairman of the Community Parliament’s Political Affairs, Peace and Security Committee, which is like the Foreign Ministry of ECOWAS, I have been going around with the Speaker of the ECOWAS Parliament or sometimes on my own to encourage foreign governments. For example, we had a meeting with President Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, even though we meet at his residence the day before, yesterday the ECOWAS Speaker, the Deputy Speaker from Nigeria, and I were invited to State House and we had a meeting with President Bio who made a commitment that they will honor their obligation to pay the Community Levy. I was in Benin, they are having elections in a few weeks and they made similar commitments. Mali also made a similar commitment even though they are having a military junta. We have been going around the Community trying to encourage governments to make sure that they honor their obligations with ECOWAS and we will continue to do so.”
Ask about his position on some countries in the Community unilaterally closing their land borders and his argument that the ECOWAS Parliament need not be hesitant in debating and resolving some of these very critical issues, Sen. Snowe Jr said: “You know for over a year now the border between Nigeria and the Benin Republic has been closed, same for the border between Nigeria and Niger. I will be traveling with President Weah to Niger on Friday to attend the inauguration of the new President, the Vice President of Nigeria will be at that program, the land border is closed but he can fly in there. We need to talk about it. The border between Sierra Leone and Guinea was closed even the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone; the Liberian side was officially open on Saturday and the Sierra Leone side is still closed due to COVID-19, but now we are relaxing restrictions on COVID-19. It is important to open those borders. We cannot be talking about regional integration and free movement of people and yet our borders are being closed. These are my concerns. The Parliament must debate the issues. You cannot run away from debate. There is no successful parliament without debate. We must debate the issues, we must resolve on what our decisions are and we must make those decisions to the Authority of Heads of State and Governments so that they know what is the Parliament’s stands on the matter.”
He explained that consensus building and solidarity has been hindering debate in the Community Parliament, adding that, “sometimes, not that the presiding officer is afraid of debates but he tries to reach a consensus and sometimes in reaching consensus you deviate from the debate and for me, even with consensus you must first debate the issues and later reach a consensus. It is the style of leadership but I just think that debate is the best way forward.”
On the subject of direct elections of Members of the ECOWAS Parliament through universal adult suffrage, Sen. Snowe Jr said the plan is good “ but the timing”
“We need to do much more if we so desire. For example, if you say deregulations and borders are still being closed and we can’t make telephone calls, we are all buying sim cards in a particular country, etc, a lot needs to be done before we come to direct election. Besides, the wage bill is extremely high. ECOWAS has Fifteen Commissioners. Sometimes I wonder why are we dealing with Fifteen Commissioners. We need to cut down like the AU has just six. That is the position of President Mohamad Buhari of Nigeria and we support that position to cut down the Commissioners, cut down the wage bill, let us invest more money into fighting malaria. Let us invest more money into conflict resolution or peace mediation and then we can now talk about the direct election. The direct election will have to be taking a hundred and fifteen persons from their countries to go and live in Nigeria and work at the Parliament. I don’t think we are at that stage yet to legislate laws that will be binding on countries. If you do that then it will be binding now that all actions by those in Abuja at the seat of the Parliament, whatever decisions, resolutions, or act that is sponsor will be binding on other countries; but as you know up to now, we still have to rectify decisions that are coming from ECOWAS. The direct election may be good but the timing is not proper,” Sen. Snowe Jr said.
Responding to a question on the possibility of a Single Currency for ECOWAS coming into force, Sen. Snowe Jr said it has to take a lot of work.
“What we need to do first is to understand the political ramifications. The five (Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia) English-speaking countries need to first get together and have a single currency, then you look at the two (Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau) Portuguese-speaking countries. Once you do those two, the French-speaking countries, which are in the majority with already a single currency (the CFA ), once you do that then you can migrate the different currencies into one, but as we stand Nigeria has its own currency, same for Liberia, Ghana, and others. We have seven different currencies from different countries and one for the francophone, so we have eight currencies in the region, to harmonize it, cut it down first to three and then after a period you migrate those three into one, that will be my approach but to just do all at the same time, hmm. You know the francophone’s currency is being backed by the French government and the French government still wants to have their influence in French-speaking countries, so it has the political and economic impact that it is wont to be easily done as easily expressed.”
Giving a projection on what kind of West Africa he envisages moving forward, Sen. Snowe Jr said the expectations and desires are high.
“A lot is the desire of this Community, for example, to date we are still paying roaming charges on the telephone network, you leave Liberia and come to Sierra Leone you use your Liberia number you roam, and you pay a lot of money for it. But the same companies, Orange, MTN, are right in these very countries. We need to harmonize telecommunication in our region. People must be able to move around freely with the brown card; so you don’t have to use your passport but you use your Browne card to move around the Community. We need to do that. We need to also do the monetary policy, where we are trying to talk about a single currency for our region. We need to harmonize some of our election laws; the tenure of office must be harmonized because this is a Community. You can’t have one country in the Community with four years of presidential tenure, another country says five and another six years, these are things that we need to harmonize to have a functional and vibrant ECOWAS Community. Don’t forget that we are changing now from the economic Community to the Community of peoples, so there are a lot of things that need to be harmonized so that we can have a vibrant and realistic ECOWAS as a Community,” Sen. Snowe Jr. outlined.
Sen. Snowe Jr. is a Member of the House of Representatives of Liberia representing Bomi District #1 and has served in the House of Representatives since January 2006. He was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from January 2006 to February 2007. He is the Head of the Liberia House of Representatives Delegation to the Community, where he is a ranking Honorable Member.
Sen. Snowe Jr. was speaking with this Reporter following the conclusion of a seminar on the ECOWAS Community Levy and the holding of the Community Parliament’s First Extraordinary Session for 2021, in Freetown Sierra Leone, from 29th to 2nd April 2021.
By Melvin Tejan Mansaray