ECOWAS IN SEARCH OF BETTER REGIONAL INTEGRATION

By NBF News
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Jonathan Goodluck
LEKAN ADETAYO writes that after 36 years of the creation of the Economic Community of West African States, its leaders are still worried over the lack of full integration in the sub-region

At the behest of Ghana's Ministry of Trade and Industries and in conjunction with the country's Investment Promotion Centre, an onslaught was launched on small-scale businesses owned by Nigerians in that country last years, on the grounds that they were not duly registered as required by law. The Ghanaian authorities' position was that as foreigners, Nigerians should register their businesses with a minimum of $300,000 (N45m). Many observers saw this as a stark negation of what the Economic Community of West African States stood for, especially with its protocol on free trade and movement of people.

Grey issues such as the lot of Nigerians in Ghana have continued to challenge the relevance of ECOWAS after 36 years of existence. Besides creating 'collective self-sufficiency' for its member-states through a single large trading bloc, it also serves as a peacekeeping force, which came handy during the recent post-election impasse in Ivory Coast.

One of the instruments used by ECOWAS to achieve its aims and objectives is its Community Parliament, which was established by Articles 6 and 13 of the 1993 ECOWAS Revised Treaty. The protocol, which was signed in Abuja on August 6, 1994, came into force on March 14, 2002.

The parliament, which is an assembly of the people of the community, is composed of 115 seats. Each member state has a guaranteed minimum of five seats. The remaining 40 seats are shared on the basis of population of each country. Consequently, Nigeria has 35 seats, Ghana has eight, Ivory Coast has seven while Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Senegal have six seats each. Benin Republic, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo have five seats each in the parliament.

However, on August 11, 2011, the ECOWAS third parliament was inaugurated in Abuja with great expectations. The tone of discussion at the International Conference Centre venue of the inauguration was set with the welcome remarks of the President, ECOWAS Commission, Mr. James Gbeho, in which he did not mince words in keeping the parliamentarians abreast of their responsibilities.

He told them that as the key advisory body on legislation within the community, they would be saddled with the responsibility of advising the community on the formulation, review and interpretation of key ECOWAS instruments, especially those dealing with the principles of democracy and good governance, peace and security, and the region's trade and other relations with partners.

He said, 'More importantly, you will ensure that decisions taken at the community level are domesticated in national legislation and find traction and application in member-states. You will also need to take urgent measures to facilitate the fast-tracking of the outstanding decision to elect future members of the community parliament through direct universal suffrage in member-states. Your success in fulfilling these complex but uplifting duties will be made a lot easier if you cultivate the spirit of cooperation not only within the parliament, but also with all other stakeholders in the integration process. Towards this end, I would like to encourage you to work closely with the ECOWAS Commission and the other institutions of the community.'

No sooner had Gbeho left the stage than the President of the Nigerian Senate, Mr. David Mark, mounted the rostrum to deliver his address. Mark, a former member of the parliament said it (the parliament) was conceived as a forum for dialogue, consultation and consensus for West African parliamentarians with the aim of promoting cooperation and integration in the sub-region. He noted that the parliament remained one of the most impressive initiatives undertaken by the ECOWAS heads of state in their determination not only to promote stability and development in the sub-region, but also to institutionalise the culture of democracy among the people. Mark promised that Nigeria would continue to partner with the parliament towards growing democracy and entrenching good governance in the sub-region.

Then came the turn of President Goodluck Jonathan to address the gathering. Jonathan, who is the chairman, ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Governments, recalled that the first legislature, which covered the period 2000 to 2005, was an experimental parliament characterised by a learning process. He said that as a consultative parliament meant to render advisory opinions on various issues bordering on the integration process, not much was achieved in that respect due to textual defects. He said that the emergence of the second legislature in 2006 with the corrections carried out on its text provided an opportunity for the parliament to render opinions on various issues referred to it by other community institutions, especially the ECOWAS Commission. He urged members of the third legislature to aim at consolidating and further entrenching the achievements recorded in the two previous legislatures.

He said, 'As a parliament with representational role, you should endeavour to examine every issue that borders on the West African Integration project. Members of parliament should strive to understand the various laudable programmes of the community and work towards improving them where necessary for the betterment of our people. Such developmental programmes like the Free Movement of Persons, Services and Capital, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment, ECOWAS Energy Programme and ECOWAS Agriculture among others, just to mention a few, have the capacity to transform the sub-region and improve the living condition of its people. It is necessary to point out that human problems transcend geographical boundaries. In all our 15-member states, there exists hunger, famine, disease, poor housing, poor infrastructure, infant mortality and several other issues. The convergence of highly experienced members of parliament from all our member-states at the sub-regional level should provide us an opportunity to generate ideas that will lead to a prompt resolution of some of these problems bothering our people.'

Jonathan used the avenue to warn coup plotters to have a rethink as the sub-region would no longer treat them with kid gloves. Apart from resisting what he called the outdated adventures, he said governments of the 15 countries in the region would not stop at anything to bring those behind such forceful take-over of government to book. While condemning the recent assassination attempt on the president of Guinea and security risk in Niger, he advised the brains behind the moves and their like minds to have a rethink in their best interest.

Members of the parliament's third legislature unanimously elected the Deputy President of the Senate, Mr. Ike Ekweremadu, as the Speaker after he was unanimously adopted by the Nigerian delegation to the parliament since the position had earlier been conceded to Nigeria. In his acceptance speech, Ekweremadu said it was part of his cardinal agenda to liaise with the Authority of Heads of State and Governments to speed up the processes of transforming the parliament from a consultative and advisory institution to a full-blown legislative institution. 'My vision for the community parliament is that of an institution that thrives on legislative best practices, high ethical standards and total commitment to the peace and development of the sub-region,' he said.

At the closing session on Tuesday, Ekweremadu said it was his desire that the parliament put in place standing committees that would be proactive and passionately committed to working with all the institutions and organs of the community to ensure that the sub-region consolidated the path of zero tolerance to these societal ills. This alone, he said, was the only way to rescue the region from the grip of its numerous problems.

He said, 'It is pertinent to recall that the chairman of the ECOWAS Heads of State tasked this parliament squarely on several programmes of the community. These include free movement of persons, services and capital, right of residence and right of establishment, agriculture and energy. Other tasks included in His Excellency's agenda for this parliament were the challenges of hunger, famine, disease, poor housing and infrastructural deficits. Permit me to also recall the expectations of the president of the ECOWAS Commission from this parliament, as contained in his opening remarks during the inaugural session. In addition to the statutory responsibilities of rendering advisory opinion to other institutions of the community, the president of the commission expects parliament to facilitate the ratification and domestication of Community Protocols and Conventions. This task, I do believe, will best be carried out using the advantage of the current dual membership of our parliamentarians. It is indeed a very important mandate of this parliament and I intend to put in place the necessary machinery to carry it out diligently.'