“Geopolitical considerations, legal issues and lobbying efforts by West African economic actors, have stalled Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS.”
Morocco applied to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in February 2017. However, its bid has stalled for geopolitical, legal and political reasons in the face of opposition from powerful and protectionist West African economic actors. Nigeria sees Morocco’s bid as a threat to its influence in West Africa, where it is the de facto regional hegemon. Morocco’s bid has also revived inner ECOWAS tensions between Francophone and Anglophone countries, with the latter still uneasy about Morocco’s stance on the Western Sahara issue. Morocco’s joining the economic and political bloc will require changing ECOWAS treaties, opening up its borders to free movement of labor and ostensibly a change of currency. Morocco’s bid has not been successful, so far, because the West African economic actors also fear that goods imported through Morocco’s free trade agreements with Europe and elsewhere, will flood their market and compete unfairly against them. They also desire to keep tariffs on imported goods as these represent a considerable portion of government income.
As a result of the stalemate, Morocco’s has tried to move closer to the regional bloc politically through lobbying efforts in the security and economic realm, by expanding its foreign direct investments in the region in addition to religious diplomacy. Despite Morocco’s efforts, full membership might take more time than expected to be achieved, and may never happen. Economic and political considerations stand in the way of a full-fledged membership as West African economic actors make further negotiations complicated.
Morocco has wanted to join the Economic Community of West African states as a full-fledged member since 2013, when King Mohammed VI delivered a message to the 42nd ECOWAS Heads of State summit in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast. The King communicated that Morocco wanted “to see its [observer] status expanded to new horizons, conferring [Morocco] a unique and significant position in the political, economic, socio-cultural and strategic realms.”Shortly after Morocco rejoined the African Union in January 2017 – after having left the organization in 1984 over its recognition of (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) SADR – it officially applied for membership to ECOWAS.. On the heels of a great diplomatic victory that ushered the country back into the African Union, it was wrongly assumed that it would be a smooth process, given Morocco’s excellent relations with ECOWAS countries, pre-existing ties in investment and trade, and especially strong bilateral relations with countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Mali.
While Morocco was given an approval for membership “in principle” on June 4th 2017 at the Monrovia summit, as of early 2020, Morocco has yet to receive full-fledged membership. In May 2018, the ECOWAS commission president Jean-Calude Kassi Brou stated that “the heads of state will make a final decision (about Morocco’s membership) after completing an in-depth study of the status report currently being worked upon.” The report was not made public and the final decision has yet to be delivered. At two recent ECOWAS summits in July and December 2019, the discussion of Morocco’s membership bid was absent from the agenda entirely.
These facts point to a stalling of Morocco’s membership in ECOWAS; also, it points to upcoming lengthy considerations of the project and the reasons for that are complex and multi-dimensional, ranging from the geopolitical and socio-political, the active lobbying of local West African economic actors against this bid, the legal accommodations to be made to the treaty of Lagos, as well as the structural shortcomings (overlapping supranational entities, third party trade agreements, etc.) of West and Northwest African trade.
To understand the geopolitical underpinnings of Morocco’s accession to the Regional Economic Community (REC) of ECOWAS, one has to look at the history of the organization and especially the central role of Nigeria plays in it. It is also important to consider the dynamics between the different factions of Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone countries due to their colonial past.
ECOWAS was among the first pan-African initiatives for regional economic and political integration on the continent. In 1972 and 1973, the founding fathers of ECOWAS, General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria and then-president of Togo General Gnassingbe Eyadema, toured West African countries in a bid to promote a regional economic and political treaty. Those efforts culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Lagos in 1975 by 15 countries, formally establishing ECOWAS.
Current ECOWAS member countries in West Africa.
Source: West Africa Health Organization
Because of its size and economic potential, Nigeria assumed a leadership role in the organization from the beginning, convincing neighboring countries to remove trade barriers and tariffs to get in line with Nigeria’s regional priorities. However, Nigerian leadership has never gone uncontested, as the Francophone countries of the bloc– such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Togo and Benin — have always viewed Nigerian integration efforts as an attempt to upset the geopolitical balance of power in West Africa. Former French President George Pompidou, in 1975, had warned the small,French-speaking West African countries that they were the “grass” to Nigeria’s “elephant appetite”. Yet, Nigeria plays a crucial role in the organization, first, by hosting the headquarters of ECOWAS in Abuja and secondly, by paying about 40 % of all membership and functioning fees and, as a result, giving it major leverage on all political decisions taken within ECOWAS.
There is thus a prevailing climate of distrust between the so-called Casablanca bloc, comprised of Francophone countries, and the Monrovia bloc, comprised of the Anglophone countries. These tensions are further exacerbated by the presence of parallel regional economic entities (REC), or regional groupings. These RECs are similar to ECOWAS in terms of their prerogatives and legal implications, which creates overlapping jurisdiction and fields of action. The result is increased inefficiency and lack of coordinated continent-wide free trade agreements.
The existence of overlapping RECs concerns Africa as a whole and especially West Africa, where countries are sometimes part of three or more REC’s. This sort of double-or triple- membership exacerbates the difficulties related to integration, political trust-building and legal cohesion. For example, the UEMOA (Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Africaine or WAEMU in English),which was established in 1994, is a regional grouping that shares a common currency, the CFA franc. It was created to promote closer cooperation between the French-speaking countries of West Africa and those using the CFA franc as their currency. However, WAEMU was also a way for France and Francophone countries in West Africa to counter the integration efforts of ECOWAS. As such, it was referred to as the “French Trojan Horse”, highlighting France’s efforts historically to impede the integration of the geopolitical regional bloc.
Morocco’s complicated membership
Morocco’s membership bid is affected by these historical tensions, and it is perceived to be an actor that will strengthen ties within the Casablanca bloc and act as a challenger to Nigeria’s leadership within ECOWAS. However, the Western Sahara remains a major roadblock to Morocco’s accession to the regional bloc, as Anglophone countries especially remain skeptical of Morocco’s position on the issue..
From a geopolitical and socio-political perspective, the Western Sahara issue has been the thorn in Morocco’s side in its membership bid. From an ideological point of view, Nigeria sees Morocco’s de facto control of Western Sahara as a remnant of the colonization period.
Despite Morocco’s recent political rapprochement with Nigeria, this did not substantially alter the Nigerian perspective on the issue. King Mohammed VI visited Nigeria in December 2016 and in 2018 signed an agreement to construct a gas pipeline through West Africa to supply Morocco and Europe, which helped improve relations between the two countries, which had been nearly frozen. Yet Nigeria still formally recognizes the SADR as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and the Nigerian political intelligentsia or elite and civil society, still see Morocco as a colonizing country.
In addition, Morocco’s accession to the geopolitical subgroup is considered a security threat for some countries, as membership in ECOWAS entails freedom of movement. In the words of one Senegalese general, freedom of movement may enable Moroccan foreign fighters in Syria to establish themselves in the porous border regions of West Africa and create new pockets of Jihadi terrorism and instability in the region.
Membership legal constraints
Another reason for Morocco’s stalling membership bid has been the question of the legal incompatibilities between the 1993 Cotonou treaty (the updated version of the original Lagos treaty), the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and Morocco’s current legal and political dispositions. In Article 4, the treaty of Cotonou mentions that as a fundamental principle that ECOWAS strives towards the “promotion and consolidation of a democratic system of governance in each member state”. Morocco’s accession would require a change of treaty to accommodate Morocco’s monarchical system, and the kingdom would be the first monarchy to join the club of republics. Secondly, the 2001 protocol also stipulates a strict separation of powers between the executive, judicial and legislative branches. Beyond this, Article 45, which stipulates direct sanctions on member countries if democracy “is abruptly brought to an end”.This provision would have to be amended to include mechanisms that deal with constitutional monarchy.
Thirdly, from a monetary and fiscal point of view, ECOWAS countries have agreed in principle to launch the “ECO” common currency within all countries of the REC by January 2020, in keeping with Article 53 of the revised ECOWAS treaty. As far as Morocco is concerned, it has not shown any tacit political will to join the common currency, therefore its membership would have to exclude the monetary aspect of integration.
Moreover, it is important to note that the countries in the region heavily rely on external tariffs for revenue, including tariffs between ECOWAS member countries, as is the case of WAEMU countries in the bloc. Therefore completely removing tariffs for Moroccan goods would be a big blow to smaller countries like Benin, whereabout 40 % of government revenue is derived from tariffs on imports. Therefore, there is resistance from the economic actors who are not willing nor able to compete with Moroccan goods –or goods from the EU and the United States that would arrive through Morocco and thus be exempted from any external tariffs.
Finally, Morocco has not been clear regarding the principle of freedom of movement between the ECOWAS member countries, and has not specified whether it would open its border to West Africans to freely go in and out of the country. This can be read as a sign of reticence from Moroccan decision makers regarding this issue. Given Morocco’s current migration policies, which are restrictive for West Africans, the perception of West Africans is that Morocco would not respect the principle of freedom of movement. In other words, there is doubt about whether Morocco has the political will to establish a freedom of movement prerogative within the scope of Article 3 of the ECOWAS treaty (which specifically highlights the “the removal, between member states, of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment”.). Morocco’s behavior (expulsions, ill-treatment…) with its migrant populations also influences the perceptions of West Africans, as they see Morocco’s ambitions within ECOWAS as being in contradiction with its controversial behavior within its own borders with sub-Saharan Africans.
Economic lobbies fight back
In Senegal, economic actors have spoken out publicly against Morocco’s membership bid to ECOWAS, citing structural economic incompatibilities. For example, the president of the national confederation of employers in Senegal, Mor Tall Kane, has argued that the industrial landscape of Senegal and other countries part of the WAEMU would be severely hurt by Morocco’s accession to ECOWAS.Moreover, according to Zator Kane Diallo, who heads the committee in charge of the adhesion process, “the moribund economies of the zone cannot compete with Morocco. The Moroccan economy is very competitive; it does not spare any sector. We oppose unbalanced relationships that smother our economy, destroy whole segments of our productive sectors and export our jobs toward Morocco.”
In Nigeria, opposition has been even fiercer, with the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria (MAN), members of parliament , former career ambassadors, prominent lawyers, economists and activists all voicing concern that Morocco’s accession to ECOWAS would create a “conduit pipe” for goods from the EU. Nigeria has refused to sign the European Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Morocco’s accession would create a de facto “backdoor Free Trade Agreement (FTA)”. They argue that, If Morocco joined ECOWAS, its pre existing FTAs with the EU would permit European goods to flow into Nigeria and other ECOWAS member countries without any tariffs imposed. This threatens to render the local products not competitive and reduce the economic prosperity of Nigerian companies in the sub-region.
Moreover, some analysts have criticized Morocco’s bid by pointing to the structural deficiencies and meager results of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). In its two decades of existence, the AMU has been unable to foster closer cooperation, increased levels of trade or any meaningful regional economic policy, largely due to political differences over the Sahara issue between Algeria and Morocco. Therefore, when comparing these lackluster results with Morocco’s ambitions in ECOWAS, the question remains whether the low performance of the AMU is an indicator of Morocco’s potential future success within ECOWAS. However, these critics have failed to point out that Morocco has consistently been able to increase its exports to the region, and has enjoyed a closer security cooperation with ECOWAS.
Morocco’s “pivot” towards Africa
Morocco’s charm offensive towards Africa can be dissected into two different parts, the commercial and the socio-political. Morocco has chosen to pivot its commercial interests and investments toward Africa — and specifically Francophone West Africa — because of the stagnation of European trade, the failed integration and development of the AMU and the strong historic and projected growth of the West African economies as well as their projected growth in population and consumer power.
As such, since 2000, Morocco has embarked on a proactive “Africa policy.” One of the King’s first actions after acceding to the throne in 1999 was to relieve all African countries of their debt to Morocco, and over the years the monarch has made more than 50 visits to countries in the continent, signing more than 1000 commercial accords. In addition, between 2003 and 2017 Morocco invested a total of 37 billion dirhams in the continent, constituting a majority (60 %) of the kingdom’s outgoing foreign direct investment (FDI) . The country’s banking, agribusiness, telecommunications, pharmaceutical and mining sectors have been at the forefront of this new commercial dynamic. Moreover, 57 % of Moroccan exports to the region flow to ECOWAS countries and between 2000 and 2017, there was a net increase of about 8 billion dirhams in exports from Morocco to ECOWAS countries. These trends highlight how important the ECOWAS market is to the expansion of Moroccan exports in the continent.
Moroccan exports to ECOWAS countries (2000-2017)
Source: DEPF Maroc.
Therefore, Morocco’s economic interest in ECOWAS lies in increasing trade with the countries of the region, where the trade balance remains in favor of Morocco. That said, Morocco’s exports only represent 3.8% of the bloc’s total imports, which means there is plenty of room for expansion for Morocco within ECOWAS.
In parallel, Morocco’s diplomacy has also worked at the socio-political level. For example, Morocco has lobbied for African countries to agree to its plan for autonomy for the Western Sahara and has prepared the groundwork for its readmission into the African Union (AU). Morocco also placed itself as the major player in religious diplomacy and countering extremism by training African Imams and religious scholars at the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams.This policy has greatly increased the country’s soft power in the region.
Moreover, Morocco has generously given African students scholarships to come study in the country. The number of scholarships awarded to sub-Saharan Africans is estimated to be more than 10,000, out of the estimated 20,500 students currently studying in the country . These scholarship recipients in turn have gone on to become a pro-Morocco diaspora within their home countries’ elite. Arguably, this policy of providing scholarships to Sub-Saharan Africans, is the most sustainable and long-lasting policy Morocco is currently undertaking. When African students live and study in Morocco, they develop a positive image of the country, relate more to its culture and build local networks. Therefore, once returning to their respective countries they understand Moroccan positions better, acting as informal ambassadors for the kingdom and in some instances adopting pro-Moroccan policies. As such, education becomes another great source for Moroccan soft power in the continent.
The combination of Morocco’s commercial and socio-political lobbying have in turn allowed Morocco to lay the groundwork for its return to the African Union. This momentum was used to in turn apply for membership to ECOWAS.
Yet despite its consistent lobbying efforts, Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS has stalled. To respond to this unfavorable situation, Morocco is now placing itself as an essential security partner in the Sahel and West Africa, hence the considerable delegation sent to the ECOWAS summit on counter-terrorism that took place in September 2019 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. During that summit, foreign minister Nasser Bourita highlighted that Morocco had a lot to offer for stability in the region through its security apparatus and counter-terrorism expertise. These statements reveal Morocco’s intent to appeal to the benefits of a security partnership, as the economic benefits and “pocketbook diplomacy” do not seem to be enough to convince the opposition or reduce skepticism.
Morocco’s policies towards ECOWAS countries have been multidimensional, ranging from foreign direct investments to rapprochement in the geopolitical or security realm, as well as soft power measures such as religious diplomacy. However, these efforts have not been enough to sway the economic or diplomatic actors in West Africa and to smooth out the process of legal integration into ECOWAS. One reason for this is because Morocco has thus far only worked through high level diplomacy and has not sought to lobby West African economic and civil society actors in order to convince them of the benefits of Morocco’s membership to ECOWAS.. In addition, Morocco’s policies and actions towards migrants, and especially its commitments vis-à-vis Europe, do not inspire trust from West Africans.
Moreover, on the economic front, West African actors see Morocco’s membership as a predatory move by companies in the kingdom to compete unfairly in their markets. In addition, West African countries doubt Morocco would open up its borders to all ECOWAS member countries for citizens to freely travel and work in the kingdom. These factors have contributed to the stalling of Morocco’s membership bid and raised questions about its viability altogether. That said, Morocco is in a position to rethink its membership and perhaps could sign instead an ‘advanced partnership’ agreement with the bloc, such as the one Mauritania has concluded. This sort of agreement would be similar to the agreements countries such as Norway or Switzerland have concluded with the European Union, which has allowed them to preserve their sovereign interests, such as currency, while enjoying an easier flow of goods and people.
Finally, Morocco could prop up its relations with the Anglophone countries of ECOWAS, and foster an increase in the exchange of human resources and expertise, especially in the cultural and educational realms, for a more horizontal integration of people. This would help cement the idea that Morocco is also part of West Africa. In addition, Morocco could focus on trading specific products for which it has a comparative advantage. This sort of approach has proved itself judicious for supranational entities before, such as the European Union’s focus on coal and steel in its early years. In this way, Morocco could slowly and judiciously move from economic integration to a more consolidated political integration.
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Imru AL Qays Talha Jebril
Imru Al Qays T.J. is the CEO of A&K Blockchain advisors, and presides over the Talha Gibriel Foundation. As an analyst & senior researcher he is a contributor to Moroccan and International media, and runs his own youtube channel #Imrutalks dedicated to cryptocurrency. He specializes in blockchain & public policy, geopolitics and cryptocurrency protocols' analysis. He has a degree from Al Akhawayn University in International Relations and a Master's degree from SOAS, University of London in International law. Imru Al Qays is also a research fellow at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.