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Ecowas EPA - the facts and the falacies

Leadership (Abuja) | 21 January 2008

Ecowas EPA - the Facts And the Falacies

By Ken Akaoha

A tripartite meeting of the non-LDCs in West Africa (ECOWAS) consisting Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’ivorie took place recently in Accra to review the implications of the present quagmire caused by interim agreements signed by Ghana and Cote d’ivorie under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU).

The fundamental trust of the meeting which was originally initiated by NANTS, the Nigerian government and of course, the ECOWAS Commission was to look at the effects such interim agreement could have on the hard earned ECOWAS regional integration. In particular, the Nigerian government had tried to express her ill-feelings on the two West African countries and especially her close neighbour - Ghana for yielding to the pressures from the EU and endorsing an accord that is capable of dismembering the unity of the region.

The government of Nigeria had in the wake of the interim agreements assembled a think tank on trade and economic development to evaluate the effects of the dotted lines not only on her economy but on the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) which the country has for long remained a facilitator. In clear terms, Nigeria is aware that if the issue is not taken up seriously, such agreement could be deployed as a conduit pipe for channeling goods originating from Europe to her economy, perhaps using regional ties as an excuse. The truth is that Nigeria was set to again lock her borders against Ghana in a bid to ensure that such influx resulting from an agreement the country is not privy to does not shackle the future of up-growing industries.

Importantly, a strong reason behind ECOWAS decision to arrange such meeting is not far from ascertaining whether the decision of these countries to sign separate agreements with the European Union was based on objectivity or a mere lieu way of escaping from pressure, and/or positioning towards the EU’s promised development fund attached to the signing of the agreement. Secondly, how does the signing of a interim agreements work along the lines of the negotiations which has from the outset been handled by ECOWAS in a more or less statutory conferment by the authorities of the Heads of State of the region? In this regard therefore, a prima-fascia evaluation would be the consideration of the legality or otherwise and/or the legal consequences of these agreements on the ECOWAS Treaty. Is the action of these two countries in question in consonance with the provisions of the ECOWAS Treaty and Protocols or does the action in any way contravene the resolution of the authority of the Heads of State of ECOWAS which delineated the negotiations of the EPA to the shoulders of ECOWAS Commission?

The furtherance of these questions is the understanding of whether at any point during the negotiations, ECOWAS Commission did throw in the towel signifying to the authorities that empowered or set them up on their unwillingness to continue the negotiations. Being aware of the heap of tasks facing the West African region in the EPA negotiations and which of course led to her decision to ask for EU’s extension of the waiver, the question is, at what point did outstanding tasks confronting ECOWAS as a regional negotiation bloc melt away for Ghana and Cote d’ivorie providing clearer visibility or signals towards adopting or signing an EPA? At what point therefore did the usurpation of the powers of ECOWAS by these two countries take place? Was ECOWAS notified or involved in the interim agreements negotiation and to what extent? In fact, to put it more bluntly, have these two countries not erred and therefore deserve some sort of chastisement to serve as a deterrent to other member countries that may in the future take such cues and go against enshrined regional statutory provisions? In the light of the above, are Ghana and Cote d’ivorie still belong to the ECOWAS configuration, and what is their place in the region?

In our view, since West Africa through their Ministerial Monitoring Committee (MMC) has indicated her willingness to continue the negotiations even after the upheaval, several cogent questions and issues in the negotiations still beg for considerations to form the basis for a pro-development EPA for the poor region. Such questions frankly form the pre-requisite for the region towards concluding any EPA. In that case therefore, turning around to ECOWAS again, and legally speaking, the foremost of these challenges is that up till now, a comprehensive legal text for the agreement is yet to be prepared by ECOWAS. While this may not be totally attributed to EU’s cause, however, the EU cannot be totally extricated or exonerated from blames or culpability on this issue. First, the inability of providing a comprehensive legal text by ECOWAS could be linked to the European Commission’s (EC) strategy or tactics adopted in the early stages of the negotiations, which unfortunately, rather backfired.

It must be noted that at some point in the negotiations, the EC thought that applying delay tactics in providing answers or responses to the various issues that required clarifications including correspondences, which were sought by ECOWAS to form the basis for comprehensive text, would work in their favour. The thinking of the EC appears to have been that as ECOWAS approaches the brink of the deadline, it would be an easy sail for railroading everybody into the ultimate signing of an agreement in any form, as not having enough time to consider the technical details and consequences thereof would culminate into signing an agreement just to beat the deadline. Unfortunately for them, ECOWAS was getting more resolute and stood like the ’rock of jubrita’ in their resolution by the days.

Secondly, even when the EC provided her EPA text to ECOWAS, they mounted several hurdles by placing in their text items which were highly offensive and obnoxious in the sight of the ECOWAS negotiators. On such issues as ’the Singapore’ inclusion, labour standards, rigorous dispute settlement process, intellectual property and services, etc, much time had to be spent on the deliberations by a less skilled region ikes of Ghana and Senegal among others, were not convinced on the viability of moving forward, given what they would be losing, the EC rather developed another strategy of talking to the region on country by country basis. In fact, at a point, the EC sought for and invited Nigeria for talks on what they referred to as a ’Special EPA Package for Nigeria’ which was however later discovered to be non-existent and denied by the same EC which earlier propagated the notion. This strategy further created cracks in the once united voice of ECOWAS negotiators. Countries began to seek more chauvinistic agenda which most times ran contrary to the collective interests of the region. Positions which ought to have been harmonised started drifting apart, and there was little the ECOWAS Commission could do in that respect. The Commission was rather more involved in settling internal oppositions and rancor created by the EC rather than concentrating on her traditional role of harmonising interests of member states.

Observing her failure in the divide and rule tactics, and realising that time was closing up on her efforts, the EC discovered a more subtle proposal by designing the graph for an interim arrangement or what was mischievously regarded as ’EPA Light agreement’. Unfortunately, again, there arose the question and the battle for legality which the proposal suffered, especially in consideration of the objectives of EPA, to wit, regional integration vis-à-vis the promotion of ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS). The foregoing was also compounded with the question of viability thereof within the ambits of Treaties and Protocols governing the West African region.

Howbeit, the EU intensified her lobby pressure on the various member states of ECOWAS, and this in no small manner weighed heavily towards breaking the fabrics of regional integration and the unity garnered so far on a rather volatile region such as West Africa.

Worthy of note is that the EC led by Louis Michele had found pleasure in undertaking visits to Cote d’ivorie - a country that is just coming out of crises, brainwashing the Ivorian officials into a possible discarding of their commitments to the West African region and signing of a unilateral agreement with the EU. Perhaps, one important task at this stage of EPA negotiations to assess the moral, socio-political and economic implications of this ’lobby’ and the other militant and pressure tools that have been deployed by the EC at ensuring that the West African region finally surrenders to their whims and caprices.

As a way of prologue to the consequences of this pressure, the apparent temptation is to quickly meditate on some moral questions. These fundamental questions include; where was Louis Michele, as a Development Commissioner since the war in Cote d’ ivories has been raging? Why did Louis Michele not visit the war torn country as a sympathetic peace builder while the crises was on? When did the EC under Louis Michele suddenly discover that Cote d’ ivories needs the kind of assistance being promised now? Why has the EC waited until the midnight of EPA brouhaha to comfort Cote d’ ivories and what is the linkage between EPA and the superficial humanitarian assistance? Why has the loss of the Ivorian banana market access (propaganda used by the EC to convince Cote d’ Ivories) become more important than the several lives that were lost under the crises? Why is the EC interested in breaking the hard earned ECOWAS regional cohesion which is only crawling after over thirty years of age, rather than building the cohesion? Why are the consequences of this break-up not being considered by the EC in the light of the core objective of the EPA which seeks to propagate regional integration? Does this kind of action not portend the EU not only as approbating and at the same time reprobating, but also as a union that is rather unserious with her commitments - a Union that is only interested in what comes into her pockets, but caring less about poverty reduction among her colonies? What practical development messages and efforts have the EC preached and put in place in the war torn Ivorian economy before now? Time may not permit me to look at the direction of Ghana which appears to have sold her birthright for a ’morsel of bread’ - although it may be understood she could easily have been swayed with dangled carrots and promises since her economy is heavily dependent on ODA.

Essentially, these questions and the actions of the EC must be considered and mirrored in the light of the integrity and credibility of the EU. Although the fight for domination of Africa in particular continues among the US, the EU and other developed economies, it is rather clear that the fear of China and the Asian Tigers has increased the EU’s velocity and quest to wrap up the resources of her former colonies. In spite of all these, it would however be advisable for the leaders of Europe to take a second look at what kind of image the EC is building for Europe before the eyes of the world.

But more interestingly, while the ’Messiah’ - Louis Michele was busy preaching his ’EPA salvation message’ to his audience in Cote d’ivorie and Ghana, his disciples in Nigeria (the EC Delegation) were confronting the Nigerian officials through the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. In deed, perhaps unlike Cote d’ivorie, the EC delegation to Nigeria met an impregnable rock as the Minister of Commerce and Industry was on hand to categorically and emphatically inform them that nothing will make Nigeria sign an EPA under the present blurred circumstances. In deed, the above recent statement of the Nigerian Minister and that of other Ministers from Nigeria have laid to rest the uncertainty coming from many quarters that the Nigerian government is not standing on a predictable position on the EPA. Of course it was clear even before now, especially to the EU, that Nigeria is not ready to mortgage the future of her citizens in any agreement that provides no lucid target and agenda.

Today, it has dawned on the EU that some countries have grown beyond being cowed into an agreement for agreement sake. This is the truth.

Ken Ukaoha is the President, National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS)