Strengthening and repositioning ECOWAS for emerging challenges — By Paul Ejime
In less than two years, (2025), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will mark its Golden Jubilee Anniversary. Given the high rate of turnover of similar regional organisations vis-a-vis its achievements, especially in the domain of preventive diplomacy, conflict management and resolution since its establishment in May 1975, even hardline critics will not deny ECOWAS its due credit.
However, faced with a combination of factors in recent years, particularly bad governance, poverty, and corruption, compounded by the crisis of globalising liberal democracy, the collapse of multilateralism and the rise of multipolarities and asymmetric threat vectors, such as terrorism, cyber warfare and social media, the West African regional bloc has found itself struggling to even meet its own standards.
Leadership deficit at the national and regional levels is only part of the problem. Most telling and unresolved is the chronic lack of institutional capacity, which features prominently in the reports of external stakeholders and ECOWAS development partners.
With an estimated staff strength of under 2,000, including less than 70 Directors servicing the organisation’s 14 Specialised Agencies and six Institutions, including the Commission, ECOWAS is grossly understaffed in quality and quantity of hands-on technocrats.
This translates to a lack of absorptive capacity, which limits its ability to fully utilise available resources or attract more funding for the coordination and implementation of critical and strategic programmes and policies to deepen cohesion and progressively eliminate identified barriers to the full integration of the more than 400 million Community.
To compound matters, the organisation only returned recently to a seven-Commissioner structure made up of the Offices of the President, Vice-President, and five Commissioners overseeing more than 26 Directorates, Divisions, and administrative Units.
Until last year, the regional leaders had in their wisdom, expanded the organisation to a 15-Commissioner structure with the attendant drain on human and financial resources.
The lack of dynamic and visionary technocrats means that ECOWAS, once applauded for its forward-looking and proactive policies and engagements, has become increasingly ineffective and on the verge of losing relevance.
The tragic consequences of leadership failure coincided with the lack of independent-mindedness and the required ‘supranationalism’ of actions/decisions at the level of the Commission, coupled with an accelerated retreat of democracy in the region.
Four of the 15-nation regional bloc are now under military dictatorships from 2020, with three – Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, forming a Cooperation and Defence Alliance, short of withdrawal from ECOWAS.
The gap in critical thinking at the Commission has left the Heads of State with a field day without stabilising and nuanced inputs from skilled technocrats.
In a bid to address the manpower shortfall, previous managements had resorted to ad-hoc recruitments, following the embargo placed on wholesale employment.
But the problem has persisted with some staff members complaining about unfairness, lack of transparency or alleged bias in favour of either of the ECOWAS three language groups – French, English, and Portuguese.
Consequently, the President Omar Alieu Touray-led ECOWAS Commission Management, which assumed office in July 2022, is in the process of conducting a new recruitment exercise.
But even before its commencement, the exercise has generated an unnecessary controversy as a result of Management’s position that new recruitment at the Commission would be limited to internal staff, such that vacant positions would not be advertised.
The Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) is among NGOs and independent observers that have faulted this decision.
The CSNAC in a widely publicised petition to the Commission has threatened to challenge the decision, which it described as violating ECOWAS Revised Treaty and Staff Regulations, at the ECOWAS Court of Justice.
In particular, the Network drew the Commission’s attention to Article 18(5) of the ECOWAS Revised Treaty of 1993, which stipulates that “in appointing professional staff for the Community, due regard shall be subject to ensuring the highest standards of efficiency and technical competence, to maintaining equitable geographical distribution of posts and gender balance among nationals of all Member States (pgs. 64-65:1993).”
It also argues that the decision contravenes Article 9(2b) of the ECOWAS Staff Regulations, which stipulates that “all permanent professional positions declared vacant shall be advertised. Applicants shall be notified of the receipt of application for the positions advertised. The deadline for receipt of applications shall be forty-five (45) calendar days after the date of publication.”
Furthermore, the Network quoted Article 9(c) of the Staff Regulations, which “states that (vacant) positions shall be filled through a competitive recruitment process in which all shortlisted candidates shall appear before the relevant Committee (pg. 14).”
It reminded the Commission President, “that as primary custodian of all ECOWAS regulations, laws and policies, he should not be perceived to be condoning any forms of illegality.”
The Network, therefore, demands “rescindment of the illegal position of denying qualified community citizens, including the current staff of the ECOWAS Commission, the right to apply and be considered for professional positions at the ECOWAS Commission.”
“Failure to do this will compel us to approach the …ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, in order to compel the ECOWAS Commission to do what is fair and just to all,” it added.
Sources at the Commission have explained that the recruitment could be opened to external candidates in cases where internal candidates did not fit the skill set.
However, independent analysts and sources at the ECOWAS Court of Justice all agree that the standard practice, which is consistent with ECOWAS instrumentalities is to advertise vacant positions, with a proviso that due consideration would be accorded internal candidates under specific circumstances.
The Commission President probably meant well, as part of efforts to boost waning staff morale, even so, recruitments take unnecessarily long periods and cost money in the ECOWAS system. A controversial decision involving splitting the process into phases will not only cost more but will defeat the purpose of urgently filling critical positions.
Furthermore, any recruitment exercise that is perceived as discriminatory will be against the principles of natural justice, equity, and fairness.
Another counterargument is that the present “internal staff,” could not have gained employment in ECOWAS if recruitment had not been externalised.
ECOWAS has to inject fresh blood into its foundering system, and for its personnel to perform at optimum, they must be of the highest calibre of competencies and proficiency. This is the only way to retool and reposition the regional bloc to address emerging challenges effectively.
This position is consistent with the Touray-led management’s “4×4 Strategic Objectives – Enhanced Peace and Security, Deepening Regional Integration, Good Governance and, Inclusive and Sustainable Development” – as well as ECOWAS Fundamental Principles of “Equality and inter-dependence of Member States,” and “Equitable and just distribution of the costs and benefits of economic co-operation and integration.”
It is also in tandem with the new Vision of moving from an ECOWAS of States to an “ECOWAS of the People: “…a borderless region where the population has access to its abundant resources … (and is) governed in accordance with the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.”
Proceeding with a controversial recruitment process will only open the floodgate for costly and unnecessary lawsuits against the Commission, at this critical juncture of ECOWAS’ history.
Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications