Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: A West African Union

Apr 5, 2007

Often a victim of international neglect, Africa has managed in the past few years to elbow its way toward the top of the global agenda. Concerned by the continent's slow rate of development and alarmed at the evils—including terrorism—world leaders have been striving to increase aid, forgive debts, and open markets. Fourteen of the 18 countries targeted by the G7's 2005 agreement to write off $40 billion of debt are in Africa. Six are from one region—West Africa, an area containing an extraordinary number of fragile, underdeveloped countries.

Although the debt deal may offer West African states short-term help, it is not enough to cure their troubles. A much more innovative approach is needed: We must recognize that institutional weaknesses underlie the region's problems and that only a regionwide mechanism can set West Africa on the path to a brighter political and economic future. Local leaders must be given the authority and responsibility to develop such a mechanism, but they will need the financial and technical support of the international community if they are to succeed.

West Africa, the 15 countries stretching from Senegal to Nigeria, is wracked by some of the worst problems facing the developing world: Pervasive inter-group conflict; borders that fail to reflect the cultural landscape; weak national cohesion; corrupt officials and impotent institutions; a dearth of skilled workers exacerbated by brain drain; poor investment climates; and AIDS. Britain's Department for International Development considers ten of the fifteen countries fragile. Seventy-five percent of the area's people live under governments that cannot deliver many of the most basic services—including, in many cases, security. More than 25,000 peacekeepers are needed to maintain a fragile peace in the region's war zones. Conflicts spill easily across borders, as do refugees, arms, and instability.

Pint-sized, expensive economic markets keep most states isolated from the dynamic changes globalization is bringing elsewhere. The region's entire GDP is less than half of Norway's. Infrastructure costs are among the highest in the world, yet the electricity and telephone systems are inadequate and unreliable. The regulatory burden forces all but the largest businesses underground. In Niger, for example, it takes 11 steps and costs four times the average annual income just to register a business. Much of the sparse road network is in poor condition and frequent checkpoints—one every 14 kilometers on the road between Lagos and Abidjan—shrink markets. These conditions discourage most ventures outside the extraction of natural resources, such as oil, rubber, and gold.

Despite substantial evidence that the state-based development model is not working, most assistance continues to be funneled to governments. Instead of trying to fix a plethora of dysfunctional governments one by one, efforts would be better concentrated on building a strong regional organization. Given adequate economic and political support, this organ could overcome many of the difficulties that have defeated individual states—and play a greater role in engineering growth.

Imagine what might be achieved by a centralized commission with a long-term commitment to stabilizing, modernizing, and enriching West Africa; able to provide practical help and incentives to foster solid institutions, sound economic conditions, and democracy; staffed by executives intimate with local conditions; and empowered to seek regional solutions for what are, in essence, regional problems. If such a body could be created with the mandate of raising governance standards, integrating economies and transport systems, and establishing one set of rules for doing business, the new dynamism would not only encourage the entrepreneurial instincts of West Africans but also attract multinational corporations from around the world.

By superseding national institutions in a few crucial domains, the new organ would help circumvent some of the most deep-rooted problems holding back the region. As a new entity, it would not inherit the troubled legacies of state governments: illegitimacy spawned by discredited policies, toxic relations with identity groups, and legions of corrupt bureaucrats.

By recruiting top-flight managers from its inception, the new organization would swiftly become the region's most competent public body, capable not only of devising common policies but also of helping transform state bureaucracies. If it could remove the worst excesses of local malfeasance, it could alter the dynamics of local identity conflicts by making institutions more objective and effective arbiters of policy, and not participants in the competition between various cliques jockeying for influence and wealth. Outsiders could concentrate their limited resources on supporting this one proficient organ instead of trying to fix 15 dysfunctional bureaucracies.


For this vision to become a reality, West African leaders must show they are prepared to deepen cross-border cooperation while developed countries must provide the strategic grants, technical assistance, and diplomatic support to build the capacity of the strengthened regional body.

As a start, West African leaders need to merge their two existing regional organizations—the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—thereby concentrating all resources in one body and ending unnecessary duplication between the UEMOA Commission and the ECOWAS Secretariat. The most sensible way to achieve this would be to merge the ECOWAS security apparatus with the UEMOA economic team, and to have non-UEMOA countries join UEMOA's customs union and currency.

The region's leaders should then focus this new organization—let us for present purposes call it the West African Union (WAU)—on building the capacities necessary to ameliorate the wretched business environment. Enlarging projects that assist countries in fiscal management, as is being done, is a good first step. But the WAU should extend UEMOA convergence standards to encompass all areas that influence commerce, establishing clear guidelines on such activities as starting and closing companies, enforcing contracts, registering property, public procurement, hiring and firing workers, and getting credit.

Strong regional powers to combat corruption, promote competition, and facilitate trade would do more than anything else to break the logjams obstructing faster growth. Most national institutions are corroded by corruption or too ineffectual to make progress in these areas. Finally, a strong secretariat must be staffed by high-caliber personnel.


The West should make West African regionalism a much higher priority and encourage local leaders to push forward an ambitious agenda. Once plans for the WAU have been crystallized, the West should support their implementation in three ways: Reallocating aid; ratcheting up technical assistance; and providing the incentives necessary to ensure individual member states honor their policy commitments to the WAU.

The financial needs of an expanded regional organization are distinctly modest compared to donor funding levels. In 2001, the combined budget of the ECOWAS and UEMOA central bodies was less than $25 million, of which only about $5 million was covered by foreign aid—just 0.1 percent of commitments to the region.

Donors could sponsor a five- to ten-year plan of grants designed to systematically enhance regional capabilities. Annual funding could increase by, say, $20 million per year as the secretariat expanded its work, subject to members meeting certain obligations and the organization passing regular performance audits; local funding from tariffs and other fees would also rise progressively. A long-term commitment that leveled off at $100 million annually would go a long way to creating the momentum necessary to accelerate regional designs. Additional support, training, and logistical help could be directed toward improving the WAU's security capabilities.

Bilateral support could be reconfigured to match the regional agenda by prioritizing infrastructure projects that link countries and by adding a regional component to programs that tie aid to improvements in governance. Donors could also fund the creation and operation of national integration ministries responsible for interfacing with the WAU; pay the dues of the most-disadvantaged states; and compensate governments for some of the revenue lost because of the reduction or elimination of national tariffs and customs duties.

The international community would also have an important role to play in ensuring that individual member states of the WAU fulfill their commitments to the organization. Bilateral grants, loans, and debt relief to individual states should all be conditioned on meeting regional commitments. The G-8 should also provide a diplomatic shield to insulate the WAU's secretariat from political pressure in the areas of recruitment and adjudication of members' compliance with the organization's rules.


Far more than altruism is at stake here for the West. West Africa is an increasingly important source of oil and other energy resources. The fragile states that dominate the region provide sanctuaries of lawlessness where terrorist gangs and crime syndicates organize, recruit, buy weapons, and hide.

U.S. intelligence agencies and terrorist experts claim to have detected evidence of al Qaeda-inspired activity in Liberia, Mali, Niger, northern Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Their instability spreads across borders, with consequences far and wide. The cost to the West to stabilize West Africa through emergency relief, and peacekeeping operations is far greater than the modest expense needed to underwrite this new organization. Instead of continuing to pump billions annually into the region's dysfunctional regimes, the developed world should focus more on a regional program, where a modest investment could help shore up a set of weak states simultaneously.

The time is ripe for such an initiative. Across Africa, a new generation of leaders has promoted regionalism as a crucial element in solving the continent's myriad security and economic problems. Within West Africa, cross-border cooperation has in recent years helped to handle crises in Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. What is needed now is a program of action that harnesses this enthusiasm for regional cooperation in a way that can tackle the larger problems that plague West Africa.

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