Nigeria, ECOWAS and the Morocco question

I was in Morocco recently, about 20 years after I last visited Timbuktu, Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat and Laayoune. I was quite impressed to see how Morocco with its colour-coded cities remains very much an organized, efficient and a comparatively competitive country. The trip this time began from the Lagos airport aboard the Royal Air Maroc, which now plies the Lagos-Casablanca route. Twenty years earlier, I had to go first to Paris, France, change from one airport to the other, before boarding another flight to Morocco.

This crisis of transportation, having to go to Europe before accessing African countries, poses a major threat to trade, co-operation and integration among African countries. This time around, Lagos to Casablanca took no more than 4 hours. The flight was full; the passengers were mostly Nigerians. I would later discover that these passengers were not necessarily going to Morocco to attend the Crans Montana conference on Africa and South-South Co-operation taking place in Dhakla, they were transit passengers going to New York or Europe. Casablanca to New York is about 6 hours, and the cost of travel either to the US or Europe through Morocco is much cheaper. The Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) between Nigeria and Morocco has brought both countries closer, with many Nigerian businessmen taking advantage of the opportunity to trade with Morocco. Many Nigerian students are also now going to school in Moroccan universities and technical colleges.

As I took in these details, and reflected on the vast possibilities of closer Nigeria-Morocco relations, what struck me as I left Casablanca for Rabat, was not even the beauty of the roads and the skyline, or the meaty, physically majestic cattle that grazed on the fields along the highway, not disturbing motorists or crossing the road, or causing any violence, unlike Nigerian cattle and their herders, but the fact that it is this same Morocco, with its near-First-World standards, that has been struggling since early 2017 to be admitted as a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Nigerian trade unions, business investors and some former diplomats have been in the forefront of the objection to Morocco’s membership of ECOWAS. The reasons they offer are largely sentimental, not fact-based, not informed, all made worse by what seems to be a continuing lack of rigour in the management of Nigeria’s foreign policy process.

In January 2017, Morocco returned to the African Union (AU) after 33 years of absence. Under King Mohammed VI of Morocco, there has been in the last seven years or so, a concerted diplomatic effort to assert Morocco’s Africanism and to reach out to other African countries outside North Africa. Morocco’s issue with Algeria, the crisis in Libya, and the conflict of objectives and goals among the members of the African Maghreb Union (UMA) perhaps makes this re-strategizing of Morocco’s foreign policy pragmatic and inevitable. Having returned to the AU, Morocco took the additional step of seeking the membership of ECOWAS. In June 2017, at the 51st meeting of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government held in Monrovia, Liberia, ECOWAS agreed in principle to Morocco’s application for membership.

The ECOWAS Commission then put a team together to prepare an Impact Report on Morocco’s proposed membership to be considered at the 52nd meeting of the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government scheduled for November 2017 in Abuja, Nigeria. As it turned out, ECOWAS could not consider the 70-page Report as scheduled, due to its busy agenda, as was claimed, but a committee of five comprising the Heads of State of Togo, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria was empaneled to study the Report and advise the ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments accordingly.

The Extraordinary session planned for the first quarter of 2018 at which a decision is to be communicated in this regard, has not yet taken place, but Morocco’s proposed membership has already generated much interest across the sub-region. In Nigeria, for example, the Joint Committees on Foreign Affairs and Co-operation for Africa on November 15, 2017, organized a one-day public hearing titled “Public Hearing on the Review of Nigeria’s Membership of ECOWAS in view of Morocco’s bid to be admitted into the Regional Body.” Some of the arguments advanced at that event and which may have influenced Nigeria’s lack of clarity so far on the Morocco question are at best ridiculous.

It was argued for example that if Morocco joins ECOWAS, Nigeria will disintegrate. How? Nigeria is a member of the D-8 and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC); it has not disintegrated on account of that. No member-country of ECOWAS is in a position to disintegrate another country for whatever reason under the Constitutive protocols. It was also said, and this really exposes the hypocrisy involved, that Nigeria should block Morocco because it is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This is not true. Morocco’s corruption perception index has consistently improved while Nigeria’s CPI continues to worsen. Nigeria has no moral right to condemn any other country on the ground of corruption, and if this were a criterion for international relations, many countries including Nigeria would have been expelled from the United Nations long ago. It was further argued at that forum and in the Nigerian media that “any attempt to allow the North African country to join ECOWAS will subvert Nigeria’s economic prosperity.”

The evidence given in this regard is that Morocco is an associate of the EU under the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). And: Nigeria having refused to sign the ECOWAS-Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union could become a dumping ground for cheaper goods from Europe through Morocco, thus crippling investments across the sub-region. Our response is that in the long run, ECOWAS member-states in general, would have to strengthen their capacity to compete and be productive, rather than hide under protectionist policies. One other ridiculous excuse that has been given is that ECOWAS owes its existence and survival to Nigeria and that Nigeria should not allow any new country to reduce its control over ECOWAS. It is precisely this kind of undiplomatic talk that continues to make other countries in ECOWAS suspicious of Nigeria’s motives and unappreciative of the country’s contributions to the regional body. Other non-sequitur arguments raised by Nigerians include the Western Sahara issue or that Morocco is a monarchy, rather, a parliamentary constitutional monarchy.

What is required is a dispassionate study of Morocco’s application, even of similar applications from Tunisia, which is seeking an observer status in ECOWAS and Mauritania, which left in 2000 but now wants to return. Technically, those opposed to Morocco’s membership have advanced two noteworthy arguments so far but even then, both can be interrogated. The first is the argument about contiguity. They insist that Morocco is not contiguous with any West African country and may not meet the geographical criterion as defined in the Council of Ministers Resolution/Res 464 (XXVI) of the OAU, 1976, which divides Africa into 5 geo-political regions namely Northern, Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. In this regard, Morocco is classified as a North African country along with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Further, Article 1 of the revised ECOWAS Treaty of July 24, 1993, defines members of ECOWAS as countries within the geographical region known as West Africa. So, how about Mauritania?

However, it is clearly within the powers of the ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments to determine that geography cannot debar an interested African country from joining ECOWAS. Economic and political considerations should override geography that is merely nomenclatural, particularly if the applicant-countries are within Africa. Opening up ECOWAS beyond geographical boundaries would be more in keeping with the long-term goal of the AU, which is the creation of an African Economic Community (AEC) that promotes the integration and cooperation of the various regional blocs in the continent. Incidentally, this is the growing global trend. For example, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are members of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern African States (COMESA). Algeria has also submitted its accession applications to this economic body. Integration is not uncommon. The Community of Saharan States (CEN-SAD) cuts across ECOWAS, ECCAS, COMESA and UMA countries. The D-8 is an economic association of development countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. To push the counter-argument a bit further, if geography were the sole issue, ECOWAS by now should have long admitted contiguous countries like Sao Tome and Principe, Equitorial Guinea, Chad and Cameroon which have also expressed interest in ECOWAS membership.

The other major argument on the Morocco question is whether or not the country would commit to the principles of the revised ECOWAS Treaty. ECOWAS can afford to insist on its principles and objectives. It is, after all, one of the most successful regional groupings in Africa. In pursuit of its Africanism agenda, and perhaps to demonstrate its interest and commitment, Morocco has consistently identified with ECOWAS principles. Even without yet being a member, Morocco has since established strong ties with Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania, which are exempted from entry visas to Morocco. The country is also strongly involved with Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mali where it provides support for agriculture and healthcare systems. The objection to Morocco by certain Nigerians should in fact be investigated closely. It is on record that Morocco and Nigeria are involved in a gas pipeline project, the Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline; there is also a BASA agreement, which unfortunately, Nigeria currently lacks the will to utilize.

Both countries are also partners in a phosphate project in Kaduna. Some states in Nigeria have also signed co-operation agreements with Morocco, notably Bauchi state which is partnering with the OCP-Group of Morocco in agriculture and fertilizer production. OCP is the largest exporter of phosphate in the world. While some Nigerians are busy arguing whether Morocco is good for ECOWAS or not, the truth is that many Nigerians are already benefitting from Moroccan partnerships. There are 3,000 documented Nigerians currently living in Morocco – 195 of them are in prison. There is even a gallery of African Arts in Morocco featuring many Nigerian art works. There are also Nigerian students quietly enjoying scholarships in Moroccan colleges. At the level of person-to-person diplomacy, there are Nigerians doing business in Morocco, making huge profits. Take sardine, that variety of fish Nigerians enjoy, and import from Europe. Morocco has one of the largest troves of sardines in the world along its Continental shelf on the Atlantic all the way to the island of Sardinia in Italy from which the fish takes its name. It is cheaper to bring in fish from Morocco than to import from Europe! Morocco is the world’s leading producer of Sardines.

I have given these details just in case the vocal anti-Morocco lobbyists in Nigeria are doing so for their own selfish purposes. My suspicion really, is that there is a growing body of anti-trade lobbyists, and greedy rent-collectors, who want Nigeria isolated from the rest of the world and who are actively doing whatever they can to seize and exercise an undeserved monopoly over Africa’s largest market. Right now, 40 European and African organizations are opposing the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project, actively encouraged of course by Nigerian economic dream-blockers.

Membership of ECOWAS comes with both costs and benefits for Morocco. It is the second largest investing country in Africa after South Africa, with a GDP of about $100 billion, and according to Quantum Global Research Report 2018, “the most attractive economy for investments in Africa.” ECOWAS membership will grant it access to a market of about 320 million consumers, but it would also result in an influx of ECOWAS immigrant population. Morocco would be obliged to respect the free movement of such persons and of goods within the region, adopt the ECOWAS passport and join the Common External Tariff (TEC). Here is the trade-off: Morocco’s direct investment in ECOWAS has doubled between 2011 and 2017, from MAD 295 million to over 2 billion. This can only grow higher.

When it comes to the vote on the Morocco question, Nigeria should prioritize its own interests and not the selfish and emotional preference of a few. Foreign policy requires greater rigour and creativity than we have seen lately in Abuja. It is a blunder for example, I repeat, that President Muhammadu Buhari stayed away from the Extra-ordinary session of the AU in Kigali on the African Continental Free Trade Area Treaty, the same treaty that had been approved and endorsed by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), just because some unionists screamed that they were not consulted. Did Nigeria not participate in the negotiations of the treaty? An ad-hoc, knee-jerk management of foreign policy will only make us look more ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

Reuben Abati,  Former Spokesperson and Special Adviser, Media and Publicity

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