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ECOWAS citizenship: a common status for the West African region

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

Africa has rapidly developed in recent years from the ‘hopeless continent’ into a region attracting considerable foreign investments, with China’s ballooning influence in the 21st century being the subject of both admiration and suspicion. Europe seems to be catching up since the launch of the Africa-Strategic Partnership in 2007, through which ‘the EU has worked, with a large degree of success, to transition to a partnership model based on reciprocal trade’.

Having previously reported on the idea of a South American citizenship, a similar trend can be discerned in Africa – more particularly in West Africa in the context of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). While East Africa is economically the fastest growing region on the continent, West Africa has been described as the ‘regional economic community recognized by the African Union that has progressed furthest with regional integration’. ECOWAS, consisting of 15 member states, was established by treaty in 1975 with the objective of creating a free market zone for goods and persons. In 1982, as noted by Bronwen Manby; 'ECOWAS adopted the Protocol Relating to the Definition of a Community Citizen, which aimed to create some common principles on citizenship while leaving discretion to the Member States. Implementation of the ECOWAS framework for regional integration has proceeded in fits and starts, accelerating in recent years. Though incomplete, the legal framework has effectively created a zone of free movement within West Africa. In 2014, ECOWAS abolished the 90-day limit to visa-free residence—which had been largely disregarded in practice—and adopted a common-form regional biometric ID card [in] 2017'.

Nonetheless, a UNHCR/IOM study finds the ECOWAS citizenship regime hard to interpret and ambiguous. In the absence of a supranational framework like that of the European Union, ECOWAS citizenship indeed appears to face similar problems as the embryonic South American citizenship in that 'there is a deep ambiguity in the wording of th[e] protocol about who is responsible for the recognition or deprivation of community citizenship, and what the content of community citizenship is beyond the rights given by citizenship of any individual Member State. While the primary responsibility is clearly for Member States, the wording about the responsibility of the ECOWAS Council of Ministers or other organs implies that the Community bodies may have a direct role. However, no procedures have ever been adopted to provide for ECOWAS to recognise community citizenship aside from the recognition procedures at national level'.

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