Before the creation of ECOWAS, the collective territory known as West Africa, was made up of an aggregation of states that had emerged from different colonial experiences and administrations which largely defined the boundaries of the 15 states domiciled in the area.
Even though Member States of the community now make use of three official languages (English, French and Portuguese), there are well over a thousand existing local languages including cross-border native tongues such as Ewe, Fulfulde, Hausa, Mandingo, Wolof, Yoruba, Ga, etc. that constitute its over 300 million people tucked in a vast land of about 5.1 million square kilometres.
Prior to colonialism, the area played host to many proud empires and kingdoms that spanned centuries, some of which included Ghana, Mali Songhai, Wolof, Oyo, Benin and Kanem Bornu.
The region’s cultural, linguistic and ecological diversity presents both opportunities and challenges for the integration process. The longing to combine forces politically and economically has always been recognised as a step forward in the desire to engender co-prosperity in the area.
In this regard, the first effort at integration dates back to 1945 with the creation of CFA franc that brought the francophone countries of the region into a single currency union. Then in 1964, Liberian president William Tubman proposed an economic union for West Africa leading to an agreement which was signed in 1965 by the four states of Cote d’Ivore, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
However, it was not until 1972 that a proposal for a union of West African States emerged. That year, the Nigerian head of state Gen Yakubu Gowon and his Togolese counterpart Gnassingbe Eyadema toured the region in support of the integration Idea. Thanks to the drafts that emanated from their efforts. These formed the basis for the emergence of the treaty of Lagos in 1975 which birthed ECOWAS. The treaty of Lagos was originally touted as an economic initiative, but emerging political events led to its revision and therewith the expansion of scope and powers in 1993.
ECOWAS is meant to foster interstate economic and political cooperation. History is on its side in this regard. Dating back to pre-colonial times, West Africans have been among the world’s most mobile populations although much of the migration had been intra-regional. About 7.5 million West African migrants (3 percent of the regional population) are living in ECOWAS countries other than their own. The 1.2 million other migrants are dispersed mainly in North America and Europe. Estimated at about 149 million in 2013, women constitute over 50 percent of the region’s population. The cross-border migration of women as traders and business persons places them as potential champions for promoting integration. This reality needs to be fully exploited.
The diverse socio-cultural dimension of development should be a necessary building block for establishing peace and security in the region. Drawing strength from its past, leaders of the community have been making sacrifices to keep the shape of the political structure of the region. In 1976, Cape Verde, one of the two Lusophone countries in the region joined ECOWAS, and in December 2000, Mauritania withdrew its membership.
At all times, ECOWAS chief executive officers presiding initially as Executive Secretaries and now as Presidents, defer to the supreme organ of the community-the Authority of the Heads of State of Government for guidance. This body is usually headed by a Chairman.
The list below shows the various chairmen in a chronological order:
- Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo) 1977–1978
- Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) 1978–1979
- Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal) 1979–1980
- Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo) 1980–1981
- Siaka Stevens (Sierra Leone) 1981–1982
- Mathieu Kérékou (Benin) 1982–1983
- Ahmed Sékou Touré (Guinea) 1983–1984
- Lansana Conté (Guinea) 1984–1985
- Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria) 1985 – 27 August 1985
- Ibrahim Babangida (Nigeria) 27 August 1985 – 1989
- Dawda Jawara (the Gambia) 1989–1990
- Blaise Compaoré (Burkina Faso) 1990–1991
- Dawda Jawara (the Gambia) 1991–1992
- Abdou Diouf (Senegal) 1992–1993
- Nicéphore Soglo (Benin) 1993–1994
- Jerry John Rawlings (Ghana) 1994 – 27 July 1996
- Sani Abacha (Nigeria) 27 July 1996 – 8 June 1998
- Abdulsalami Abubakar (Nigeria) 9 June 1998 – 1999
- Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo) 1999
- Alpha Oumar Konaré (Mali) 1999 – 21 December 2001
- Abdoulaye Wade (Senegal) 21 December 2001 – 31 January 2003
- John Agyekum Kufuor (Ghana) 31 January 2003 – 19 January 2005
- Mamadou Tandja (Niger) 19 January 2005 – 19 January 2007
- Blaise Compaoré (Burkina Faso) 19 January 2007 – 19 December 2008
- Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (Nigeria) 19 December 2008 – 18 February 2010
- Goodluck Jonathan (Nigeria) 18 February 2010 – 17 February 2012
- Alassane Ouattara (Côte d’Ivoire) 17 February 2012 – 28 March 2014
- John Dramani Mahama (Ghana) 28 March 2014 –19 Mai 2015
- Macky Sall (Senegal)– 19 Mai 2015 –June 2016
- Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia)– June 2016- June 2017
- Faure Gnassingbe(Togo)- June 2017- 31 July 2018
- Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria)- 31 July 2018 – 31 July 2019
- Issoufou Mahamadou (Niger) – July 2019 – till date
By subscribing to the vision of the founding fathers of ECOWAS, today’s leaders have taken ownership of the grand objectives designed to improve the living conditions of the citizenry, ensure economic growth and create an environment conducive for true development and integration.