The Kingdom of Morocco left the defunct organization of African Unity (now known as African Union, AU) some 33 years ago in protest to the Union’s recognition of one of its annexed territories, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as a member without consulting her.   
Morocco remained the only African country that was not part of the of African Union for three decades until it was readmitted on 30 January 2017 following her application to rejoin the regional union. But the north African country seemed not satisfied with her  new membership status of the AU – Rabat wants to savour the African esprit de corp beyond its subregional territory by seeking to be a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – a regional economic bloc she does not possess the geographic advantage of being a member.
ECOWAS, created to foster mutual economic relations amongst members state, in 1975 stands as the oldest regional bloc in Africa. It is clear that Morocco’s adventure into West African regional bloc is as good as a mission heading towards an iceberg because none of the 15 countries that made up ECOWAS share any form of land or water boundaries with the north-African country.
At the 51st summit of the ECOWAS that held in Monrovia, Liberia, in June 2017, African leaders in attendance accepted and even approved Rabat’s application in principle. The full acceptance of Morocco into the ECOWAS was to be ratified at the 52nd Summit that held last week in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. At the 51st Summit of the ECOWAS, the leaders left the Commission with a confusing directive by asking it to consider the implications of their decision to accept Morocco into the regional economic bloc in respect to  the provisions of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty and make their submission and recommendation to the 52nd session that held last week in Abuja.
The Royal Palace of Rabat did not rest on its oars as the Monarch, King Mohammed the VI soon began on a tour 11 West African countries and has so far visited about 23 times during which he signed several investment contracts with the government of those countries. That smart move by Morocco was ostensibly aimed at convincing the world about its commitment to bilateral trade deals with the ECOWAS member countries in spite its regional disadvantage.
But following the controversial acceptance of Morocco’s application, tongues began to wag across the member West African countries – especially Nigeria – with residents expressing concerns over what they see as the would-be grave implication of allowing the north African country into ECOWAS and even the entire regional bloc. Days to the 52nd ECOWAS  Summit, public hearings were conducted in Nigeria where experts in international politics and law gave their reasons – mostly critical thought- as to why Morocco must not be allowed to be a member of ECOWAS.
Chief amongst these criticisms was the argument that admitting Morocco, a North African country is as good as killing the Commission that was strictly created for countries of the West African subregion. Those who spoke from Nigeria perspective against Morocco’s admittance into ECOWAS advanced argued that Rabat’s presence in the oldest African regional bloc would strip Nigeria of its diplomatic influence “not only in the sub-region, but also in the international community”.
When African leaders convoked at the 52nd Summit in Abuja last week to study the report on what the impact of Morocco’s membership could mean to the ECOWAS, they could not reach any conclusive decision on what they could do with the powerful and equally influential Kingdom’s request. The Nigeria media fixated on the issue of Morocco which turned out to be the highlight of the summit’s agenda. But the more than three hours closed-door meeting of the 15 African leaders could yield any way-out from the conundrum they seem to find themselves.
The only decision they could take was to ask a constituted committee membered by the presidents of Togo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria “to supervise the thorough study of the implications of Morocco’s accession”. This even confused many people because the African leaders seem to be going back and forth on a matter many felt was very clear. A communique issued at the end of the 52nd Session also revealed that it was not only Morocco that sought an alliance with ECOWAS. Tunisia and Mauritania are also begging to be allowed an observer and associate membership accordingly.
Part of the communique reads: “Regarding the applications received by ECOWAS from Morocco for membership, Tunisia for observer status and Mauritania for associate membership, Authority decides to set up a Committee of Heads of State and Government comprising the Togolese Republic, Republic of Cote d’Ivoire, Republic of Ghana, Republic of Guinea and the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to adopt the terms of reference and supervise a comprehensive study on the implications of the membership,” said a communiqué read at the end of the summit.
“Authority notes that matters of accession to the ECOWAS Treaty and the granting of observer status to third countries should be preceded by the appropriate institutional framework which constitutes the legal basis for such a decision. “In that respect, Authority instructs the President of the Commission to immediately commence the preparation of the appropriate Community Act which will set out the decision-making process within the Community, in accordance with Article 9 paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Revised ECOWAS Treaty,” the communiqué reads.
The quoted article of Revise ECOWAS Treaty stated that Unless otherwise provided in this Treaty or in a Protocol, decisions of the Authority shall be adopted, depending on the subject matter under consideration by unanimity consensus or, by a two-thirds majority of the Member States. And that “matters referred to in paragraph 2 above shall be defined in a Protocol. Until the entry into force of the said Protocol, the Authority shall continue to adopt its decision by consensus.
The above quotes from the ECOWAS’ Treaty seemed to suggest that irrespective of the opinion of the Summit Commission on the issue of Morocco, the African leaders might veto such recommendation by a mere consensus decision forged by a two-thirds endorsement if it does not suit their interest. It is also very instructive to note that Rabat has already reached out to covet the friendship of 11 of the 15 West African leaders through the signing of investment contracts.
A Nigerian retired diplomat, Ambassador Suleiman Dahiru,  has been a leading critical voice on the issue of Morocco’s foray into a region alien to it. He accused the West African leaders of being contradictory in their stance of the North-African country. “ECOWAS, at the 51st summit, admitted Morocco in principle to the regional body, while at the 52nd summit, asked a committee to supervise a comprehensive study on the implications of the country’s accession. “They should look at the ECOWAS Treaty of 1975 and the revised version. If there is no provision for a non-West African country to join, then Morocco cannot join ECOWAS because it is not in West Africa.
“The name West Africa is geographical and Morocco, geographically, belongs to North Africa,” he said. Ambassador Dahiru wondered why Morocco’s sudden crave to redesign Africa’s regional map after 42 years of its existence. “Why is the country applying to be a member now?, he asked in an article Published in Vanguard one of Nigeria’s foremost dailies. “The moment you bring Morocco in, then it is no more ECOWAS because you are admitting a North African country. This means that you cannot stop others from applying to join because you have opened the door for a North African country to come in.
“I’m aware that Morocco has excellent bilateral relation with most countries in ECOWAS. That is good but this does not qualify Morocco to be in ECOWAS because it is a regional body.” The retired diplomat allayed the general fears that Morocco’s coming into ECOWAS might weaken Nigeria’s economic influence; even as he said the intent is more political than economic.
“Politically, it will do whatever it is possible to ensure that Western Sahara does not become an independent country. Nigeria had fought colonialism, apartheid and any other form of domination. Morocco continues to occupy Western Sahara despite resolutions by the African Union and United Nations Security Council.” Ambassador Dahiru said should Morocco be allowed into ECOWAS, it would make nonsense of Nigeria’s refusal to sign contentious Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union because Morocco is a strong ally of the EU in that regard.
“If Morocco is admitted to ECOWAS, manufactured goods moving into Morocco from Europe will flood West Africa as member states have free movement of goods and services within the community,” he stated. A foremost Nigerian lawyer and civil society activist, Chidi Odinkalu, who also specializes in the laws and institutions of regional integration in Africa, had a different view on what Morocco’s accession to ECOWAS  would imply.
Odinkalu reminded everyone that the cornerstone of regional integration obligations in ECOWAS is free to factor mobility, including free movement of goods and of persons. And he wants stakeholders to also look at what that factor from the side of the positive and negative impact that could mean to Morocco as well. “By signing up to ECOWAS, Morocco will be under a duty to accept the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, offering a regime of visa-free travel and, potentially, a right of establishment to citizens of all 15 ECOWAS countries”, said Odinkalu. “This would almost invariably put the Euro-Mediterranean migration system under pressure and is bound to meet with opposition from the European Union (EU) at a time that it faces serious crisis traceable largely to concerns over migration”.
He noted that the conflicting interests of the EU and the US in Morocco’s ECOWAS application “raises the stakes” and even leaves  ECOWAS with very serious decisions to make. He said there are five options that are open for ECOWAS as it tries to wrangle its way out of tight position Morocco has put it. First,  he said ECOWAS  could insist that Morocco accepts all of its treaties, protocols, and directives as a package. “The likelihood is that the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons will present insurmountable problems for Morocco. In response to this, a second option could be to offer Morocco an exemption from the Protocol. This will have the effect of creating a two-track ECOWAS, giving other member countries the possibility to re-open existing ECOWAS obligations.
That, he said would result will almost certainly “unravel the understandings that have underpinned Africa’s oldest regional bloc for over 40 years”. “If it is offered to Morocco, for instance, Cape Verde will almost surely exercise a right to denounce the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons. This option will spell the end of ECOWAS and is unlikely to be on the table”. A third option. Mr. Odinkalu felt be explored, could be for ECOWAS to have a period of negotiation and initiation, “during which the scope of Morocco’s membership obligations and benefits could be progressively enhanced based on trial, monitoring and error”.
“Option four will be for ECOWAS to reverse the Monrovia decision. Morocco will then revert to its existing observer arrangements with ECOWAS. There is a fifth option, which is for Morocco to negotiate a bilateral arrangement with ECOWAS as a bloc. Morocco’s application could enlarge ECOWAS in geo-strategic terms but diminish it institutionally. It could also persuade Mauritania to re-join the bloc but will simultaneously weaken even further the UMA. Separately, the governance of factor mobility in ECOWAS will come under serious pressure from both within and beyond the region.
The Kingdom of Morocco is known for its controversial foreign policies and diplomatic ties which are chiefly built around economic gains. It could be recalled that Morocco has been given the status of a major non-NATO ally by the US government for being the first country in the world to recognize US sovereignty (in 1777). Morocco is included in the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) that was designed to bring the EU and its neighbours closer.
Morocco is said to have strong ties with the West in order to gain economic and political benefits.That is why European countries like France and Spain remain the primary trade partners to Morocco. They also serve as her primary creditors and foreign investors. It is estimated that the European Union “invests approximately 73.5%” of the total foreign investments in Morocco, while the Arab world “invests only 19.3%”. Many countries from the Persian Gulf and Maghreb regions are getting more involved in large-scale development projects in Morocco. It is obviously very clear that ECOWAS has allowed a very serious matter with consequential effect comes to its table and the likes of Mr. Odinkalu and many others felt the future of the regional bloc will depend on how it navigates these contradictory pressures and options.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Abdulkareem Haroun Umar is a Nigerian journalist with over a decade’s experience in reporting the Boko Haram religious conflict that has engulfed the North-east region of Nigeria. He reports the politics of the black African nations; Climate Change and the attendant Humanitarian Crisis around Lake Chad Basin.