Free movement of West African citizens is a right that other African regions have started to recognize has an integral part of transforming the African continent. Moreover, with a common tariff system, 200 million citizens from Dakar, Senegal to Maiduguri, Nigeria benefit from a custom union, which is an important step towards establishing a common market. Transportation within the region remains a challenge that might create the perception that we are not yet a community where goods and services produced within national borders are made available to all people beyond those borders.

As we think about our role as African citizens in ECOWAS, we must remember that West African leaders under the leadership of Nigeria, planted seeds of transformation at a time when the Biafra war threatened the unity of young nations. Nigerian leaders had a vision to become the industrial heart of Africa. As such, economic integration lay at the heart of the creation of the common project. Olatunde Ojo has demonstrated that the prevailing consensus that led to the creation of ECOWAS was that economic integration must precede political union and that economic integration itself must begin at the sub-regional level and proceed in stages beginning with functional cooperation and coordination and leading towards, perhaps, a common market.

On 28 May 1975, 15 states signed the Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States making Nigeria the cornerstone of West African integration. More than forty years later, there is progress, not at the pace that citizens would have liked, but we have an opportunity to become more invested in the transnational community progress.

Regional trade within ECOWAS stands at 15 per cent. A dismal outcome for 200 million citizens that need to contribute to a regional value chain with links to other parts of the African continent. We have reasons to hope based on ongoing negotiations of the Continental Free Trade Agreement designed to bring 54 African countries under a single market for goods and services. Soon, more than 1 billion Africans with a combined GDP of US$ 3.4 trillion will capture the benefits of a single market such as free movement of business persons and investments. Under this arrangement, Africans will expect to see value chains for cotton and cocoa. This will create jobs by increasing the 5 per cent of cotton and 30 per cent of cocoa currently processed within ECOWAS for African and beyond.

The underlying value in agriculture will be immense as only 20 per cent of the fertile agricultural land is currently in use. It is the responsibility of citizens to educate themselves about the opportunities that we can create for 66 per cent of West Africans under the age of 25. We have to capture the demographic dividend by having a growth rate higher than the current population growth of 3.5 per cent. West Africa must roar at 7 per cent minimum continuously to turn youth apathy into the engine of growth that would direct more youth into productive activities.

How might we, as citizens, play a greater role in our integration challenge?

We have a responsibility to understand our history and how a vision for integration and industrialization prevailed in the midst of political and military transitions. Accepting that some mistakes were made is a great step forward as one searches history for patterns that need not be repeated.

Our second responsibility is to shed the artificial francophone, lusophone, and anglophone divides to embrace the ideals enshrined in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (now African Union), ECOWAS and the other regional economic commissions to build bridges between communities so that political decisions in capitals reach the most remote parts of the continent. Urban life and activism need to meet with rural life and fresh produce activism.

Our third responsibility is to preserve our health so that less resources are devoted to fight illnesses that have been eradicated in other parts of the world. For those that can be eliminated, like Neglected Tropical Diseases, we have a responsibility to contribute in our communities to end them for good.

I believe in the possibilities that citizens coming together can achieve even when decisions made in capitals seem remote. It is our responsibility to seek clarification, and support the inter-generational project of building a union.

Carl Manlan is the Chief Operation Officer for Ecobank Foundation, an economist, a 2014 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Fellow and 2016 ASPEN New Voices Fellow. He writes this editorial for WACSI in a personal capacity. 

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