Morocco has long been considered part of Northwest Africa, and is a member state—together with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia—of the Arab Maghreb Union, formed in 1989 to promote economic and political integration in the Maghreb. But as the Arab Spring and Morocco’s strained relations with Algeria impeded this goal, Morocco began to look elsewhere.
After the 2008 recession, Morocco saw that its strategic and economic interests lay with the growth-driven subcontinent of West Africa. During the early 2010s, almost all the member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) showed a growth rate of about 10 percent. This, along with a slowdown in Morocco’s exports to Europe, compelled the country to look south for new economic opportunities. To this end, King Mohammed VI led a proactive diplomacy to expand commercial and trade deals with ECOWAS members. Moroccan banking, mining, pharmaceutical, telecommunications, and insurance companies followed suit.
“Moroccan business and economic ties soon began to inform Moroccan strategic thinking about the region.”
At the same time, France was withdrawing from the subregion because of the negative impact of the global economic crisis on its own economy. Morocco stepped in to buy stakes in major companies in West Africa, especially in Senegal, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire. Moroccan business and economic ties soon began to inform Moroccan strategic thinking about the region.
In short, this was the genesis of Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS, a group of fifteen countries that in 1975 established a regional economic community—modelled on the European Union—in order to promote free trade, freedom of movement, and closer cooperation between francophone and anglophone countries in West Africa. Today, ECOWAS is one of the most robust regional institutions in Africa.
The formal application to be upgraded from observer status to full membership of ECOWAS came only a month after Morocco rejoined the African Union (AU), after a 33-year absence, in January 2017. Morocco used the diplomatic momentum to push for deeper integration, not only on the continent but also in the subregion. Aside from boosting exports, it would give Morocco leverage in the Western Sahara conflict, which pits the Kingdom against the Polisario front and Algeria.
Mixed Reactions to Morocco’s ECOWAS Membership Bid
Morocco’s traditional francophone allies welcomed the country’s application to join ECOWAS as a full member, given Morocco’s relatively strong and diversified economy, and its friendly relations with many of the member countries. Countries from the Anglophone bloc (also called the Monrovia bloc), however, showed resistance to the idea. The reasons were varied and complex, from local opposition by manufacturers in Nigeria, to diplomats in Ghana who opposed Morocco’s membership bid on the premise that it was antithetical to the ideological foundation of the organization.
“Though the ECOWAS heads of state accepted Morocco’s bid ‘in principle’ at their summit in Monrovia, Liberia, in May 2017, the decision required final approval. Nigeria and others saw to it that this discussion never took place.”
Nigeria holds sway in the region. It has the largest economy in Africa, it contributes 40 percent of the bloc’s budget, and it is the largest contributor to the group’s peacekeeping and military operations. Though the ECOWAS heads of state accepted Morocco’s bid “in principle” at their summit in Monrovia, Liberia, in May 2017, the decision required final approval. Nigeria and others saw to it that this discussion never took place. Nigerian diplomats, the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria, and notable lawyers saw Morocco’s move as economically predatory. Industrialists in Nigeria reckoned that Moroccan goods, some of which are imported from Europe and the United States would flood the West African and Nigerian markets and compete unfairly against their local products, given Morocco’s free trade agreements with these two economic blocs. Some analysts even described Morocco’s bid as a European “Trojan horse” in West Africa. Some countries foresaw that Morocco’s membership would lead to a reduction in their revenue from customs tariffs, a significant portion of the income for some of the smaller economies in West Africa.
A Geopolitical Issue
Morocco’s bid was also considered a threat to Nigerian hegemony in West Africa. Morocco could join forces with the francophone countries (not incidentally known as the Casablanca bloc) to counter and challenge Nigeria’s prominence. As such, from a purely geopolitical perspective, Nigeria and other anglophone countries in the bloc saw Morocco’s move as an ostensible threat to their power within the bloc and specifically within the ECOWAS parliament.
Democracy vs. Monarchy
ECOWAS was established in May 1975 with the signing of a treaty by the heads of state and government of the then sixteen member states in Lagos, Nigeria. With new developments and mandates, a revised treaty was signed in Cotonou, Benin, in July 1993 by fifteen member states, after Mauritania withdrew its membership.
Morocco being a monarchy -- does not fit in with the group of largely democratic or republican states, as described in the Cotonou Treaty. Some protocols of good governance that allow ECOWAS to intervene in the internal affairs of a member state in case of bad governance—as was the case when ECOWAS demanded the resignation of Gambian president Yahia Jammeh—would not be applicable to Morocco. Members argued that Morocco would have been privileged in legal terms thanks to its special monarchy status, and that they would have needed to redefine bad governance.
The Way Forward
As of 2020, Morocco’s membership bid has not been presented in the last few agendas of the ECOWAS summit. There is a sense that Morocco’s application has been stalled, if not shelved. The fact that there has been no outright refusal takes the pressure off Morocco, which can always say that it has an approval “in principle” and blame the rest on bureaucracy. This is also an opportunity for the kingdom to use the time of indecision to activate lobbying and dialogue with the different economic and political actors in the subregion, and to build on its existing religious ties and accumulated soft power. The membership decision will probably take a long time, long enough for Morocco to save face. As things stand, integration will only happen when there’s enough horizontal integration through culture, education, political rapprochement, and trade based on key products. This is Morocco’s best bet.
Imru Al Qays Talha Jebril is a political analyst, activist, and social entrepreneur. His areas of interest are public policy, education, and geopolitics. Twitter: @ImruuK