Understanding Human Mobility in Africa / The Regional Economic Communities of African Union: ECOWAS

Regional Economic Communities (RECs)

The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are regional groupings of African states. The RECs have developed individually and have differing roles and structures. Generally, the purpose of the RECs is to facilitate regional economic integration between members of the individual regions and through the wider African Economic Community (AEC), which was established under the Abuja Treaty (1991). The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa and the Abuja Treaty proposed the creation of RECs as the basis for wider African integration, with a view to regional and eventual continental integration. The RECS are increasingly involved in coordinating AU Member States’ interests in wider areas such as peace and security, development and governance.

The RECs are closely integrated with the AU’s work and serve as its building blocks. The relationship between the AU and the RECs is mandated by the Abuja Treaty and the AU Constitutive Act, and guided by the: 2008 Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU; and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in the Area of Peace and Security between the AU, RECs and the Coordinating Mechanisms of the Regional Standby Brigades of Eastern and Northern Africa.

The AU recognises eight RECs, the:
• Arab Maghreb Union (UMA)
• Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)
• Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD)
• East African Community (EAC)
• Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)
• Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
• Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)2
• Southern African Development Community (SADC).

In addition, the Eastern Africa Standby Force Coordination Mechanism (EASFCOM) and North
African Regional Capability (NARC) both have liaison offices at the AU.

The Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU provides a coordination framework between the AEC and the RECs. This framework has the following two elements.

1. UMA is not a signatory to the Protocol on Relations between the RECs and the AU.
2. In October 2013, on the sidelines of an AU Extraordinary Summit, IGAD and EAC Foreign Ministers decided to explore the possibility of merging these two RECs.

Source: https://au.int/en/organs/recs

Download here the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (ENG,FRA,POR)



by Muluh Cletus, SIHMA Researcher

As a first step towards continental integration, the Regional Economic Communities (REC) established under the Abuja Treaty of 1991 and the Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa, created regional blocks to facilitate the regional economic integration of member states within the continent. Regional organisations are therefore, seen as an effective and efficient vehicle through which continental integration and free movement of people can be achieved. As an umbrella organisation, the African Union (AU) has a close working relationship with the REC as stipulated by the Abuja Treaty and the AU Constitutive Act and guided by the 2008 Protocol on relations between the REC and the AU and the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in the areas of peace and security between AU, REC and coordination mechanisms of the Regionals Standby Brigades of Eastern and Northern Africa. There are 8 RECs recognised by AU; Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel - Saharan States (CEN-SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)2, Southern African Development Community (SADC).


Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) comprises 15 member states Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The region has an estimated population of 349 million people. According to IOM, 2022, the West African region has a long history of intra-regional migration flows with 2 out of 3 living in another Western African country, and exhibits dynamic migratory patterns with 70% of migration linked to employment taking place within the region.

The region is a host to about 7.64 million migrants at mid-year 2021, representing almost 3 percent of the region's total population (Migration Data Portal, 2021). Migration within the region exhibits continuity with historical patterns with people moving from the hinterlands and the Sahel towards the coastal territories. Economic dynamics have informed migration patterns from the late 1980s within the region: migration towards Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for commercial crops and mines, migration towards Senegal for trading networks and agriculture, and migration towards Nigeria for oil and industries (UNHCR, 2017). 

In a move to consolidate regional economic integration between member states of the region, ECOWAS adopted a modus operandi legal framework that aimed at facilitating the free movement of people within the region, encouraging legal migration, combating human trafficking, harmonizing policies, providing protection to migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, and recognizing the gender dimension of migration.

Though with its challenges, ECOWAS is the only Regional Economic Community in Africa that has implemented the OAU Free Movement Protocol. Article 2(2d) and 27(1, 2) of the Treaty recognize the need to facilitate, and indeed encourage, international migration within the region (ECOWAS, nd). The adoption of the ECOWAS Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons within the Member States (1979) and the Protocol of Free Movement of persons; Right of Residence and Establishment (Article 59 of the ECOWAS Treaty) are indications of member states' determination to place the free intra-regional movement of persons at the heart of the regional integration process and a positive move in establishing a regional economic zone.

This has seen a growing number of West African migrants leaving their country in search of better opportunities within and outside the region. Under the current immigration framework, visitors from ECOWAS member states have the right to enter, reside, and establish themselves within member state countries without the need to obtain permission. In addition to the free movement of people, the regional organization acknowledged and support the positive contribution of migration in host and home countries. Member states drawing from history acknowledge that integrating migration into their policy framework will constitute an integral part of the development process - as it allows member states to manage migration well. Also, the regional organization seeks to enforce mechanisms aimed at combating human trafficking which includes strengthening the criminal law and legislation and law enforcement, strengthening labour law policies and practice, enforcing social protection, and providing advocacy and social mobilization.

The regional organization also seeks to foster inter-state cooperation and integration of programs through the harmonization of policies in the areas of food, agriculture and natural resources, industry, transport and communication, energy, trade, money and finance, taxation, economic reform policies, human resource, education, information, culture, science, technology, services, health, tourism, and legal matters.

Taking into recognition the mixed flow of migration within the region (displace persons, refugees, victims of trafficking, children, women, stateless persons and undocumented, environmental migrants, and sexual minorities), ECOWAS initiated programs such as developing the regional and country-specific legal framework, developing a general protective environment, high-level advocacy and sensitization for the implementation of existing protection frameworks, and adhering to the Global Compact on Refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) aimed at protecting the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

Taking into consideration the increasing numbers of female migrants within the region (constituting 46.7% of total migrants) and appreciating their vulnerabilities, ECOWAS through its Common Approach on Migration adopted in 2008 and the ECOWAS Gender and Migration Framework and Plan of Action adopted in 2015, put measures in place to facilitate and promote the gender dimension of migration. Some of these measures include data collection on gendered aspects of migration to sensitization of migrants and authorities and training of authorities, protection of migrants, prevention of irregular migration, anti-corruption measures, poverty elimination, the provision of grievance mechanisms, and monitoring and evaluation. 

 In addition to the abovementioned, ECOWAS amongst other things, also mediates in member state countries whenever there is a crisis that threatens the rule of law and democracy. For example, ECOWAS was part of the mediation team in resolving the 2011 presidential election dispute in Cote d’Ivoire. The regional organization is also involved in developmental projects that benefit its member states. For example, the organization seeks to attract investors in the construction of the Abidjan-Lagos corridor highway – a project that connects 5 ECOWAS member states – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria.


Migration Data Portal. 2021. Migration Data in Western Africa. Retrieved from: https://www.migrationdataportal.org/regional-data-overview/western-africa#:~:text=Western%20Africa%20hosted%207.64%20million,(UN%20DESA%2C%202020).

UNHCR. 2017. Mixed migration in West Africa: Data routes and vulnerabilities of people on the move. Retrieved from: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/59082.

UNHCR. 2008. ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/49e47c8f11.pdf.

ECOWAS. 2013. Fostering cooperation between national rapporteurs and equivalent mechanisms and cooperation with international and regional organisation: Consultative meeting on strengthening national rapporteurs on trafficking in person and equivalent mechanism. Retrieved from:  https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Trafficking/Consultation/2013/Presentation-ECOWAS.pptx#:~:text=ECOWAS%20Approach%20to%20Counter%20TIP&text=Development%20of%20linkages%20between%20Member,in%20persons%20and%20child%20protection.  

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. nd. ECOWAS – Harmonisation of sectoral policies. Retrieved from: https://archive.uneca.org/oria/pages/ecowas-harmonisation-sectoral-policies.

Reliefweb. 2019. Strengthening protection and the solution for refugees and asylum seekers in West Africa is critical to response in mix population flows, says ECOWAS and UNHCR. Retrieved from: https://reliefweb.int/report/world/strengthening-protection-and-solutions-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-west-africa-critical.

Bisong, a. 2019. Assessing gender inclusion in the migration policies of ECOWAS. Retrieved from: https://media.africaportal.org/documents/Bisong__Assessing_gender_inclusion_in_the_migration_policies_of_ECOWAS_.pdf.

ECOWAS. nd. ECOWAS gender and migration framework and plan for action 2015-2020. Retrieved from: https://ccdg.ecowas.int/wp-content/uploads/Plan-of-Action_Gender-and-Migration.pdf.


Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Downloadable PDF resources