When Neighbors Marry

When Neighbors Marry

By: Gerald Dan Yeakula

 It is well established that marriage is a union between spouses.  It establishes rights and obligations between them, between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws.Liberia’s Domestic Relation Law provides in Subsection 2.1 that “Marriage is a civil status, a personal relationship arising out of a civil contract between a male and female to mutually assume marital rights, duties and obligations…”exceptingParties whose domestic relations are subject to and governed by customary laws and traditions. For our purpose, I will focus on rights and obligations established. Rather than expounding on the legal or traditional concepts of marriage, I will endeavor to build on it as a way of satisfying intellectual curiosity. It is hoped that this piece will analogize marriage to theintegration of countries in the sub-region, while showing how such agreements inure to their benefit as well as the demerits that come along.

It was the last week in November 2016 when the nation’s lawyers, including esteemed jurists, descended on Ganta—a city beaming with hope, treading the path of economic prosperity, improving its skyline with towering buildings, and standing out as a shining example to cities languishing in underdevelopment. Lawyers had gathered for the annual convention of the Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA). But this time it was not all Liberian; Lawyers had come from near and far.The African, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire Bar Associations were represented and it is appropriate to mention, however, that the LNBA’s overtures were in furtherance of efforts at integrationbegunby notable statesmen years ago. Our forbearers worked to consolidate unity in a continent divided along colonial lines. They envisioned an Africa that fosters cooperation, intra trade, and, of course, a continentat peace with itself. President William V.S. Tubman sponsored the Sanniquellie conference of 1959, which brought together African Heads of States to further the questions of African liberation, cooperation, and unity. Four years later, the erstwhile Organization of African Unity was formed with a purpose to coordinate and strengthen cooperation between member states to improve the lives of their people. Attempts at sub-regional integration were also made, with series of discussions held between Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was President Tubman who wrote to Prime Minister Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone in 1971 proposing economic cooperation and development between the two countries.

Dr. Stevens accepted and, after further discussions, it was agreed that, apart from trade, there were other areas of economic cooperation which included: land, sea, air and river transportation; hydro-electric schemes; agricultural development schemes; use of training facilities in each country; telecommunications project; and health programs. And based upon a mission report recommending the establishment of a customs union between the two states and policies for cooperation in agriculture and industry, Dr. Stevens and President Tolbert signed the Mano River Declaration at Malema on 3 October 1973. This event marked the formation of the Mano River Union that would later welcome the accession of Guinea and Ivory Coast. The history of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also cannot be written without mentioning the pivotal role of Liberia in its formation. Notably, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is also the current Chairperson of that august body. It was of, of course, no surprise thatthe LNBA extended invitations to sub-regional lawyers in the spirit of togetherness.

His Honor Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., Chief Justice of the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia, delivered the keynote address at the Bar Convention on the theme: Enhancing Economic Integration, The Rule of Law and Democratic Governance in West Africa.He argued, inter alia, that no one country could technically forge ahead independently of others; that the rule of law is crucial to integration, and that free trade affords an ‘economic win-win’ for participating countries.  His Honor, the Chief Justice, has certainly struck a valid point that may require further consideration in the realm of academia. Fortunately, this particular opinion of his is not clothed with the character of those hallowed or sacrosanct opinions delivered at the rap of his gavel—a critique of which may be deemed contemptuous. I will now agree with the Chief Justice that a ‘marriage of countries’ is beneficial to the parties. History serves to sustain my first argument that we, in the Mano River basin, are the same people.

Prior to contemporary history, the whole region around the Mano region belonged to one people and that indeed, according to Professor Abraham, this region still has the same people ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. We can see from evidence that there are ethnic groups that form the intersection between Liberia and these countries. In Sierra Leone, the Vai, Kissi, Kru and Mandingo ethnic groups are substantially present.The Mandingo, Gbandi, Kissi, and Lorma peoples are in Guinea, and in Ivory Coast we find the Gio, Krahn and Mandingo.The history of balkanization in Africa did not take into account these ethnographic complexes. Instead, it was at the convenience of peoples outside the continent of Africa that boundaries were drawn (MRU History, 2015).In spite of the boundaries, relationships have continued between the peoples on either side of the boundary and, to this day, they share common languages.President Stevens once declared, “Since the founding of our respective countriesour people have developed informal friendly ties in practically every field of human endeavor. The long-felt desire of our people to establish closer links in trade and in cultural and economic cooperation became a reality when my dear brother and colleague, President William Tolbert, Jr. and I signed the Mano River Declaration”. Even today, better ways of improving interactions between countries in the sub-region are being sought. But before going any further, I will proceed to define the term “regional economic integration” for clarification and understanding.

According to Hill, regional economic integration refers to agreements among countries in a geographic region to reduce, and ultimately remove tariff and non-tariff barriers to the free flow of goods, services, and factors of production between each other (Hill, 2009). Africa’s current integration landscape includes eight regional communities recognized as the building blocks of the African Union: Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), Community of Sahel-Saharan States(CEN-SAD), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Regional integration is seen as a key strategy for development and intra-regional trade that is expected to produce huge economic gains for Africa such as creation of jobs, economic diversification, as well as reduction of poverty and inequality (Aderibigbe, 2015).At the founding of ECOWAS in 1975, governments were interested inremoving intraregional trade barriers, reflecting the conventional view that open markets attract foreign investment and encourage development (Alter, Helfer, & McAllister, 2013),but realities became different after the bloc was established. Bodies created by ECOWASadopted initiatives that, on paper, committed governments to phase out quantitative and other restrictions on intraregional trade, create a customs union, establish a common commercial policy, and permit the free movement of goods and persons. In reality, however, the legal framework required to carry out these policies was lacking (Jebuni,1998). The institutions created by the 1975 Treaty, unlike those of the European Community, left national sovereignty intact. They had no legal force for member states, which had merely agreed to “make every effort to plan and direct their policies with a view to creating favorable conditions for the achievement of” the Community’s aims (ECOWAS Treaty, Art. 3). There are also other factors to which the slow pace of regional economic integration is attributable. To name a few, regional infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped, which makes intraregional trade costly; Francophone countries are deeply linked to France’s economic and political system, whereas Nigeria and Ghana—the two largest Anglophone economies— have different capabilities and economic goals (Okolo, 1990); the key trading partnersforWest African countries are outside of the region, and the little intraregional trade that occurs involves natural resources, agricultural products, and low-value-added consumption products such as rubber, plastics, and cosmetics (Burfisher&Missiaen).

Amid the odds, there are positive signs that economic integration is gaining the necessary steam to make impact in the West African region.The Abidjan-Lagos Highway Project under the regional infrastructure development program will soon be completed; the adoption of a single biometric identity card to facilitate mobility and promote security has boosted free movement of goods and persons, and the region is expected to have a single currency by 2020.  The West Africa Power Pool (WAPP) aims to ensure the Integration of national power system operations into a unified regional electricity market, thereby improving cross-border and reliable flows of electricity in ECOWAS member states. Liberia along with thirteen other member states currently benefit from this project, which is a progeny of the West African marriage.

There are also other advantages in addition to the benefits of economic cooperation. For example, ECOWAS originally created in 1975 to focus on economic integrationhas turned to peacekeeping in violent conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, etc. (Reuters, 2014). It has labored to bring about greater entrenchment of democratic culture, enhanced efficiency in dealing with conflicts, crisis prevention and resolution as witnessed in the restoration of stability in member states caught in conflict over the years. The Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance compels best practices in respect of presidential terms of office as well as the zero tolerance for unconstitutional seizure of power, and the electoral assistance mechanism helped in ensuring free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria, Togo, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso in 2015 (ECOWAS, 2015). The Community Court of Justice has jurisdiction to determine cases of violation of human rights that occur in any Member State, an opportunity afforded to victims of human rights abuses. We will later discuss the circumstances around how this international tribunal, initially established to help build a common market, was redeployed as a human rights court.

The Mano River Union (MRU) is also pursuing greater paths of cooperation. Under attack by the devastating Ebola Virus Disease, MRU Heads of States issued a joint declaration outlining concrete measures to eradicate the disease;there is an existing Mano River Union Youth Parliament serving as a link between activities of youths from MRU countries; Defense Ministers of MRU countries also have a common collaboration where they share security information to avert any possible threat to the region (FPA, 2016);members of the Liberian House of Representativeshave already voted unanimously to establish the MRU parliament and discussions with parliamentarians from the other countries are ongoing to form a regional legislative bloc that will work together on regional matters that require legislative enactment. It is also expected that MRU countries will work to protect and preserve the fauna and flora of the Upper Guinea Forest, the third largest natural forest landscape in the world, andapproaches and strategies for developing mineral resource corridors using common infrastructure, power sources and management, are being explored in order to create opportunities for balanced growth and development.

Are there any ramifications of regional integration? Is ECOWAS facing any pushback from member states? If so, why is a collaborative effort facing resistance from its own creators? These questions deserve attention. To begin with, integration is not without disadvantages. One disadvantage associated with regional integration is the fact that once new regional laws come into effect, member countries tend to lose their sovereignty in certain matters. The new laws may behoove all countries to consult and build a consensus before doing certain things, and this can be regarded as a loss of sovereignty. Those laws may even tend to undermine the relevance of national institutions. On the other hand, institutions created by the regional body may have no legal force for member states if member states resist, thus rendering integration efforts futile. We will now consider ECOWAS’ Community Court of Justice for a case study. The court was created because governmentswanted a court to resolve disputes relating to key ECOWAS instruments and programs, including the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment, the Trade Liberalisation Scheme, the Agricultural Cooperation Programme, and the Protocol on Community Enterprises (CONTACT MAG., 1990). The renewed governmental support for a court in the early 1990s reflected a growing sense that deeper regional integration required a judicial body to resolve disputes and interpret legal rules (Akinrinsola, Pg. 507). Upon creation, nevertheless, the court’s docket remained empty due to want of lawsuits. The court dismissed its first case—a suit by a private trader challenging a border closure—on grounds that only ECOWAS member states could authorize the Court to review complaints from private actors and that the Court did not have human rights jurisdiction. The case served as the catalyst for a campaign that resulted in the 2005 Protocol that gives the Court broad human rights jurisdiction.

Conflating the economic goals of ECOWAS with its human rights objectives contributed to the ironic result that an international court established to promote regional integration now adjudicates cases involving high-profile human rights violations while remaining largely unavailable to traders and other economic actors in the region(Alter, Helfer, & McAllister, 2013).The Court has strikingly capacious jurisdiction and access rules,no specified catalogue of human rights, direct access for private litigants, and with no requirement to exhaust domestic remedies (ibid). Nevertheless, it faces an ongoing challenge of securing compliance with its judgments, a challenge that the judges are attempting to meet by tailoring the remedies that they award to successful applicants and by publicly pressuring governments to implement the Court’s rulings.Ithas also survived several political controversies and challenges, which speak to the sovereignty and enforcement issue raised earlier. The first challenge stemmed from the Court’s intervention in a contested Nigerian election—which triggered protests from Nigerian politicians, judges, and lawyers. When the court ordered the Gambia to release a journalist from “unlawful detention without any further delay,” and pay him U.S.$100,000 in damages, and bear the costs of the litigation, the Gambia ignored the judgment. And following the Court’s ruling ordering the Government of Liberia to return the amount of US$508,200.00 to Nigerian Businessman Valentine Ayika, the full bench of the Supreme Court of Liberia said the judgment by the ECOWAS Court is not binding on the Republic of Liberia (New Republic, 2013).West African governments have repeatedly asserted that individuals must exhaust domestic remedies before petitioning the Court in Abuja, but the judges have unwaveringly rebuffed these arguments, reasoning that the lack of an exhaustion rule is neither an inadvertent omission nor a flaw in the Court’s human rights mandate, but a deliberately chosen element of its judicial architecture (Alter, Helfer, & McAllister, 2013). As shown by the foregoing discussion, sovereignty and enforcement are critical to integration and, if not properly addressed, may foil attempts at progress.

Another demerit of regional economic integration is that it encourages a shift in workforce. If, for example, a particular region offers lucrative opportunities, most professionals are bound to move from their native countries to the country with better opportunities.When the 1975 ECOWAS Treaty was ratified, Nigeria accounted for nearly 70 percent of the region’s total GDP (Okolo, Pg. 42) and ECOWAS helped Nigeria to consolidate its status as regional hegemon by indicating to neighboring countries that they would benefit from Nigeria’s oil wealth and from access to its large and lucrative market. For example, the Community’s goal of promoting the free movement of workers could enable desperately poor West Africans to move to a country where jobs and resources were more plentiful. But in1983, Nigeria expelled hundreds of thousands of “illegal” workers from other member states and was widely viewed as flouting the spirit, if not the letter, of ECOWAS free-movement rules (Ibid). The point to glean from this account is that free-movement, resulting from integration, led to the migration of citizens from other West African countries in search of greener pasture—a phenomenon whichmay create new challenges to the native country as it tries to compete with the others. Consider for a moment a discussion at the LNBA Convention regardingthe practice of law in the sub-region. Most countries, Liberia included, bar foreigners from practicing law in their jurisdictions.The Convention deliberated this issue and the ‘open-door’ idea now seems palatable in the light of integration. The Sierra Leone experience is worth considering.Prior to 2002, Sierra Leone was receptive and allowed lawyers from common law legal systems to practice but became skeptical when other countries failed to reciprocate. This led to the tightening of the professional space so that only professionals from countries with a proven record of reciprocity are granted patent. In other words if your country allows Sierra Leonean lawyers to practice, similar privileges will be accorded you; the reverse holds true. If Liberia strikes down the controlling law, in the name of integration, it must then be prepared to accept the attending challenges that encompass theinflowof non-Liberian professionals to benefit from legal practice in Liberia as well as the outflow of our limited experts to seek greener pastures. Liberianization might once more be on the line as we imagine ways to foster mutual cooperation.

Finally, regional integration, like any political or economic undertaking, has its merits and demerits, and it is imperative that countries intending to or already ‘married’ discern the underlining features specific to their context in order to gain optimum benefit. Liberia including other national organizations like the LNBA will similarly need to proceed cautiously when contemplating ways to integrate.



Gerald Dan Yeakula is a Liberian writer, researcher, and an LPAC Scholar at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law. His key interestsrelate to education, natural resource governance, and the rule of law.



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