The Mano River Union (MRU) is a regional community in West Africa. It was founded by Liberia and Sierra Leone in October 1973 to expand productive capacity and trade and named after the river that originates in the Guinean highlands and forms the border between the two founding countries. In 1980, Guinea joined the MRU and in 2008 Côte d’Ivoire became the fourth member of the Organization.
The four MRU countries share many characteristics: they feature a common tribal makeup, common dialects, and common traditions. All MRU countries, except Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, have long land borders with each other. Often family ties extend across into neighboring countries, and people traverse the borders easily and frequently. Informal trade in border regions is buoyant.
Unfortunately, the countries also share a history of violent conflict. Following two decades of civil war with rebel fighters often moving in from neighboring countries, all four MRU members are still in fragile situations. They either recently received an international peace-keeping (Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia) or peace-building mission (Sierra Leone), or face profound governance challenges.
The violent conflicts within the region fundamentally disrupted the economic integration efforts of the MRU. Funding dried up, activities and projects stalled, and Secretariat staff abandoned their positions. During the period of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian civil wars, the MRU lingered on in a subdued manner and without any significant impact. In 2004, it was formally reactivated at a Summit of the Heads of State, and in 2008 it restarted operations after member states provided the Organization with a financial budget.
The four member countries of the MRU represent a sizeable economic space in West Africa. In 2011. they had a combined population of about 40.5 million people, covered a total area of more than 750,000 square kilometers, and had an aggregate GDP of about USD 33 billion. Taken together the four members of the MRU were roughly of similar size as Tanzania in East Africa.
The MRU's membership is diverse. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are least-developed countries, while Côte d’Ivoire has a substantially higher average per capita income and generally better socio-economic indicators. It is also larger than its peers in terms of population and surface area. Indeed, the accession of Côte d’Ivoire in 2008 increased the size of the MRU markedly, doubling the grouping’s population and almost quadrupling its GDP.
All members of the MRU are also constituents of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and all, except Liberia, are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Every MRU country currently uses a different currency, even though all are members of monetary integration zones. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone belong to the West African Monetary Zone (WAMZ), which is supposed to introduce the ECO as its currency in the future. Côte d’Ivoire is a member of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) that operates the Franc-CFA.
All four MRU countries are rich in natural resources and their exports are dominated by commodities. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa (about 30 percent of global production), and also exports significant amount of crude oil (about a third of total export value). Guinea holds the largest reserves of bauxite in the world and is a leading exporter of the mineral, but also ships substantial quantities of iron ore, gold, diamonds, oil and coffee abroad. Liberia’s main export is rubber (two-thirds of total exports), followed by diamonds, gold and iron ore. Sierra Leone is predominantly exporting diamonds (about 60 percent of total exports) and cocoa.
The MRU was founded on 3 October 1973 when President William R. Tolbert of Liberia and President Siaka P. Stevens of Sierra Leone signed the Mano River Declaration in Malema Town, Sierra Leone. Guinea joined the Union on 25 October 1980, and Côte d’Ivoire, which had been attending MRU meetings as an observer since 2004, formally acceded on 15 May 2008. The Union has two principal aims:
The Declaration was complemented by a number of Protocols, some of which were revised over time and additional ones were agreed upon, bringing their total number to sixteen today. These Protocols govern the institutional setup and operation of the Organization. In the context of past and current activities of the MRU, the 11th and 15th Protocols that concern, respectively, trade integration and security issues are of particular relevance.
The operational activities of the MRU are guided and undertaken through Committees at different levels of seniority, and supported by a Secretariat. The responsibility for the funding of the MRU's activities is shared equally among Member States.
During the years following its foundation, the MRU pushed ahead with integration efforts in several of the priority areas identified in the Mano River Declaration and its Protocols. In particular, a common external tariff was formally adopted by Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1977, and harmonization was achieved in about 95 percent of tariff lines. Moreover, intra-regional trade in local goods was liberalized in 1981. Under this preferential policy, companies that met the value-added and ownership requirements for local production, as well as certified Union Industries, of which there were two (the now defunct Mabole Fruit Company of Sierra Leone and the Monrovia Glass Factory, which was destroyed during the civil war), could trade their products within the region duty-free.
Regional infrastructure development was another area of focus. The Mano River Bridge was constructed under the auspices of the MRU to provide the first – and up until today the only – land border crossing between Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was opened in February 1976, closed during the civil war to impede the movement of rebel fighters, and re-opened again in June 2007. Construction also started on the Conakry-Freetown Road, a sea ferry service was assessed, and a project to set-up a regional airline (“Air Mano”) was developed to the final pre-launch stage, before the civil war brought the efforts to a halt.
The MRU also pursued a range of sectoral development initiatives. In agriculture, it promoted the use of small mills to help farmers expand the production and processing of palm oil; in industry, it played a critical role in establishing the Monrovia Glass Factory as a producer of bottles and jars for member states; and in the energy sector, it conducted several studies to enhance power supply in the region.
Last but not least, the MRU used to operate four technical training centers to strengthen the capacity of public servants in the areas of Customs and Excise, Posts and Telecommunications, Forestry, and Maritime. In addition, it provided students with scholarships to pursue university studies in another member state.
The violent conflicts in the region fundamentally disrupted the ongoing cooperation among members and destroyed most of what had been achieved. They also highlighted the importance of security, trust and good governance for economic development and regional integration. Peace and security became the center of member countries’ attention, and the activity focus of the MRU was broadened accordingly. Several initiatives to foster information exchange, enhance mutual understanding, and reduce tensions were launched under the umbrella of the MRU, such as the creation of the Mano River Center for Peace and Development in 1995. In 2000, member countries agreed upon an additional Protocol to the Mano River Declaration, devoted to Peace and Security. In 2012, this Protocol was further broadened to cover security-related aspects of food security, natural resource management, youth unemployment, and gender.
The decision by Heads of State and Government to revitalize the MRU commits the organization to an agenda that reflects the still fragile security situation in the region and extends its mandate to cover political, institutional, and social aspects of development and regional integration. In particular, in May 2008, Heads of States and Government at a Summit Meeting in Monrovia, and subsequently in December 2008 at a Mini-Summit in Freetown identified four focus areas for the MRU’s activities:
The pillar on Peace and Security is the one where the revitalized MRU has been most active to date. In accordance with the 15th Protocol on Peace and Security, the MRU has established several Joint Border Security and Confidence Building Units that consist of security personnel and civil society representatives (e.g. traditional leaders, women or youth representatives, forest guards, district officials) at particular border locations. The Units provide a platform to exchange information among officials and citizens from both sides of the border and to resolve issues of concern locally and quickly. They meet about once every month. The Unit meetings also represent a means to bring border area concerns to the attention of political leaders in capitals through reports that are transmitted to senior policy makers.
Following the revision of the 15th Protocol in 2012, the pillar on peace and security now also covers activities in the areas of food security, natural resource management, youth unemployment, and gender. Concerning food security, the MRU is currently involved in an FAO project to establish a food security hub in the MRU Secretariat that - in cooperation with national authorities - is gathering information on the food supply and demand situation as well as food prices in different regions within MRU countries. The objective is to identify food shortages and food price spikes early enough, so that policy action can be taken to address the imbalance between demand and supply.