The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), now in its 41st year, has a formidable record, both in its efforts to enhance regional economic integration, its initial mandate, and to promote peace in a particularly turbulent region. Still, the organisation has demonstrated shortcomings requiring significant institutional change. Reform is essential to give the organisation new impetus, and is ever more urgent as insecurity worsens throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions – crisis zones extending beyond ECOWAS’s geographic area and where it has limited impact and influence.
Comprising fifteen states of great political, linguistic and economic diversity and spanning a vast geographic area from the Atlantic coast to the Sahara desert, ECOWAS has been the most sought-after African regional economic body in the field of peace and security in the past 25 years. The organisation, itself composed of fragile states, has been forced to put out fires within its own member states.
The ECOWAS region has experienced over forty coups since the independence era and seen some of its leaders trying to keep their grip on power at any cost, or establish political dynasties. The body has also been confronted with more complex crises in the form of identity-based armed rebellion, as in Côte d’Ivoire, or jihadist threats, most recently in Mali. Since the 1990s, through the authority of its Heads of State and Government, ECOWAS has reacted to these crises systematically. It has yielded incontestable political and diplomatic results, but its military record is more mixed.
ECOWAS’s interventions in Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso have highlighted the organisation’s strengths, but also its limits. It has neglected several of its key objectives, including strengthening the political and security institutions of member states, reassessing all dimensions of its Standby Force and enhancing regional cooperation on transnational security threats. Such threats pose a challenge to established crisis prevention or resolution mechanisms, and cannot be overcome by traditional mediation tactics and the deployment of military missions.
The organisation has developed a number of strategy documents and action plans in recent years to correct its shortcomings, but must implement them fully to address myriad threats. These include the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans; the proliferation of groups linked to transnational terrorist organisations; and the major regional challenges of poverty, unemployment and significant population growth. In addition, ECOWAS needs to undertake significant internal reorganisation, modernise its human resources management and develop a results-based culture. The new president of the ECOWAS Commission, Marcel Alain de Souza, should make it a priority as pledged in his inaugural speech on 8 April 2016. Nigeria, which through its economic and demographic dominance wields unmatched influence in West Africa, must also play a leading role in implementing these reforms.
This report, the third and final in a series analysing the regional dimension of insecurity in Africa and collective and individual state responses, presents ECOWAS’s current institutional apparatus in the field of peace and security, and analyses its responses and deficiencies through three case studies: Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso. It is part of a broader reflection on the changing nature of conflict and growing transnational threats, problems requiring novel solutions which regional bodies are well placed to find. This report considers what institutional reforms need to be undertaken to improve ECOWAS’s collective action in the face of formidable challenges to peace and security in West Africa.
To strengthen ECOWAS’s institutions in the field of peace and security
To ECOWAS’s Authority of Heads of State and Government:
1. Reaffirm the essential and irreversible nature of the implementation of the institutional reform proposed in 2013 that aimed to strengthen the organisation’s capacity in the field of peace, security, stability and social and economic development.
2. Create a working group tasked with monitoring the implementation of this reform process, including heads of state and government, or, alternatively, high-level political figures, representative of the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of ECOWAS.
To the president of Nigeria:
3. View the restoration of Nigerian diplomacy and its influence throughout Africa as a priority for the federal government, and make the revitalisation of ECOWAS a central pillar of this renewed diplomatic role.
4. Strengthen ECOWAS’s capacity by supplying additional financial resources to peacekeeping or peace-enforcing missions.
To the president of the ECOWAS Commission:
5. Take immediate action to improve the efficiency of departments, by addressing dysfunctions within human resources management, administration and finance, and blockages or delays in the implementation of decisions which result from the concentration of power within the commission presidency.
To improve ECOWAS’s efficiency in attaining its objectives for peace and security
To the ECOWAS Commission:
6. Accompany member states in the reform of their political practices to strengthen their legitimacy and effectiveness, specifically in the areas of good governance and in strengthening their judiciaries in line with ECOWAS protocols, specifically by establishing ECOWAS permanent representation offices in every member state.
7. Strengthen the capacity of member states to face collectively transnational threats by:
a) creating an ECOWAS centre for the fight against organised crime that would integrate different action plans against transnational criminal activity, including terrorism, drug, human and arms trafficking and maritime piracy;
b) strengthening communication between Abuja, the permanent representation offices and member states;
c) encouraging them to develop greater knowledge of political and security dynamics in neighbouring regions, specifically North and Central Africa, and ensuring regional collaboration occurs at political, technical and operational levels, and engages all actors, including the judicial system;
d) strengthening significantly ECOWAS’s expertise on other regional economic communities in Africa and throughout the world, and inviting other regional economic communities in Africa and the African Union (AU) to define a framework of coordination and collaboration on issues of terrorism, trafficking, maritime security, money laundering, infiltration and destabilisation of states by criminal networks.
8. Implement the recommendations of ECOWAS’s self-assessment conducted in 2013 following the Mali crisis, specifically those concerning operationalising the mediation facilitation division and re-examining all dimensions of the ECOWAS Standby Force (doctrine, operational procedures, logistical strategies and financing).
To West African civil society organisations:
9. Support publicly the recommendations contained in the institutional reform project proposed in 2013, and implement an ad hoc structure for West African civil society to independently monitor its implementation.
To AU member states and to the chairperson of the AU Commission:
10. Clarify the principles of subsidiarity, comparative advantage and responsibility sharing to quell tensions between the AU and ECOWAS during major crises in West Africa and its neighbours.
11. Continue to reflect on the doctrine, format and configuration of the African Standby Force with a view to better adapting the model to current threats and the future of peace and security on the continent, drawing lessons from challenges encountered by ECOWAS.
To ECOWAS’s international partners:
12. Support ECOWAS’s institutional reform without interfering in the process, and continue technical and financial assistance projects while ensuring they do not reduce incentives for reform.
The full report may be found here.