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West Africa doesn’t need another counter-terrorism force

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Leaders from the Economic Community of West African States must look to the comparative advantages of existing initiatives.

By Lori-anne Théroux-bénoni

On 14 September, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold an extraordinary summit on terrorism in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The meeting aims to review existing counter-terrorism initiatives in the region and agree on priorities within a proposed emergency plan.

West Africa is experiencing a sharp rise in insecurity. The terror threat is expanding beyond the Sahel towards coastal countries, and there’s a surge in local conflicts threatening social cohesion in the Liptako-Gourma region. Crimes such as arms and drug trafficking, illegal mining and cattle rustling are increasing. Several countries also have elections coming up. The fragile security conditions in which polls will take place could exacerbate political competition and tensions, and deepen existing vulnerabilities.

ECOWAS needs to claim back some leadership in the regional fight against terrorism. It needs to bridge gaps through strategic coordination, identifying and sharing best practices, and guiding and creating synergies.

There has been a lot of counter-productive institutional rivalry among the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel in the region’s fight against terror. Much time has been wasted in competing for visibility, credibility and funding.

Fragile security conditions could exacerbate political competition and tensions around elections

The decisions taken at the 14 September summit could generate new institutional dynamics around cooperation and a much-needed change in the way efforts to prevent and counter terrorism are conceived and executed in West Africa.

ECOWAS members should use the organisation’s experience in peace operations and its regional stature to push the advantages of existing stabilisation initiatives by proposing a constructive and efficient coordination mechanism among them. They could also provide cohesive political leadership, including in dealing with external partners whose support often comes with constraints and agendas.

This week’s meeting will consider key proposals contained in the final report of ECOWAS’s 28-29 August meeting of defence staff chiefs, heads of security services and heads of intelligence services held in Niamey, Niger. These include the proposed ‘activa(tion) of the deployment of the ECOWAS Standby Force to contribute to the fight against terrorism.’

An additional force in the current security context would however create more competition for already limited finances and resources. It would also further strain defence and security forces in affected countries that are already stretched thin.

ECOWAS found a solution to the 2012 political and institutional crisis in Mali, but not the security crisis. The absence of a credible security option became obvious in 2013 when violent extremist groups started descending into central Mali. The interim government called on France for help.

ECOWAS needs to claim back some leadership in the regional fight against terrorism

This triggered the hasty deployment of African-led International Support Mission to Mali. Funding problems led to the July 2013 rehattingof African troops under the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. Since then, ECOWAS and the African Union have been relegated to supporting roles in managing Mali’s crisis.

Several sub-regional counter-terrorism initiatives have emerged since the terror threat started expanding in Lake Chad Basin and Sahel countries over recent years. This has resulted in ad hoc coalitions that often straddle existing regional economic communities in West, Central and North Africa.

One example is the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, deployed by Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin under the political leadership of the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Cameroon and Chad are members of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) while the other three are ECOWAS members. The Lake Chad Basin Commission has also adopted a regional strategyfor the stabilisation, recovery and resilience of the Boko Haram-affected countries of the Lake Chad Basin.

The G5 Sahel unites Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger (all from ECOWAS), Chad (ECCAS) and Mauritania (Arab Maghreb Union). The Nouakchott-based permanent secretariat of the G5 Sahel has adopted a Priority Investment Plan and an Emergency Development Programme that covers resilience, infrastructure, governance and security.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force launched in 2017 was mandated to fight terrorist and criminal groups as well as illegal migration in the G5 countries’ border areas, with an initial focus on the Liptako-Gourma region. Increasingly the force’s impact is being called into question. It hasn’t stabilised the area or won the support of the local population. It says this is due to financial constraints and equipment delivery delays.

An additional force would create more competition for already limited finances and resources

The last ad hoc sub-regional security arrangement is the Accra Initiative created in 2017. It comprises Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. Mali and Niger were given observer status in 2019. All its members are also members of ECOWAS, and three – Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – are members of the G5 Sahel. It facilitates the sharing of information among member country intelligence services and conducting joint operations.

ECOWAS’ marginalisation in preventing terror in West Africa isn’t due only to weaknesses in the management of Mali’s security crisis or the emergence or boosting of ad hoc institutional actors. A leadership crisis at commission level and within the region’s political leadership also plays a big part.

Now the region’s worsening security situation and the expanding threat provides an opportunity to improve cooperation among the various institutions. ECOWAS should strive to foster closer cooperation and form more creative partnerships among existing initiatives.

Enhancing collaboration within existing structures, providing special status to interested states who could provide extra capacity, and advocating for more attention to non-military/security initiatives might help improve security timeously.

Effectively countering and preventing terrorism requires a paradigm shift. Institute for Security Studies research shows that terror groups in West Africa and the Sahel feed off a multiplicity of localised state vulnerabilities linked to political, social, economic and security governance problems.

In designing a coordinated military and security plan, ECOWAS’ leaders must highlight two points. First, to avoid growing the ranks of violent extremists they should ensure that interventions respect human rights and don’t stigmatise specific communities. Second, they should ensure that such security responses are just one part of a larger strategy that includes prevention, development and socio-economic interventions in the short, medium and long terms.


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