ECOWAS and Peacekeeping in the west African sub-region

By Ambassador Peter Layi Oyedele

The West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) was officially established in 1975.  This followed intense lobbying and persuading by General Yakubu Gowon, then Nigeria’s Head of State and President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo.  In August 1973, the two leaders traveled to twelve countries in West Africa with a view to eliciting support for the creation of a West African Economic Market.  In the treaty, which established ECOWAS, the organization was was intended to promote cooperation and integration within the West African Sub-region and eventually establish an economic and monetary union. Peacekeeping was not envisaged.

The Peacekeeping activities of the organization started after the Liberian Civil War erupted in the late 1980s, when Charles Taylor took up arms to unseat the then Liberian leader, Samuel Doe. When it appeared that Charles Taylor was going to overrun the Liberian capital, Monrovia, Nigeria under General Babangida rushed Nigerian Soldiers into the conflict ostensibly to save Samuel Doe from obvious defeat without consulting the ECOWAS.  Charles Taylor’s advance into Monrovia was blunted by the Nigerian troops and the rebel leader then had no choice but to retreat into the interior of the country. The reason for the Nigerian intervention was said to prevent such military adventure by Taylor being repeated in other parts of West Africa.

When Nigeria sent troops to Liberia, it was thought that the troops would be there to launch a quick surgical operation and withdraw immediately. The military leaders at the time seemed to have underestimated the capacity of Charles Taylor and his allies to mount a sustained guerilla war.

As the war dragged on, international attention was drawn to the high civilian toll, massacre and decapitation of the defenseless citizens by Charles Taylor’s forces.  It was at this stage that ECOWAS and the United Nations came in and the Nigerian Soldiers assumed the name ECOWAS MONITORING GROUP (ECOMOG).  Other countries like Ghana, Guinea and Senegal then joined the Nigerian Soldiers to confront the rebels but their participation   was at best lackluster.

ECOMOG’s initial role in Liberia was not one of peacekeeping but of peace enforcement as they were there to fight the Liberian rebels. As the Liberian crisis spilled over to Sierra-Leone, Nigerian troops and solders from Ghana and Britain were dragged in before the rebels were finally subdued with the help of British soldiers.  The name ECOMOG was also used for the ECOWAS troops that fought in Sierra-Leone.

In the last four or so years, the peacekeeping activities of ECOWAS have been put on the first burner of the activities of the Economic community following the developments in Mail, Cote D’lvoire and Guinea Bissau.  With the invasion of Mail and the imminent overthrow of the legitimate Malian Government by the Tuaregs and other armed elements linked to Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, ECOWAS was jolted into action and decided to raise troops from member countries to defend Mali because of the obvious threat the other countries of the sub-region would face if the armed Jihadists succeeded in overthrowing the Malian Government.

Discussions on the modalities for setting up an ECOWAS-led intervention Force became protracted and finally, the Economic Community, with the support of the African Union, took the case to the Security Council of the United Nations.

The logistics for ECOWAS intervention which included finances, supply of equipment and transportation of the soldiers from participating West African Countries were being discussed when the Islamist fighters moved down South closer to Bamako, the capital of Mali.

The Islamist fighters easily uprooted the Malian Soldiers on their way and were advancing further south when the French Army intervened. The intervention of French Soldiers succeeded in stopping the advance of the Jihadists.  The French finally chased them out of their strongholds in Goa and Timbuktu.

The ECOWAS force that was being assembled suddenly rose to action to support the French soldiers. Nigeria, Niger including Chad, which is not a member of ECOWAS, immediately sent troops to Mali.

The long delay in finalizing the deployment of ECOMOG troops to fight the Jihadists in Mali before the intervention of the French clearly exposes the weakness of ECOWAS and brought to light their inability to be in a position to respond quickly to serious crises in the sub-region. When we consider the military capacity and capability of most member states of ECOWAS, we may come to the conclusion, that the Community lacks the military personnel and equipment that an operation that will be required to flush the Islamists out of Mali would require.  Apart from Chad whose troops are well tested in fighting desert battles, only a very small number of ECOWAS Soldiers can be said to be battle ready to face the well trained and properly equipped Islamic fighters.

The failure of ECOWAS to mobilize troops to go to Mali promptly is again reflected in its reaction to the situation in Guinea Bissau. Guinea Bissau is a small country of 1.4 million inhabitants and one of the poorest in the sub-region.  If ECOWAS is unable to call to order the stubborn military junta ruling that country, it will be unthinkable that the community will have the economic and military muscle to drive out the Islamists from Northern Mali without external support.

I believe we need to say thank you to the French for their intervention in Mali even if they did so to safeguard their economic interest and not for the love of Malians.  The sad lesson, which this situation teaches, is that most of our countries in Africa are only politically independent.  A country like Mali which has been politically independent for over 50 years lacked the capacity to defend herself in the face of what initially started as a rebellion by the Tuaregs before other elements joined in. She had to depend on her former colonial master to rescue her from armed rebels within her territory. This is shameful, and a disgrace to the sub-region.

Mali is not alone in this disgraceful situation. Many of our so-called independent African countries are still tied to the apron strings of their erstwhile colonial bosses. The situation in Cote-D’lvoire readily comes to mind. France had to intervene to bring about some form of stability in Cote D’lvoire before President Alhassan Ouattara could take over the running of the country.

I therefore cannot fail to agree with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who poured scorn on the inability of Mali to defend herself after over half a century of independence and on ECOWAS for not being able to readily muster troops to defend a Member State.

When we try to compare ECOWAS’ role in peace keeping and peace enforcement in Liberia and Sierra-Leone with the current situation in Mali and Guinea Bissau, we need to consider two important points. One is that Nigeria unilaterally went into Liberia without seeking ECOWAS permission. The second aspect is that all the expenses including supply of military hardware and other logistical requirements were borne by Nigeria. It was later in the mid – 90s after the United Nations got involved that some international assistance started to flow in.

When some countries like Ghana, Guinea and Senegal started to come into Liberia, their participation in actual combat was half hearted. Senegal immediately withdrew her forces after suffering a few casualties.  It therefore could be argued that Nigeria played a predominant role in the peace making and enforcement in Liberia and Sierra-Leone.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that ECOWAS does not yet have the military muscle and the financial capacity to engage in peace-keeping activities in the sub-region which will involve some element of military enforcement.

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About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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