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ECOWAS and the Niger coup: assessing regional peacekeeping resilience

How does ECOWAS fare as a security organisation despite its core goal being economic, can the current Nigerien crisis be because of the regional bloc

As the Nigérien crisis unfolds, the spotlight is firmly fixed on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Established in 1975 as a regional economic community (REC), ECOWAS was conceived as a pivotal force for regional integration.

This was to be achieved by facilitating trade, promoting the free movement of people, and encouraging economic co-operation. Yet, as political turbulence gripped the region, ECOWAS felt compelled to broaden its mandate to encompass security and conflict management.

From the Nigérien junta declaring a three-year power transition to ECOWAS’s threat to intervene militarily, the turmoil exposes the inherent challenges that ECOWAS faces as it endeavours to fulfil the role of peacekeeper effectively. 

What is happening in Niger?

In recent weeks, Niger, the largest country in West Africa and a key partner in the fight against Islamist insurgents, has plunged into a political crisis with far-reaching consequences.

The third coup in three years has led to the removal of the country’s democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum, causing a ripple effect across the region and drawing global attention.

Niger’s profile as a relatively stable democracy turned dramatically on 26 July when members of the Presidential Guard detained President Bazoum, citing the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel region. This move followed a series of coups across neighbouring countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, underlining the broader challenge of governance and security in ECOWAS.

The international response has been swift and strong. France, the former colonial power, denounced the coup and suspended financial aid. The United States, which has military bases in Niger and considers the country a counterterrorism partner, suspended aid and security co-operation while expressing concerns about the rise of Russia’s influence in the region through entities such as the Wagner Group.

ECOWAS has taken a firm stance against the coup. So far Nigeria has interrupted power supply electricity transmission through the 80-megawatt Birnin-Kebbi line to Niger, causing disruption to power supply. In addition, Côte d’Ivoire has halted the movement of goods to and from Niger, affecting trade. The Ivorians have also threatened military intervention if constitutional order is not restored. This places pressure on Niger’s junta and reflects the growing concern among regional actors about the destabilising effects of constant political upheaval.

The global implications of Niger’s turmoil are significant. The coup could contribute to a power vacuum that extremist groups will be quick to exploit. Moreover, the wavering commitment of Western nations to democracy and stability could weaken their influence in the region and provide opportunities for non-democratic actors to gain a foothold.

ECOWAS should and is expected to play a crucial role in the Nigérien crisis not only because of the geographical proximity of its other members but because of the regional dangers it poses. Another factor in favour of ECOWAS fellow member states’ involvement is their experience in peacekeeping.

The journey and the wider horizon

Opinions diverge on why ECOWAS assumed a peacekeeping role despite its original focus solely on “promoting co-operation and development in all fields of economic activity”. Many scholars attribute this expansion to the region’s high political instability, which prompted ECOWAS to include peacekeeping in its mandate.

Some also connect the development to Nigeria’s hegemonic position within the organisation. Others posit that colonialism’s legacy played a pivotal role in shaping ECOWAS’s involvement in peacekeeping. The decolonization process should have allowed the newly independent African countries to rule by their own terms however, the political systems imposed without regard for African perspectives by colonial masters led to weak governance, hindering progress. 

Moreover, lingering Western dominance after colonialism, exacerbated by the Cold War, entangled African states in the global power struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States.

This contributed to conflicts, hampering political and economic growth, and creating a breeding ground for coups d’état and civil wars. However, this fragility also provided an opportunity for African nations to devise their own approach to conflict resolution. Thus, peacekeeping emerged as a viable option, leading to a surge in peacekeeping initiatives by African regional bodies, a trend embraced by ECOWAS.

Shifting focus, the initiation of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) intervention in Liberia – the inaugural peacekeeping mission for ECOWAS – can be attributed to the Nigerian former military president General Ibrahim Babangida. As the political scientist Cyril Obi suggests, Babangida’s close ties to Liberia’s ousted leader Samuel Doe, coupled with his desire to showcase Nigeria’s military prowess, propelled the ECOWAS intervention in 1990. Given the regional body’s lack of institutional provision for peacekeeping at the time, the intervention during the Liberian Civil War relied on ad hoc measures. This episode holds significant historical importance, marking the first strides towards African-led peace efforts.

A highly engaged organisation in peacekeeping

Resource mobilisation has stood as a cornerstone of ECOWAS’s engagement in peacekeeping. The deployment of troops to seven member states – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Gambia – underscores ECOWAS’s dedication to resolving interstate conflicts. According to Reuters, over 23,200 soldiers have been deployed by ECOWAS for peacekeeping missions, including collaboration in UN-led operations.

However, the ECOWAS involvement goes beyond troop deployments; equally, it demonstrates robust engagement in peacebuilding, employing a multi-dimensional approach. This approach involves sustained investment in conflict zones, aiming to cultivate enduring peace and prevent future conflicts. Over time, ECOWAS has undergone significant institutional advancements, supported by legally binding frameworks. These include the Revised ECOWAS Treaty (1993), the 1999 Protocol Relating to Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, and the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.

Of notable importance is the 2008 ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework, which has played a pivotal role in consolidating ECOWAS’s peacebuilding mandate. These legal instruments have facilitated the establishment of permanent structures such as the Mediation and Security Council. The Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security serves as a repository of conflict knowledge, contributing to well-informed decision-making.

This department has played a crucial role in shaping the ECOWAS Peace and Security Architecture (PSA), modelled after the African Union’s PSA. The framework streamlines the planning, execution, and overall effectiveness of ECOWAS’s peacekeeping endeavours.

A vital component within the ECOWAS PSA is ECOWARN – an early warning system, comprising an observation and monitoring network, situated at the heart of the ECOWAS Commission. In addition, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC), established in 1998 and commissioned in 2004, exemplifies a long-term commitment to peacebuilding efforts.

Furthermore, the partnership agreement between ECOWAS and the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) accentuates a concerted endeavour to enhance conflict prevention capacity within civil society organisations (CSOs) and in the broader West African region.

The Peace and Security Architecture, orchestrated by the ECOWAS Commission, is a testament to the organisation’s commitment. This architecture encompasses various directorates, councils and forces that ensure co-ordinated and effective peacekeeping operations. A pivotal decision-making body within this framework is the Mediation and Security Council, which authorises interventions, monitors conflicts and collaborates with international partners.

The frequency of press releases, communiqués and summit sessions related to peacekeeping signals the active engagement of ECOWAS. According to the organisation’s official website and reports, most of its press releases, final communiqués and summit sessions revolve around maintaining peace and security.

Despite its evident high engagement in peacekeeping, challenges related to structural deficiencies and co-ordination issues within ECOWAS have impeded its overall progress. The organisation continues to take these hurdles as it strives to cement its role as a pivotal player in regional peace and security.

Complex tapestry of challenges

Nevertheless, ECOWAS’s dual identity as both a security-focused body and an economic community is fraught with internal challenges. To begin with, it is made up of 15 diverse countries that differ in size and, more crucially, have very different economies. The economic disparities among member states – 11 of which come under the UN’s classification of least developed countries – pose formidable obstacles to intra-regional trade and co-operation.

These economic imbalances are compounded by a lack of political will among certain member states, as well as linguistic and cultural divisions between anglophone and francophone nations. The intricate web of overlapping memberships between ECOWAS and six other African regional organisations, including the African Union and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), the Community of Sahel Saharan States (CEN-SAD), Conseil de l’Entente, Mano River Union and G5 Sahel, introduces a clash of interests, strains resources and complicates co-ordination.

For instance, ECOWAS shares trade liberalisation programmes with WAEMU – ECOWAS through the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) and WAEMU with the Community Preferential Tariff.  It was only in 2011 that the two sub-regional organisations met to work through how their programmes can function in a way that does not leave them partly redundant.

                   

Nigeria, as the hegemonic member state in ECOWAS, wields significant influence within the organisation because of its status as one of Africa’s most resource-rich countries and as a major oil producer. Historically, Nigeria has contributed the largest number of troops to ECOWAS peacekeeping missions, showcasing its commitment to regional stability. 

With a GDP of US$560.7 billion in 2019, accounting for 68.7% of the total ECOWAS economy, Nigeria is also the largest contributor to ECOWAS’s general funding. As a result, Nigeria holds an unspoken authority to shape the direction and progress of ECOWAS policies. The current Nigerian president, Bola Tinubu, concurrently serves as the head of ECOWAS, further reinforcing Nigeria’s dominance of the West African bloc. However, Nigeria’s pre-eminence raises questions about equitable power distribution among member states and the decision-making dynamics within the organisation. 

The Sahel region, where Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali overlap with ECOWAS, has grappled with violent extremism for over a decade. At present, Burkina Faso faces jihadist attacks, while Mali continues to endure terrorist assaults, resulting in alarming civilian casualties. The surge in violence and terrorism has triggered transnational challenges, including trafficking of drugs and children, cross-border insurgency, and environmental degradation. As such, ECOWAS’s engagement in peacekeeping has intensified. Nevertheless, this heightened involvement has disrupted the political and economic framework of the bloc.

Like Niger, ECOWAS sanctioned and suspended Burkina Faso and Mali following their coups. However, due to ECOWAS’s weak peacebuilding strategies and post-conflict tactics, regional instability has assumed a cyclical nature, increasing the likelihood of transforming into a regional predicament. Consequently, the crisis in Niger holds a pivotal significance, prompting a crucial decision from ECOWAS on whether to deploy force.

The intricate dynamics of the Sahel underscore the intricate challenges faced by ECOWAS. As violence and insecurity persist, the organisation must strike a delicate balance between robust peacekeeping intervention and the need for sustainable peacebuilding. The effectiveness of ECOWAS’s actions at this critical juncture will impact significantly on the region’s stability and the organisation’s role as a peacekeeping force.

Charting a path: striking the balance

As ECOWAS grapples with its evolving identity – simultaneously a safeguard of security and an advocate for economic progress – the upheaval in Niger serves as a stark reminder of its vulnerability. The road ahead demands a meticulous equilibrium of this dual role. 

ECOWAS must address the tangle of overlapping memberships and focus on seamless co-ordination. Collaborative efforts are imperative to ensure that economic aspirations do not overshadow security imperatives or vice versa. The task will make necessary a renewed commitment to both regional integration and stability.

ECOWAS’s metamorphosis from an economic coalition into a peacekeeping force underscores its adaptability and the urgency of regional stability. Juggling the economic aspirations of member states with the imperatives of security is a formidable challenge, but it is a challenge that ECOWAS is uniquely positioned to confront. Through calculated transformation, cohesive collaboration and strategic navigation of its dual role, ECOWAS may well become the beacon to guide West Africa towards a prosperous and secure future.

 

Article written by Stacey Sam (Intern at Asaase 99.5 Accra)

 

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