As West Africa moves towards regional economic integration, it becomes imperative that it pays attention to transnational security threats. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) follows a roadmap for cooperation in areas from agriculture to currency, but its security infrastructure has not evolved at that same pace and may be its weakest link.
In May 2012, ECOWAS convened a special security summit in Dakar, Senegal. The 15-member community spanning from Dakar to Lagos had two major issues on its agenda: The Crisis in Northern Mali and Constitutional issues in Guinea Bissau.
In Northern Mali, a separatist movement led by Tuaregs launch an attack that reignited a historic conflict. The separatists were composed of a mix of fighters who had drifted South during the Libyan crisis, along with their weapons. In Guinea Bissau, a leadership conflict threatened to plunge the country into renewed fighting. The political turmoil was fueled by drug traffickers who wanted to turn Guinea Bissau as transit point for their merchandise.
While these conflicts topped the Dakar Summit, the participating Heads of State also discussed two other security issues. In northern Nigeria, an Islamist group called Boko Haram was carrying out attacks with increasing frequency and severity. In Côte d’Ivoire, supporters of ousted President Laurent Gbagbo were using Liberia to launch attacks into the country.
Forward, 2019, six years later, the crisis in Mali was no longer confined to the desert, fighting and attacks on civilian and military installations have extended as far as Mopti, hundreds of miles away in central Mali far from the Sahara. Almost weekly attacks took place in Burkina Faso and Niger. Malian forces are now seconded by the French intervention forces Barkane, with a mix of international support from the US and a UN peacekeeping force. ECOWAS formed the G-5, a regional defense group that comprise Chad and Cameroon to mobilize resources to combat the various insurrections. At a recent summit in Ouagadougou, ECOWAS vowed to raise a $1 billion support fund to fight the various insurrections.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram has morphed into a regional threat, with attacks targeting Cameroon and Niger while the Nigerian army, certainly the largest in the region doesn’t seem to find a path to eradicating the crisis. Banditry and open grazing are adding to the tally and template of conflicts in the sub-region.
The southward advances of the Malian separatists as well as the widening of the Boko Haram network and other conflicts in Nigeria moving northward, could result in the “movements” conjoining and posing greater threat to regional stability. This also exposes the limited capacities of national armies in battling insurrections.
In recent history, while national armies succeeded in toppling governments in almost every country in the region except Senegal, they were unable to contain rebellions and insurrections. In Liberia, both Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor regimes crumbled in just a few months after attacks by rebel forces. Sierra Leone suffered the same fate more than once. In Côte d’Ivoire, without the intervention of the French forces, President Gbagbo would have been ousted by a rebellion in 2001 who were using neighboring countries as staging grounds. ECOWAS and UN peacekeepers have also been deployed to address conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
West Africa must reform its current military cooperation structure, with ECOWAS members contributing the resources required to establish a multinational standing force. This force can be equipped to rapidly respond to transnational threats and would be a more efficient use of the region’s collective security resources.
Rather than maintain ill-equipped armies, it would appear more impactful to invest and coordinate a strong, decisive regional military force to combat transnational threats and protect the entire region. An elite regional force with air, sea, and land capabilities could protect ECOWAS countries, improve cooperation in other areas such as trade, combat terrorism the incubation of non-state armed groups in West Africa. In coordinating their existing resources, ECOWAS could set up a naval defense force with capacity to monitor the entire West African coastline, from Senegal to Nigeria. Similarly, a ground and air force could monitor territory with external borders from Senegal to Nigeria.
Under this plan, a country like Togo will only focus on its maritime border or Burkina Faso will have no border to protect because it’s surrounded by ECOWAS borders. Conversely, the force could fight drug trafficking and piracy throughout the entire coastline. This initiative would replace the current, and often incoherent, formation of joint military operations that are still bedeviled by a lack of capability, hardware, and/or the political will required to be effective. Under the current system, joint operations are hurriedly put together sub regionally, with attendant challenges. An example is the Cameroun, Chad, Nigeria, and Niger joint operations forces on Boko Haram.
Issues of command, control, and logistics would have to come under critical scrutiny. This is especially true where the interest of individual member states clash with regional interests.
An elite force can serve as the launching pad for an integrated regional army that would ensure the integrity of external borders. It would advance the integration of regional trade and allow national government to focus scant resources on effective local police forces for internal security.
Regional security must become one of the essential pillars of the integration process. This will call for reviewing the role and capacity of the military in the region.
Dr. Abdoulaye W. Dukulé is a Coordinator of the West Africa Center for Policy and Strategy (WACePS), a regional non-profit, non-partisan think tank that conducts research and analysis on matters related to African security, economic development, and migration. WACepS.comAbdoulaye W. Dukulé, PhD