Conflicts are artefactual constructs of life. Their causes are sometimes rooted in a complex set of socially constructed histories. West Africa’s contemporary experience with conflicts is defined by protracted civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire; armed insurrection in Guinea, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau; secessionist attempts in the Casamance region of Senegal; Niger Delta militancy and Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria; and other latent conflicts in the Sahelian states of Mali and Niger.
A cursory analysis of these conflicts and other associated ones reveals open expressions of historically rooted contradictions, many of which were only further complicated by political and socio-economic factors of exclusion and global changes heralded by post-Cold War realities. Top of these realities is the increasing tendency by non-state actors to challenge the monopoly of state over use of violence.
Indeed, it is in this spiral sense that West Africa has in the last two decades become one of Africa’s most conflict-ridden sub-regions and theatres of some of the most atrocious post-independence brutalities ever witnessed in the continent. Surprisingly, the sub-region is also about the only place in Africa where perhaps the most ambitious and the most determined internal efforts to find collective, regional solutions to conflict have been deployed.
Prosecuted within the framework of a sub-regional body originally formed in 1975 for the sole purpose of regional economic integration, the ECOWAS mediation force –ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), now West African Standby Force – lead role in search for peaceful solutions to civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali has yielded a mix of successes in some cases, failures and ineptitude in others, and aggravation or new tensions in yet other cases.
Put differently, notwithstanding ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) innovative ways of intervening in member countries to contain many conflicts within its sub-region, the diverse causes and methods of prosecuting the conflicts have not stopped posing continued challenges.
The reasons for the contrasting outcomes above are as enormous as their very contexts, which include capital outlays for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and post-war reconstruction. However, the comparative advantage that ECOWAS derived from a number of these experiences is reflected in the various mechanisms and conventions that are now in place for effecting a more comprehensively rooted conflict prevention framework.
Prominent among these are: The Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security (1999), The Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance (2001), and the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons (2006). The creation of the ECOWAS parliament and other initiatives are also a manifestation of the demonstrable desire by ECOWAS to continuously push for a regional integration and development agenda.
These instruments share much in common with the United Nations Resolution 1625. Adopted and signed on 14 September, 2005, Resolution 1625 re-affirms the need for a broad strategy for conflict prevention that addresses the root causes of armed conflicts and political and social crises.
It is in this context that, the ECOWAS Early Warning Mechanism (ECOWARN) depicted a core component of efforts to mitigate conflicts before they escalate into complex emergencies requiring humanitarian interventions.
Anchored on the strength of Article 58 of the 1993 revised ECOWAS Treaty which calls for the establishment of “a regional peace and security observation system” and the 1999 ECOWAS Security Protocol, the ECOWARN finds relevance in its appreciation of regional implication of the human and financial costs of intra-state conflicts in West Africa, with particular respect to the use of child soldiers, armed militias and mercenaries, movement of refugees, and coup d’états.
Despite these milestones, West Africa is not completely immune from conflicts. Beyond the successful arrest of the Ivorian crisis, the attained lull in Niger Delta militancy (courtesy of the Amnesty Programme) and ongoing negotiation of political transition in Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau and Mali, the frequently charged atmosphere of elections in many countries in the sub-region poses a recurring threat to peace and security.
And if developments across Africa are anything to draw any lesson(s) from, it appears very strong that election irregularities will remain with us for a long time. Indeed, the absence of free and fair elections will remain a threat to democracy and democratisation as well as peace and security in the sub-region.
While periodic elections may have in the past facilitated transition from authoritarian/military and one-party rule to multi-party elected governments in West Africa, the exercises are still largely flawed with very little or no democratic culture. To this extent, elections in the sub-region have become incapable of delivering democratic consolidation, peace and security, and sustainable development.
This fragility is what Nigeria’s 2015 election depicted. As many would confess, the success of the exercise enabled the country to avoid the implosion envisioned because of all the negativities that were thrown up. The fact that not all countries would be as lucky as Nigeria makes a case for the creation and strengthening of viable political institutions and values that are capable of deepening democracy and democratisation in West Africa.
As challenging as this task may seem, the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance remains the best entry point for democratic consolidation in the region. Besides demonstrating a zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means, it also pushes for a transition from ECOWAS of states to ECOWAS of citizens – through promotion of democratic ideas that are in tandem with constitutional convergence, conduct of credible elections, strengthening of critical institutions, poverty alleviation, rule of law and guarantee of rights for all – including of women, children and youth.
The Protocol opens up opportunity to prioritise human security over regime security and its associated devastating impacts of conflicts in West Africa. Because it places people at the centre of security and democratic equation, such a broader conception of security and guarantee of safe environment underscores the inextricable link between democracy and development. The step to achieving this requires multi-stakeholder collaboration by ECOWAS, governments of its member states, as well as bilateral, multi-lateral and civil society organisations.
Another West Africa is certainly possible, if we all act in a manner that is demonstrative of collective and enlightened self-interest.