West Africa provides a good example of how the African Union can be more effective

The continents’ regional organisations have a major role to play in maintaining peace and security, and Ecowas is taking the lead


The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been at the forefront of West African peace and security efforts.

This has been difficult, given the many and complex security threats in the region, but the organisation has gone to great lengths to ensure timely and effective responses. As a result, it has made progress in implementing the African Union’s peace and security architecture (APSA), as new research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has found.

The AU considers Africa’s eight regional economic communities (RECs), including Ecowas, to be its “building blocks”. The APSA 2016-2020 road map states that partnerships with these are a priority, which includes the need to define roles and responsibilities in these partnerships.

The RECs have developed differently, which makes it impossible for them to apply a one-size-fits-all approach in achieving the objectives of the APSA road map.

Arguably, the RECs enjoy some advantages over the AU, including a better understanding of the sociocultural and political nuances in their respective regions, which might make them more appropriate for mediating context-specific peace agreements. But the RECs also face financial constraints and divisive politics between member states.

There are several lessons to be learnt from Ecowas’s experience.

For one, its desire to take ownership of regional peace and security processes is evident. Like other RECs, and the AU itself, it has been largely dependent on external funding, which forces it to rely on the whims of donors rather than on the combined vision of its member states. But Ecowas is the only REC that has introduced a 0.5% levy on all goods imported into the region, which it uses to fund Ecowas activities and decrease its dependency on foreign funding.

Furthermore, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current Ecowas chairperson, has prioritised the payment of levies and institutional reforms to make the organisation more efficient and effective.

Second, Ecowas recognises that it is stronger when it builds partnerships, including with civil society. This relationship has been formalised by agreements, which makes collaboration easier and more effective. Ecowas policies are, furthermore, not adopted without input from civil society.

This relationship extends to joint activities. For example, Ecowas’s early warning directorate has a laudable relationship with the West African Network for Peacebuilding, its main partner for early warning.

Such efforts are in sharp contrast with other RECs, who rely on intelligence-driven systems, in which member states don’t share information about their own weaknesses for fear that it could be used against them.

Other efforts to build partnerships based on openness and transparency are signified by Ecowas’s Vision 2020, which has rebranded the organisation from an “Ecowas of states” to an “Ecowas of people”.

Third, Ecowas’s sustained commitment to peace and security is visible. It has a number of comprehensive frameworks in place to allow it to respond to peace and security challenges. Ecowas was established in 1975 with an economic mandate, but revised its treaty in 1993 to include peace and security.

Several frameworks followed, including the mechanism for conflict prevention, management, resolution, peacekeeping and security; the protocol on democracy and good governance; and the Ecowas conflict prevention framework (ECPF).

The ECPF in particular is unique because it comprehensively defines conflict prevention, a hot topic of debate in United Nations and AU circles, where a clear definition of it and a way to implement it successfully remain elusive.

Ecowas is currently revitalising this comprehensive framework and has established an internal steering committee to gauge its implementation.

Fourth, Ecowas has shown a willingness to move beyond talk to implementation. For example, it has played a peacekeeping role in Liberia, Guinea Bissau and Mali, among others.

A review of its success and failures identified a need to link early warning to early response. As a result, Ecowas is now decentralising the early warning system, with member states establishing response mechanisms that involve government authorities, civil society and other national institutions, whose reports are fed to regional headquarters.

These efforts are now being piloted in some member states. The move once again signifies Ecowas’s efforts to enhance the ownership of member states’ responses to dealing with conflicts.

Ecowas’s ability to deal with different aspects of conflict, including early warning and mediation, means it is capable of using its mechanisms to implement the APSA road map.

But, as with everything, there is room for improvement. A major issue, raised in the recent ISS paper, is how to deal with governance problems. Some countries continue to contravene the Ecowas protocol on democracy and good governance, for example by intimidating political opposition before elections.

This leaves Ecowas in a legal and political quandary. In such cases, should Ecowas observe elections that aren’t free and fair? Should Ecowas enforce sanctions, as the protocol suggests, or try the route of quiet diplomacy? And how can national early warning and response centres be trusted to respond on governance issues when member states are actually part of the problem?

Another neglected area is an Ecowas framework and response to peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction and development, which relates to efforts to address the root causes of violence and post-conflict reconstruction. Ecowas has done well with peacekeeping, for example, but has not been able to provide strategies other than keeping warring parties apart.

The organisation has identified the absence of a peacebuilding strategy as its weakest link, particularly with regard to transitional justice and reconciliation. Although it has begun to initiate peacebuilding activities in Guinea-Bissau, for example, it still lacks a framework that would allow it to respond across the region.

Ecowas must define clear responsibilities for its partnership with the AU. Ecowas has many structures similar to those of the AU, but it is unclear what the AU’s exact relationship with the RECs should be. (A memorandum of understanding on the AU and RECs provides some indications but it is very broad.)

Although the AU should, ideally, only be playing the role of facilitator, it often plays the role of implementer as well. This means resources are sometimes duplicated. Given that Ecowas has such a well-developed early warning system, for instance, can the AU rely on this instead of producing its own reports? The AU could rather direct its efforts at ensuring that Ecowas’s early warning reports reach decision-makers at the Peace and Security Council, and are acted upon.

The APSA road map notes that the AU and RECs will have to work together to develop a clear set of guidelines on their respective roles and responsibilities for different aspects of conflict, based on their comparative advantages. For example, Ecowas may be best placed to intervene first, followed by AU intervention if unsuccessful. In this regard, the AU and Ecowas must develop clearer guidelines on how mediators are chosen and how they collaborate.

Ecowas has demonstrated its willingness and ability to be a major player for peace and security. Its experiences should be shared and encouraged among the other RECs.

But Ecowas also has to address some gaps such as a peacebuilding strategy and, more importantly, a clearer way of working with its continental counterpart, the AU. A better understanding of roles and responsibilities will make both organisations more effective. — ISS Today

Amanda Lucey is a senior researcher for the peace operations and peacebuilding division of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria

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