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Crisis management or peacebuilding in West Africa?

April 27, 2012

Yesterday Charles Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, for his role in fomenting and prolonging civil war and violence in that country. Meanwhile ECOWAS, the West African regional economic community (REC), decided to send troops to Guinea Bissau and Mali to enforce a return to civilian rule following recent coups there. Two reminders of the need for regional and international vigilance and a willingness to act, given the fragility of democratic rule and institutions in many countries in Africa.

ECOWAS was instrumental in restoring order to Sierra Leone and Liberia in the past, and thus in removing Charles Taylor from power, and is one of the strongest RECs in the world when it comes to crisis management. More than most of its peer organisations, it seems to combine a capacity to intervene in high level diplomacy – as it also did over Guinea Conakry a couple of years back – with a willingness to send in troops. Let’s hope that this combination of political intervention and military threat will work in favour of the citizens of Mali and Guinea Bissau this time.

What both ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) are not yet so good at, is working to reduce the likelihood of these crises by improving the resilience of their member states. It is one thing to intervene in a crisis, but quite another to support long-term peacebuilding. The former requires authority, skill and the threat of a big stick. The latter is far more subtle; and is made harder by the resistance of member state governments to “interference” by international clubs of which they are members.

With hindsight, the coup in Mali was predictable. The peace agreement signed between Tuaregs and Bamako in the early 1990s was in  many ways an elite bargain: patronage for Tuareg leaders in return for an end to civil war. “You leave us alone in our northern drylands, and we’ll cease confronting your state of which we feel no part”. As such it was unsustainable and needed to be followed up with a major programme of development initiatives to create alternative livelihoods and better governance in northern Mali: to incentivise Tuaregs to become citizens of Mali through the flexible provision of services and opportunities for peaceful political and economic participation. Not easy, but necessary. But this programme, such as it was, was derailed by three major and  clearly visible factors:

  • The international fear of Sahel-based Islamic terrorism pushed Mali’s donors to skew their support for the country towards repressive measures in the north of the country
  • The Latin American drug cartels began smuggling huge quantities of their products through Mali to Europe, creating huge opportunities for the criminal involvement of the state and local leaders; and further skewing donor support
  • The toppling of Colonel  Ghaddafi pushed his well-armed Tuareg allies back into Mali.

Simply put, these three factors upset the fragile and unsustainable political settlement achieved in 1995. New donor incentives and drug-related rents gradually persuaded Bamako to renege on its 1995 commitments (at least as seen from the north); competition for drug-related opportunities probably undermined the settlement among the Tuaregs too; meanwhile well-armed Tuaregs returning from Libya had the incentives and the means to muscle their way in to a political settlement from which they felt excluded.

The result is now history. The important lesson from this is the need for RECs and the AU to put far more effort into long-term peacebuilding than they do into crisis management. Military coups have been far less frequent in recent years, but this should not kid us into thinking the democratic institutions are yet resilient enough to survive. A concerted effort is still needed to transform the way West Africans experience issues of power, economic opportunity, security, access to justice and to the basic services they need for their well-being. Short-term political settlements are seldom sustainable in themsleves over the long term, and need to be adjusted as circumstances change; and they need to be seen as steps on the way to an institutionalisation of politics, even though that may take many years to emerge, and cannot be over-rushed simply because we want it.

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