Mission: ECOWAS Has a Responsibility to Protect West Africa from Criminals

Feature Article Mission: ECOWAS Has a Responsibility to Protect West Africa from Criminals

Back in October 2011, I wrote a piece entitled “Time for ECOWAS to Ratify the Criminal Investigative Intelligence Bureau”. The idea behind the piece was to argue that free movement is great for the ECOWAS sub-region, but comes at a cost – cross-border crime. The news last week of West African “aliens” having been caught entering Ghana to benefit from National Health Insurance is but one of many stories of how free movement for ECOWAS citizens, including the provision to stay ninety days in a country, can be abused. This provision is possible thanks to the Protocol on Free Movement, Right of Residence and Establishment which was adopted in 1979. In 1980, ECOWAS members would ratify the first phase of the Protocol guaranteeing free entry of citizens from member states without visa for ninety days.

I also touched on how West African leaders, working through ECOWAS, had made significant strides on combating drug trafficking, crime; and what I described as “all the attendant vices associated with un-policed porous borders”

With UEMOA (comprising eight francophone ECOWAS member states) using ID cards and all ECOWAS member states having adopted national ID systems, the window of opportunity must be capitalised upon by member states to really get serious in securing a sub-region. Although hope springs eternal on this continent, we cannot live on it indefinitely – simply because it is unsustainable in terms of deliverables. With specific case to the ID cards, this means that every single Ghanaian ought to enjoy usage of the national ID cards—and not just a select few who have received their cards. The cards ought to be used by banks and nation-wide institutions. When done, this will help in building a database of citizens, which will also help law enforcement agencies to liaise nationally and sub-regionally.

Equally important in my argument was how in October 2008, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime launched a report[1] that “castigated ECOWAS member states for their apparently-lackadaisical approach to fighting trans-border crime in the sub-region”. Member states like Guinea-Bissau had become soft spots for drug traffickers who took advantage of often-corrupt systems of governance to use that country as a conduit for onward movement of their drugs.

Regrettably, even as Guinea-Bisssau is voting in elections at the time of writing, and no less than 180 ECOWAS election observers are in the country, it cannot shake off the tag of the “narco-state”, which has ineluctably been associated it.

How ECOWAS has positively changed the landscape
Almost four years later, the situation continues to change dramatically as ECOWAS member states have gotten serious by engaging the UN Office on Drugs and Crime(UNODC) and other UN agencies, such as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA), and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to establish elite and so-called “Transnational Crime Units” in selected ECOWAS member states[2] to deal with the canker under the West African Coastal Initiative.

At the sub-regional level, ECOWAS has a number of structures that are helping rein in what might otherwise be a chaotic sub-region. These include the ECOWAS Regional Action Plan on illicit drugs trafficking, organized crime and drug abuse[3]; ECOWAS Committees of Chiefs of Security Services, and Chiefs of Defence Staff; WAPCCO; and GIABA.

Backed by the Canada-based “The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre”, the ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Security Services has assisted ECOWAS since May 2009 to create a committee that ensures proper communication and coordination efforts with member states on the police component of the African Standby Force and other regional security issues. The committee is now funded by the ECOWAS Commission's regular annual budget and meets twice a year.

The ECOWAS Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff—an exclusively military component—reviews security in the sub-region through quarterly meetings. The ECOWAS agency that is the Intergovernmental Action Group against Money-Laundering, or GIABA, is responsible for the prevention and control of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in the West African Sub-Region. Critical to its mandate is the “improvement of measures and intensifying efforts to combat the laundering of proceeds of crime in West Africa”.

ECOWAS's formulation of a regional response through their Political Declaration of 2005 (that put forward the idea of establishing a criminal investigative intelligence bureau) has helped nip the problem in the bud. However, considering the fact that that the Criminal Investigative Intelligence Bureau (CIIB) had been proposed as far back as 2002 by Ghana for a meeting of the INTERPOL-backed West Africa Police Chiefs Committee (WAPCCO) in Abidjan, the challenge would have been better dealt with had member states resolved to establish the-said CIIB.

While ECOWAS community citizens continue to enjoy free movement in the sub-region, this is a region that has played host to internecine conflicts, such as the Liberian conflict of 1990 that prompted the intervention of ECOMOG. As I wrote back in October 2011, “add to that the porous border, the free movement of mercenaries, coupled with small arms trafficking and the recruitment of child soldiers and fighters to the cross-border crimes and we have ourselves a potential powder-keg that needs significant monitoring through significant systems of intelligence – as proposed by the yet-to-be-ratified CIIB”.

But that is not all. In 2012, ECOWAS is confronted by crisis in Northern Mali; piracy; and a Sahel crisis. These are new elements forcing ECOWAS to take the bull by the horns on factoring not just the visceral peace and security instruments it is so used to, but a law-enforcement perspective that is sufficiently holistic to secure and protect West Africans from criminals and miscreants.

In my 29 February edition for this column, entitled “West Africa Rising…in Regional Instability?”, I wrote “while the [ECOWAS] Authority has strongly condemned the MNLA rebellion in Mali and expressed its full support for efforts being exerted by Mali to 'defend its territorial integrity', the sub-regional organisation has not only called for “an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities by the rebels'', but also approved the release of three million US dollars to assist Mali deal with the humanitarian consequences of the rebellion.”

At the time of writing, ECOWAS has done more than that—including the ECOWAS Commission urging member states and partners to “support the government of Mali with logistics and materiel as the country battles to defend its territorial integrity and restore law and order," the 15 nation ECOWAS said in a statement.

Furthermore, the ECOWAS Commission has called on Mali National Liberation Army to observe a ceasefire, and warned that ECOWAS would take "all necessary measures" to help Mali protect itself, without giving any further details. According to Reuters, the ECOWAS statement said it would also launch a mediation process "in the coming days".

Whither, again, the future of ECOWAS law enforcement?

You may re-call that on 4 August, ECOWAS, alongside international partners, established the so-called Border Information Centres (BIC). While far from a holistic response to tackling crime and enforcing a rule of law in the sub-region, it nevertheless is an important step in tackling cross-border corruption and helping mitigate cross-border crime by providing citizens with transparent ways of obtaining information on free movement in the sub-region.

Truth be told, I am not quite sure whether we can yet speak of an ECOWAS law enforcement system, which is ironic considering how ECOWAS does “peace and security” very well. On peace and security, ECOWAS has developed fairly elaborate protocols, such as the 1999 ECOWAS protocol for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security. This enables ECOWAS intervene in conflicts in its member countries. ECOWAS also has Early Warning mechanism (ECOWARN), as well as a Mediation and Security Council, which is the key decision-making organ.

In its 2008 Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF)—which seeks to strengthen human security architecture in the ECOWAS sub-region— ECOWAS has developed a basis for a holistic and comprehensive action plan in the field of peace and security—but not on law enforcement. A review might be timely at a time when the sub-region is rocked by manifold crises—listed above.

Way Forward for ECOWAS
At a time when African integration observers are talking of a putative Arab Maghreb Union(AMU)-ECOWAS-CENSAD free trade area (along the lines of the tripartite COMESA-EAC-SADC free-trade area), this second FTA is unlikely to go anywhere quickly without ECOWAS getting very serious on distinguishing between what I would call “hard”(war; drug-trafficking; human-trafficking) and “soft”(cross-border and petty crime) conflict. It is very encouraging to read of Joint Border Patrols in the sub-region—as prescribed by the INTERPOL-backed West African Police Chiefs Committee.

Further, in response to the piracy threat in the Gulf of Guinea, Benin and Nigeria are conducting joint maritime patrols. Togo and Ghana are expected to join in these patrols as well. It is envisioned that the Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAS) is also conducting joint patrols in the Gulf of Guinea, with Cameroon, Sao Tome and Principe, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon.

ECOWAS might not have had the foresight of establishing a West African law enforcement mechanism (like the EU did with EUROPOL with respect to the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992) the very moment the Treaty of Lagos was revised in 1993 to reflect the current challenges of ECOWAS, but it can never be too late, I wrote in October 2011, “to rectify the imperative of a sub-regional police force along the likes of INTERPOL or EUROPOL”. ECOWAS's imperative and comparative strengths on peace, security, and conflict prevention ought to give it the necessary impetus to bring to fruition the belated “ECOWASPOL”/CIIB the sub-region so desperately needs.

That Guinea is the only country to have established the francophone counterpart of CIIB—ORIC—in its country is a woeful indictment of how seriously West African leaders take the establishment of crime prevention and management in the sub-region. Let us today help each other put pressure on the leaders of our respective member states to ratify the 2005 protocol on the criminal investigative intelligence bureau!


In 2009, in his capacity as a “Do More Talk Less Ambassador” of the 42nd Generation—an NGO that promotes and discusses Pan-Africanism--Emmanuel gave a series of lectures on the role of ECOWAS and the AU in facilitating a Pan-African identity. Emmanuel owns "Critiquing Regionalism" ( Established in 2004 as an initiative to respond to the dearth of knowledge on global regional integration initiatives worldwide, this non-profit blog features regional integration initiatives on MERCOSUR/EU/Africa/Asia and many others. You can reach him on [email protected] / Mobile: 0268.687.653.