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24.01.2013 Feature Article

When Words are Simply not Enough in Mali

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“The Accidental Ecowas & AU Citizen”:
E.K.Bensah Jr
It has been a little over ten days since the French intervened in Mali, to halt the advance on Mopti and the capital Bamako in the southern part of Mali. It is hard to believe how that has precipitated a chain of events no-one expected, including the botched Algerian hostage extraction, which we are told the AQIM sought to use to globalise the Mali conflict, by apportioning blame on Algeria for allowing the French to use their airspace. Algeria's heavy-handed tactics on the resolution of the crisis has resulted in the loss of many lives, including those of the hostages—something that was far from the plan. It seems all one can do is sit and wait with baited breath to find out what friends and allies of AQIM will next do as international support mobilises to counter their reach in Northern Mali.

Role of ECOWAS
As you may well now know, Ecowas broke out onto the stage in 1990 when it went into Liberia under ECOMOG. Its intervention happened at a time when there was fatigue by the so-called international community on Africa. There was no Chapter VII-approval before intervention as the UN itself was playing a wait-and-see game. Despite the fact that the United States was Liberia's biggest Western ally, not once did the US step into offer its assistance as explicitly as it has done in the case of Mali. Instead, intervention was left to the English-speaking countries of Ecowas to spearhead. It must be noted the francophones were very uneasy about intervening in Liberia, and, frankly, they feared Nigeria as well.

According to one Comfort Ero, currently Crisis Group's Nairobi-based Africa Program Director since January 2011, who has written extensively on ECOMOG in Liberia as well as peace and security in West Africa, there are three reasons why Ecowas went into Liberia.

First of all, ECOWAS believed that "regional instability was inevitable due to the overflow and displacement of refugees in neighbouring countries." Consequently, there was a fear that the conflict would trigger lateral pressure to such an extent that refugees would feel compelled to spill over into neighbouring countries, such as Sierra-Leone, Ghana, the Gambia, Guinea, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.

Secondly, ECOWAS went in purely for humanitarian reasons. According to Ero, "in its Final Communiqué, the Standing Committee gave a strongly humanitarian rationale for its decisions, {to that effect} adding that presently, there is a government in Liberia which cannot govern contending factions which are holding the entire population as hostages depriving them of food, health facilities and other basic necessities of life." Moreover, an ECOWAS statement in August 1990 was more "explicit in emphasizing a humanitarian objective.” In it, it stated that there needed to be a "stopping {of} the senseless killing of innocent civilians, nationals and foreigners, and to help the Liberian people to restore their democratic institutions."

Finally, justification for intervention was predicated on the 1981 ECOWAS Protocol relating to Mutual Assistance in Defence. According to Article 16 of the Protocol, "the Head of State of a member country under attack may request action or assistance from the community."

Twenty-three years after it first intervened in the sub-region under the now-defunct ECOMOG, ECOWAS will be intervening in yet-another crisis in the sub-region. This time, the intervention will be under an ECOWAS Standby Force (ESF) aligned to the continental African Standby Force.

Truth be told, the ECOWAS of 1989 is not the ECOWAS of 2012. There was no UEMOA (established 1994) and the ECOWAS treaty had yet to be revised. It would undergo a revision on 24 July 2003.

The Anglophone Ecowas countries had carte blanche to put together ECOMOG, comprising mostly Anglophone countries. The Ecowas Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF) was ten years away from being operationalised. The EU was then the European Economic Community (EEC); the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA) did not exist; the African Union (AU) was still the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Simply put, ECOWAS had free reign to act more decisively. In 2012, there are more actors and more mandates, plus a necessity to synergise to ensure the actors in the sub-region all complement each other's efforts.

At the time of writing, the de facto Ecowas Standby Force (we now know it is an ESF, as per article 24 of the Final Communiqué of the Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Ecowas Heads of State and Government of 19 January, 2013) comprises ten ECOWAS member states. These are: Benin; Burkina Faso; Ghana; Niger; Nigeria; Togo; Liberia; Senegal; Cote d'Ivoire. The Gambia and Cape Verde have not yet pledged troops. Guinea-Bissau is unlikely to, given the precarious situation in the country, and the fact that there is already an ECOWAS Standby Force there since May 2012.

In theory, the French-led intervention (Operation Serval) is likely to end soon, paving the way for a fully-fledged AFISMA. In practice, it is anyone's guess when the French strikes are likely to end to pave sufficient way for a fully-fledged international force to act—as had been envisaged for the September 2013 timeframe initially proposed by the UN Security Council.

In December 2012, the UN finally approved the Africa-led international force into Mali (AFISMA), and it was predicted that full offensive deployment to the northern part of Mali was unlikely to happen before September 2013. That almost-absurd situation was compounded by the very real scenario of Mali being held hostage to the fortunes of “outsiders” – a concept that is anathema to what ECOWAS has been trying to encourage in the sub-region for its member states.

While it is arguable that the Mali crisis has exposed the existential underbelly that are the coup d'états that have continued to disrupt the sub-region's progress and development, and focused its intervention on peace and security, it is also true it has ramified into unpredictable outcomes – chief among which has been a terribly-protracted conflict that has needed both Western and sub-regional actors to resolve.

Truth be told, Mali has been a gargantuan distraction from the development-oriented imperative ECOWAS has sought to fulfill since 1975 for three reasons. First, the whole sub-region has been set back because much of the time has been dedicated to a political and diplomatic solution in Mali. Secondly, the serious threat to peace and security has been expressed through links to AL Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb(AQIM). This is inevitably a major headache for ECOWAS. Finally, the prospect of an intensification of drug-trafficking, brought about by the chaos in the sub-region is a major cause of concern.

Now that the intervention has happened, it will be a delicious irony in the sub-region's history, given that July 2013 will be twenty years since ECOWAS revised its treaty to include peace and security imperatives. It is easy to speculate that, apart from Mali reinforcing the distraction of peace and security as important elements over the economic in the sub-region, it has helped serendipitously bring countries that heretofore played little roles in the sub-region to collaborate in unexpected ways.

These include the Arab Maghreb Union countries of Algeria and Mauritania, and Chad from the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which has been an ECOWAS observer since 2011. That Chad is one of the troop-contributing countries because of how familiar it is with the desert, as well as the way in which it borders Mali can only encourage ECOWAS to better-synergize on counter-terrorism activities in the absence of a holistic strategy, which development is probably needed now more than any time in the sub-region's two decades of fire-fighting history.

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.

Emmanuel K. Bensah Jr.
Emmanuel K. Bensah Jr., © 2013

The author has 98 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: EmmanuelKBensahJr

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