Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt adapted from a forthcoming report by USIP’s Senior Study Group on Coastal West Africa. The report presents the recommendations of that study group, which consisted of current and former policymakers, prominent political scientists and economists, representatives of international organizations, and business leaders.

The U.S. government has identified stability in Coastal West Africa as a foreign policy priority, engaging five countries in particular — Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, and Togo — through its Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, which was adopted in December 2021. The strategy reflects the U.S. government’s consideration of the five countries as strategic focal points in the fight against transnational terrorism and violent extremism emanating from the neighboring Sahel region.

Soldiers train in Pendjari National Park in Benin, June 14, 2019.  (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)
Soldiers train in Pendjari National Park in Benin, June 14, 2019. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

Concern about instability across the Coastal West African states is related not only to the spillover of violence from the Sahel, but also to the region’s socioeconomic and demographic trends. The five countries targeted by the new U.S. strategy have populations whose median age ranges from 19 to 22 years, making the limited socioeconomic prospects for youth a significant risk factor for violence. Children’s poor access to schooling — averaging from barely three years in Guinea to seven years in Ghana — is hobbling their prospects and will sustain the risk of violence for years to come. Yet youth civic engagement — of the kind visible in Ghana’s 2021 #FixTheCountry nonviolent protests and Nigeria’s youth movement against police brutality — is a resource that can be developed in support of better governance, justice and peace. The specific challenges vary, of course, among the five countries targeted by the new strategy and across the region.

Guinea has suffered the most notable democratic erosion following the armed forces’ September 2021 coup d’état. With a significant push from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the military-appointed government eventually agreed to a 24-month transition to civilian rule but has constricted civic and political freedoms and left transitional steps unclear. Guineans and partners are seeking a path for restoration of civilian rule and strengthening democracy. 

In neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, while sustained economic growth since the violent political crises of 2010–11 has restored the country’s role as a driver of growth in the region, ethnic and land disputes remain a threat for renewed conflict, and the northern part of the country has seen an increase in extremist attacks from groups based in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

Ghana offers a democratic model for the region but faces challenges common to other coastal states. Education and economic opportunity fall well short of the needs of its burgeoning youth population, and the economic and human development of the northern interior lags behind southern regions. Like other coastal states, Ghana faces continued incursions by extremists from the Sahel, with the concomitant risk to the country’s stability from extremists recruiting among local populations and establishing a presence in the north.

Togo, which has been ruled by a single family for more than five decades and which suffers from endemic corruption, imposed a state of emergency in the north in 2022 because of extremist violence. The extreme poverty of Togo’s rural and northern regions, and the socioeconomic gap between them and the more urban coast, increases the risk for extremism to root itself in Togo’s north.

In Benin, the government has imposed electoral restrictions to exclude opposition parties and employed tactics from internet restrictions to violent force by police to quash protest. In the border regions, attacks by extremist groups from the Sahel have increased, and capacity challenges have impeded the ability of Benin’s security forces to respond.

The Sahel’s Spillover

The challenges facing these five countries are exacerbated — and indeed cannot be separated from — violence and instability within the wider region. The crisis in the Sahel claimed more than 6,500 lives and displaced some 1 million people in 2020; in February 2022, the total number of persons internally displaced since 2011 was 2.7 million. Additionally, Nigeria may be facing its worst instability in decades due to extremist violence in the north, clashes between settled agrarian and nomadic herder communities across the middle of the country, and separatist movements and militancy in the south, along with nationwide banditry and kidnapping. A worsening of stability in West Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy could further destabilize Coastal West Africa. In January 2021, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) highlighted the urgency of addressing deteriorating security dynamics in Coastal West Africa to prevent the consolidation and expansion of violent extremist organizations as they seek revenue and recruits.

The challenges facing these five countries are exacerbated — and indeed cannot be separated from — violence and instability within the wider region.

More recently, the U.S. government has declared that it is increasing its focus on Africa, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlining the new U.S. Policy for Sub-Saharan Africa in a speech in South Africa on August 8, 2022. As the United States retains its concerns over strategic competition in Africa from China and Russia, the new policy reaffirms U.S. support for the free flow of ideas, information and investment and for elevating U.S. engagement with African partners to promote and deliver the dividends of democracy and security. 

When, in February 2022, USIP convened a Senior Study Group to explore how best to advance peace and security in Coastal West Africa it was both responding to growing concern within Washington about the region and seeking to build on USIP’s work on West Africa, which had recently expanded beyond its established program in Nigeria. In 2021, the Institute had launched a series of consultations on West Africa with U.S. government officials and civil society leaders from the region. USIP was invited by U.S. officials to share the findings of these conversations and thus help to inform the development of U.S. policies and programs toward the region.

Additionally, in 2022, the U.S. government had invited USIP to provide input into the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, which was created as the vehicle for realizing the ambitions of the 2019 Global Fragility Act. During its deliberations between February and July 2022, the study group came to the conclusion that the strategy is a unique opportunity to shape U.S. policy not only toward Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo but also toward the region more broadly. Thus, while the group has framed most of its recommendations in terms of the strategy, they are — and should be read as — applicable to peace and security in the wider region.

The study group’s deliberations on ways to advance peace and security in Coastal West Africa included the urgent need to counter the spillover of violent extremism from the Sahel. The study group reviewed and drew on examples of U.S. programs and policies in the Sahel to prevent and counter violent extremism — such as the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership —but recognized that these efforts have not succeeded as intended. The group further noted circumstantial differences between the Sahel and Coastal West Africa, as well as the variability between them in terms of strategic importance and U.S. strategic influence. The group underscored the urgency of its work, given the 2021 coup in Guinea and attacks throughout 2022 by violent extremist organizations in northern Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. While combating terrorism and violent extremism is a vital U.S. interest, U.S. and international efforts to build peace must be integrated across the wider region, including Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. They must work across wider issues — of governance, justice and human welfare. And they will be driven by wider interests. These include the region’s strategic natural resources and commodities (from bauxite to gold to cocoa and cotton); its position along key Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes; and the critical need to support democratization at its disparate stages across the region.

The Need for Good Governance

The study group identified improvements in governance as a prerequisite for peace and stability in Coastal West Africa, including efforts to advance the rule of law, combat corruption and deliver essential public services that demonstrate the relevance of government in the lives of the region’s citizens and that build the social compact that knits a nation together. Extensive evidence shows the key role of good governance is fostering and maintaining peace and stability. Revitalized efforts to promote good governance in Coastal West Africa are thus vital and should promote its organic development. This will mean supporting indigenous efforts, including those by national governments, civil society and regional and continental institutions. Political stability — and the security and peace that can come with it —depends on healthy relationships between society and the state. This may require a significant reconstitution of social contracts in Coastal West Africa, including attention to issues such as the proper role of government, the role of the citizen, elite capture of the economy and the linkages among the region’s economies and the global economy.

The study group further considered how “economic governance” can influence peace and stability. The way in which a country governs and distributes its resources can either promote stability or drive conflict. In the commodity- and resource-fueled economies of Coastal West Africa, capture of these resources by elites or by one or another segment of society can contribute to intergroup conflict. Similarly, economic transitions — whether driven by globalization or international crises, climate change or coups — can alienate vast segments of a population, especially those outside of cities or resource-rich areas, exacerbating horizontal inequalities that can contribute to tensions and conflicts. Such transitions are especially destabilizing in societies in which economic management is treated as zero-sum, with control of government translating to control of economic policies for the benefit of particular segments of the population. 

The group noted the differences in the socioeconomic and political landscapes across the five Coastal West Africa countries, but agreed that peace and stability in the subregion depend not only on building good governance in individual countries but also on improving security in the larger West Africa region and across the African continent. For example, Coastal West Africa’s growing youth population presents a significant challenge for each nation and the region as a whole. Similarly, the growing influence of extremism, so destabilizing in the neighboring Sahel, is a regional problem. Regional organizations, such as ECOWAS, need to play a more vital role both in their original missions — promoting intraregional trade and economic cooperation — and in addressing other issues, such as coups and other erosions of constitutional democracy. However, the structure and operations of organizations like ECOWAS may be outdated for recent sociopolitical dynamics and may need to be significantly updated to permit them to carry out their original missions. 

The U.S. government, USIP and other actors should also engage emerging regional institutions such as the Accra Initiative, through which Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo seek to improve their cooperation against extremism and instability. Another emerging institution is the African Continental Free Trade Area, which aims to gather Africa’s 1.3 billion people and $3.4 trillion in annual GDP into one of the world’s largest free-trade communities. Increasing intra-African trade and harmonizing trade policy and regulation will facilitate foreign direct investment and promote economic growth that is the foundation of peace and stability on the continent.

Building Peace and Stability

To be as effective as possible, international and U.S. engagements must address Coastal West Africa and its challenges systemically, using a coordinated and complementary approach. These efforts must be promoted through high-level leadership and concomitant investments in local capacity, not least because of the historic underinvestment in Coastal West Africa, reflected, for example, in the relatively small size of diplomatic and development missions in the region and the limited financial resources available to support such efforts. The study group argues that U.S. responses to this challenge in Coastal West Africa, and across the African continent, should be informed by three overarching principles:

  • First, for such efforts to be successful, they need to support the local efforts of governments and their populations.
  • Second, the U.S. government needs to examine what activities have worked and what have not worked in the region as well as in similar contexts, including the Sahel. The government should examine programs undertaken by like-minded international actors, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and Nordic countries, in Coastal West Africa.
  • Third, the U.S. government needs to be clear about the specific outcomes it hopes to accomplish, including through its new strategy, in Coastal West Africa. It should recognize the limits of its influence and determine how it will measure progress and make needed course adjustments.

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