As the United States and international partners work to stabilize Africa’s Sahel region — and to prevent its warfare, violent extremism and armed coups from metastasizing into Africa’s densely populous and strategic Atlantic coast — the West African multinational bloc, ECOWAS, has proven its value in resolving crises and promoting stability. Yet, as global security threats have evolved, ECOWAS, like other multinational bodies, needs updated capacities to meet new challenges. International democracies’ most effective initiative to support West Africa’s stability would be to partner with West Africans to strengthen their vital regional community. A similar strategy is valid across Africa.

International troops supporting a U.S. Army joint exercise, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, May 2016. ECOWAS should consider how to shape and use such a force to serve its constituent citizenries and rebuild ECOWAS’ public legitimacy. (U.S. Army)
International troops supporting a U.S. Army joint exercise, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, May 2016. ECOWAS should consider how to shape and use such a force to serve its constituent citizenries and rebuild ECOWAS’ public legitimacy. (U.S. Army)

West Africa: A Global Security Imperative

Anyone paying serious attention to U.S. or international security already recognizes the imperative to build effective strategies to stabilize the Sahel and West Africa. The latest Global Terrorism Index redoubles that urgency, finding that the Sahel’s violence wrought fully 47% of all global deaths from terrorism last year. Africans and their partners must prevent the immensely greater African and global crises — human death and displacement, disrupted trade routes, economies and more — from any spread of Sahel-level chaos to the Atlantic coast, a region five times more populous than West Africa’s interior states.

A boost to America’s readiness to help is this: Two U.S. administrations and bipartisan congressional majorities combined in recent years to achieve a 10-year Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability across five coastal West African countries. The U.S. government also has committed to an unprecedented partnership with Africa, recognizing the continent’s rising leadership and influence in shaping the 21st century world.

But a singular partner with, and contributor to, U.S. strategic goals — West Africa’s stability and a broad U.S.-Africa partnership on security, trade, investment and peace — must be the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Any effective U.S. and international response in West Africa must support ECOWAS to revive and strengthen its historically impressive role in building peace and democracy.

West African Stability, ECOWAS’ Role

While media and policy discussions rightly focus on West Africa’s crises of governance and democracy, including its four states now under military rule, the region also includes a community of democracies — Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria and Cape Verde — that promote stability and good governance through ECOWAS and its institutions. Recent democratic elections and transfers of power in Liberia, and in Senegal’s resolution of a constitutional crisis, underscore these democracies’ resilience.

Among Africa’s eight regional economic communities, ECOWAS is the most effective in preventing or resolving crises of war and governance. Over years, its members made ECOWAS their forum for setting norms of democracy and good governance, including a 2001 protocol to require fair elections and declare “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.” Like many multinational bodies, ECOWAS has fallen short in consistently implementing its declared norms. Yet it repeatedly has advanced them; its peacekeeping forces have halted civil warfare, reversed coup attempts or ushered peaceful political transitions in six West African states.

But now ECOWAS must strengthen its capacities to meet the new threats to democracy and peace rising in West Africa, as well as worldwide. These include, terrorism, economic disruptions and impoverishment from COVID, climate shocks and Russia’s war on Ukraine. A decade ago, Sahel nations’ democracy efforts already were weakened by economic impoverishment, especially among communities marginalized from state power; a huge youth population whose needs would have been difficult to meet even by wealthy states; extremist cells linked to al-Qaida or ISIS; an influx of weaponry following Libya’s 2011 collapse; and broad corruption in governance and business. Insurgencies and coups spread across Sahel states, fueled by acute problems:

  • Hollow democracies excluded (ethnic or regional) communities from governance and its benefits — this despite democratic constitutions and Sahel peoples’ sustained democratic aspirations. Exclusion bred extremism in those left out, fueling insurgencies, transnational crime and, eventually, coups d’etat.
  • Accelerating climate warming, at 1.5 times the world average, crimps Sahel farmers and herders’ livelihoods and amplifies conflicts in nations that are among the world’s least able to adapt to such climate shocks
  • Clashing outside powers heighten conflicts. Russia seeks influence and profit through Wagner Group (now “Africa Corps”) mercenaries and mining operations, fueling violence, military rule or both in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sudan and the Central African Republic. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia back rival factions in Sudan’s civil war. China’s decades-long rise in trade and infrastructure development, while lower-key than in other African regions, is influential in West Africa.
  • Authoritarian disinformation campaigns from Russian, and some Chinese, sources particularly target West Africa — comprising nearly half of all campaigns across sub-Saharan Africa, the National Defense University’s Africa center reported last month. Campaigns promote military rule and alignment with Russia, and anti-democratic, anti-French and anti-ECOWAS sentiments.

ECOWAS has at times mis-stepped, as in an ill-coordinated response to last July’s coup in Niger. ECOWAS’ chairman, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, initially threatened military force; the bloc then imposed trade sanctions before lifting them last month to seek dialogue instead on restoring civilian rule. The threat of force heightened a nationalist backlash in Niger and likely encouraged its military rulers to join those of Mali and Burkina Faso in announcing their withdrawal from ECOWAS next year. By contrast, ECOWAS used effective, low-key diplomacy in helping Senegal reverse its ex-president’s unconstitutional effort to prolong his term in office.

A Vital Step: Boost Africa’s Regional Blocs

To strengthen democracy and stability in West Africa, and contain the Sahel’s chaos, ECOWAS must bolster its capacities — and its connections and legitimacy among the citizenries of its member states. U.S. and other international partners should support. Critical steps include:

  1. Build fast, calibrated ECOWAS responses to prevent and address crises. ECOWAS sometimes responds to crises slowly and ineptly as member governments debate whether or how to intervene. The bloc needs to negotiate a fuller consensus on what measurable “threshold events” should trigger what kind of ECOWAS responses. To lay such foundations for an effective “short game” of crisis response, the bloc can draw lessons from successes (as in Senegal) and failures (as in Niger).
  2. Strengthen roles of ECOWAS’ parliament. ECOWAS faces criticism that it is dominated by its member states’ executive leaders and fails to truly represent West Africa’s peoples. This heightens a need to strengthen the roles of the often ignored ECOWAS Parliament, including conflict prevention. This would reinforce ECOWAS’ support and legitimacy among West African citizenries. This shift can benefit from intensifying inter-parliamentary exchanges, experience-sharing and cooperation with the ECOWAS legislature’s peer institutions in democracies and multinational institutions around, and beyond, Africa.
  3. Build a unified ECOWAS peace and security architecture. For years, a disjointed array of multinational forces fought West Africa’s insurgencies: the United Nations’ MINUSMA, the French-led Operation Barkhane, the five-nation G5 Sahel, and the West African Accra Initiative. The dissolution of the first three creates a moment for ECOWAS to frame a locally owned, pan-regional system for deploying West African military force in response to violence and other crises. This architecture should be integrated with the Accra Initiative. Partnership from the United States, European Union and other multinational security initiatives can help. As West Africa’s security challenges are deeply interconnected, the region’s response must finally become well integrated also.
  4. Shape an ECOWAS Standby Force to serve West Africa’s people. ECOWAS has authority to assemble and deploy a “standby force” from among member states’ military and police services. ECOWAS should consider how to shape and use such a force to serve its constituent citizenries and rebuild ECOWAS’ public legitimacy. A fully West African force should be part of a wholistic strategy — leading with improvements to democratic governance, rather than narrow application of military force — to counter violent extremism. Thinking “outside the box” could generate roles for the ECOWAS force in responding to humanitarian emergencies, notably from climate shocks. An ECOWAS force should be ready to provide support such as the U.S. military lent in Liberia to contain the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak.
  5. Ensure that broadest-possible West African solutions are coordinated — both internally (among ECOWAS’ states and across its executive, parliamentary and other institutions) and with the African Union’s African Peace and Security Architecture. Such full intra-African consultation and coordination grounds solutions more solidly. Moreover, it advances the kind of partnership that the United States has committed to build in Africa by reducing a discomfiting but inherent problem in all international donor efforts. That is, whenever local voices are excluded from problem-solving, the voices of outsiders risk being relatively amplified, whether intentionally or not. Even the impression of such a stifling of sovereignty undermines such partnered efforts — a corrosion that donor countries and institutions should be first in helping to avoid.

Steps such as these will not only strengthen ECOWAS as West Africa’s primary pro-democracy institution, but they will also bolster it as an example to Africa’s other regional economic communities, which are vitally needed in similar roles across the continent.

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