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ECOWAS struggles to address violent extremism

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Special focus AU RECs: Ad hoc structures have been set up to fight violent extremism in the Sahel, but they often overlap and compete for scarce funding and troop contributions.

The threat of violent extremism in the Sahel has now become one of the biggest challenges for countries in West Africa. So far, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has failed to respond adequately. This is largely owing to the rapidly changing nature of the security threats in the region that have presented it with new difficulties. Established norms and response frameworks are being put to the test.

The spread of jihadist groups

Jihadist groups have over the past few years been able to successfully mobilise and radicalise people in the Sahel, a region plagued by systemic, political and socio-economic problems. These groups are now spreading to the coastal states. Numerous such groups have emerged in recent years, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and al-Mourabitoum.

The situation is constantly evolving. In 2012, for instance, AQMI was the main group operating in Mali. However, by 2018 there were about 10 groups operating across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. This development illustrates the rapid spread of jihadist activities that are either home-grown or a spillover of the activities of terrorist groups from other parts of the region.

The emotive appeal of these groups to disgruntled local populations, their rapid splintering and their flexibility in adapting to responses make the phenomenon of violent extremism difficult to curb. The connections between violent extremism and other threats (smuggling, kidnapping and other forms of organised crime) in the region’s vast ungoverned spaces have contributed to this changing security landscape in the Sahel.

Can ECOWAS address violent extremism in the region?

Over the last few decades, ECOWAS has been one of Africa’s most active RECs when it comes to solving conflicts and dealing with governance. This has been evident in the way ECOWAS has dealt with numerous peace and security challenges, dating back to those in the Mano River Union area in the 1990s, and the most recent instabilities in Mali and The Gambia.

Since the rise of the jihadist threat, ECOWAS has developed a three-pronged counter-terrorism strategy to guide regional action to prevent, pursue and reconstruct violent extremist activities. Beyond the strategy, however, the existing response mechanisms are not as adaptable as the threats they are meant to address. This is particularly true of non-military responses. Despite the existence of a regional framework, therefore, violent activities associated with extremist groups in the Sahel have continued to increase year by year since 2016.

As Nigeria’s response to Boko Haram has shown, military responses alone are not sufficient for dealing with extremist groups. For ECOWAS to deal with the threat of extremism it will have to adapt existing response mechanisms in line with the fast-changing nature of the threat, as its tested conflict response frameworks are not the most appropriate for dealing with extremism.

The merits of ad hoc response structures

West Africa currently hosts two major non-ECOWAS ad hoc response structures mandated by the African Union (AU) and involving multiple ECOWAS member states. The Joint Force of the Group of Five of the Sahel (G5 Sahel), comprising Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, is meant to address violent extremism concerns in the Sahel. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) is mandated to address the Boko Haram problem in the Lake Chad Basin with troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger.

The emergence of the two arrangements raises a number of important questions for both continental and regional response efforts. Firstly, their operations add to the already over-crowded security response landscape in the Sahel, in which multiple security partners –including the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French-led Operation Barkhane – are operating.

Secondly, even though the achievements of the ad hoc arrangements will add to greater security in the ECOWAS region, the fact that their emergence fills a response gap signifies apparent shortcomings in the REC’s efforts to address threats.

Thirdly, challenges are created when multiple member states participate and functions overlap in dealing with the various dimensions of the violent extremism threat in the Sahel.

At the continental level, it is clear that the AU has not been able to translate the Algiers Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism into practical solutions to violent extremism over the last two decades, hence the need for subregional ad hoc responses.

The role of regional powers

The inability of ECOWAS to take centre stage in the regional response to violent extremism draws attention to some of the challenges subregional efforts face in dealing with threats when regional powers are host to insecurity.

In the case of the Boko Haram threat, ECOWAS has not been able to play a major role partly because of Nigeria’s dominant position in the region and the complexities that would surround Nigeria's reaction to such a move. Respect for regional powers and issues of national pride make it difficult for ‘small’ neighbours to mobilise efforts to address threats in ‘big’ countries, even when such threats warrant a regional response.

It also draws attention to trans-regional threats. The Boko Haram crisis, for instance, has affected the entire Lake Chad Basin and thus impacts both West and Central Africa. This makes it difficult to anchor a regional framework on either ECOWAS or the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

Response frameworks that are rigidly regional encounter inter-regional geo-political challenges. Ad hoc arrangements, such as the MNJTF and G5 Sahel, provide an important means of dealing with such trans-regional threats without the complexities associated with the geo-political dimensions of the spread.

However, such trans-regional ad hoc arrangements confuse the emerging subsidiarity norms around the eight RECs recognised by the AU. They therefore need to be handled cautiously and coordinated properly at the continent level.

Do ad hoc structures weaken ECOWAS?

The major challenge for ECOWAS in the operations of ad hoc structures in the region is the overlap of troop contributions by member states. Chad and Niger contribute troops to both the MNJTF and G5 Sahel, and to MINUSMA. In a region where national military capacities are limited, the inability to properly coordinate existing efforts at the ECOWAS or AU level can lead to overstretch. This has implications for overall commitments to emerging regional arrangements, such as the ECOWAS Standby Force.

ECOWAS’s inability to lead important responses such as the fight against Boko Haram also has implications for the perfecting of regional mechanisms, the consolidation of regional norms and the projection of relevance.

Nonetheless, RECs must be flexible in using ad hoc structures in their response to security threats in order to deal with fluid issues such as violent extremism. In this case, since ad hoc frameworks provide an avenue for addressing the challenge associated with the trans-regionality of extremism, they should be supported if they provide the best solution in terms of the nature of the extremist crisis.

There is also a need for continental consensus on the use of such arrangements so as to harness the support of member states. The proliferation of ad hoc mechanisms is not problematic in itself. However, if these mechanisms are not adequately coordinated within regions, across regions and at the AU level, they can be a source of geo-political tension in continental efforts to address security threats.

The use of ad hoc mechanisms can also deny RECs the opportunity to fine-tune existing regional frameworks by responding to actual threats.

This article is part of a special PSC Report focus on regional economic communities in the run-up to the AU Coordination Summit on 7–8 July 2019 in Niamey, Niger.