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Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa
Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa
What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?
What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?
Group photograph of the heads of states and Government at the 48th Ordinary Session of the Ecowas Authority of Heads of State and Government in Abuja, 16th December 2015. AFP PHOTO/NurPhoto
Report 234 / Africa

Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has a formidable record in its efforts to promote peace in a particularly turbulent region. Still, reform is essential to give the organisation new impetus, and is ever more urgent as insecurity worsens throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions.

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Executive Summary

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), now in its 41st year, has a formidable record, both in its efforts to enhance regional economic integration, its initial mandate, and to promote peace in a particularly turbulent region. Still, the organisation has demonstrated shortcomings requiring significant institutional change. Reform is essential to give the organisation new impetus, and is ever more urgent as insecurity worsens throughout the Sahel and Lake Chad regions – crisis zones extending beyond ECOWAS’s geographic area and where it has limited impact and influence.

Comprising fifteen states of great political, linguistic and economic diversity and spanning a vast geographic area from the Atlantic coast to the Sahara desert, ECOWAS has been the most sought-after African regional economic body in the field of peace and security in the past 25 years. The organisation, itself composed of fragile states, has been forced to put out fires within its own member states. 

The ECOWAS region has experienced over forty coups since the independence era and seen some of its leaders trying to keep their grip on power at any cost, or establish political dynasties. The body has also been confronted with more complex crises in the form of identity-based armed rebellion, as in Côte d’Ivoire, or jihadist threats, most recently in Mali. Since the 1990s, through the authority of its Heads of State and Government, ECOWAS has reacted to these crises systematically. It has yielded incontestable political and diplomatic results, but its military record is more mixed. 

ECOWAS’s interventions in Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso have highlighted the organisation’s strengths, but also its limits. It has neglected several of its key objectives, including strengthening the political and security institutions of member states, reassessing all dimensions of its Standby Force and enhancing regional cooperation on transnational security threats. Such threats pose a challenge to established crisis prevention or resolution mechanisms, and cannot be overcome by traditional mediation tactics and the deployment of military missions.

The organisation has developed a number of strategy documents and action plans in recent years to correct its shortcomings, but must implement them fully to address myriad threats. These include the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans; the proliferation of groups linked to transnational terrorist organisations; and the major regional challenges of poverty, unemployment and significant population growth. In addition, ECOWAS needs to undertake significant internal reorganisation, modernise its human resources management and develop a results-based culture. The new president of the ECOWAS Commission, Marcel Alain de Souza, should make it a priority as pledged in his inaugural speech on 8 April 2016. Nigeria, which through its economic and demographic dominance wields unmatched influence in West Africa, must also play a leading role in implementing these reforms. 

This report, the third and final in a series analysing the regional dimension of insecurity in Africa and collective and individual state responses, presents ECOWAS’s current institutional apparatus in the field of peace and security, and analyses its responses and deficiencies through three case studies: Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Burkina Faso. It is part of a broader reflection on the changing nature of conflict and growing transnational threats, problems requiring novel solutions which regional bodies are well placed to find. This report considers what institutional reforms need to be undertaken to improve ECOWAS’s collective action in the face of formidable challenges to peace and security in West Africa.


To strengthen ECOWAS’s institutions in the field of peace and security

To ECOWAS’s Authority of Heads of State and Government:

  1. Reaffirm the essential and irreversible nature of the implementation of the institutional reform proposed in 2013 that aimed to strengthen the organisation’s capacity in the field of peace, security, stability and social and economic development.
  2. Create a working group tasked with monitoring the implementation of this reform process, including heads of state and government, or, alternatively, high-level political figures, representative of the political, cultural and linguistic diversity of ECOWAS.

To the president of Nigeria:

  1. View the restoration of Nigerian diplomacy and its influence throughout Africa as a priority for the federal government, and make the revitalisation of ECOWAS a central pillar of this renewed diplomatic role.
  2. Strengthen ECOWAS’s capacity by supplying additional financial resources to peacekeeping or peace-enforcing missions.

To the president of the ECOWAS Commission:

  1. Take immediate action to improve the efficiency of departments, by addressing dysfunctions within human resources management, administration and finance, and blockages or delays in the implementation of decisions which result from the concentration of power within the commission presidency.

To improve ECOWAS’s efficiency in attaining its objectives for peace and security

To the ECOWAS Commission:

  1. Accompany member states in the reform of their political practices to strengthen their legitimacy and effectiveness, specifically in the areas of good governance and in strengthening their judiciaries in line with ECOWAS protocols, specifically by establishing ECOWAS permanent representation offices in every member state.
  2. Strengthen the capacity of member states to face collectively transnational threats by:
    1. creating an ECOWAS centre for the fight against organised crime that would integrate different action plans against transnational criminal activity, including terrorism, drug, human and arms trafficking and maritime piracy;
    2. strengthening communication between Abuja, the permanent representation offices and member states;
    3. encouraging them to develop greater knowledge of political and security dynamics in neighbouring regions, specifically North and Central Africa, and ensuring regional collaboration occurs at political, technical and operational levels, and engages all actors, including the judicial system;
    4. strengthening significantly ECOWAS’s expertise on other regional economic communities in Africa and throughout the world, and inviting other regional economic communities in Africa and the African Union (AU) to define a frame­work of coordination and collaboration on issues of terrorism, trafficking, maritime security, money laundering, infiltration and destabilisation of states by criminal networks.
  3. Implement the recommendations of ECOWAS’s self-assessment conducted in 2013 following the Mali crisis, specifically those concerning operationalising the mediation facilitation division and re-examining all dimensions of the ECOWAS Stand­by Force (doctrine, operational procedures, logistical strategies and financing).

To West African civil society organisations:

  1. Support publicly the recommendations contained in the institutional reform project proposed in 2013, and implement an ad hoc structure for West African civil society to independently monitor its implementation.

To AU member states and to the chairperson of the AU Commission:

  1. Clarify the principles of subsidiarity, comparative advantage and responsibility sharing to quell tensions between the AU and ECOWAS during major crises in West Africa and its neighbours.
  2. Continue to reflect on the doctrine, format and configuration of the African Stand­by Force with a view to better adapting the model to current threats and the future of peace and security on the continent, drawing lessons from challenges encountered by ECOWAS.

To ECOWAS’s international partners:

  1. Support ECOWAS’s institutional reform without interfering in the process, and continue technical and financial assistance projects while ensuring they do not reduce incentives for reform.

Dakar/Brussels, 14 April 2016

Russian and Turkey servicemen are on a joint patrol along the M4 highway at Idlib de-escalation zone, Syria on 5 May 2020. Sputnik via AFP
Speech / Global

What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?

This is an expanded and updated version of remarks originally given to a conference organised by Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 17 May 2020. A conference summary is available here.

The UN call for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19 has lost momentum, but I would begin by saying that Secretary-General António Guterres deserves credit for coming up with a genuinely compelling appeal, and I think the resonance of his original proposal took a lot of us by surprise.

When we first heard he was calling for a ceasefire, cynical diplomacy watchers, such as myself, thought it might be a bit of a gimmick, and not have any concrete impact. What was interesting was that in the first week to ten days after he made the appeal, in late March, we saw quite a lot of armed groups and governments acknowledging the call and promising to consider it. The UN estimated that conflict parties in eleven countries recognised this call by early April. That figure is a little dodgy, as in some places like Ukraine, conflict actors recognised the call but kept on fighting regardless. Conversely there were cases, such as in Thailand, where armed groups promised to suspend military activities in response to COVID-19 but didn’t make reference to the UN in doing so. Therefore, the actual number of conflict actors that have picked up on the ceasefire idea is a little slippery, but it was still a significant number, in late March and early April.

The ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide.

Since mid-April, however, we have not seen a lot of momentum. Indeed, at the moment, if you look at conflict data globally, the ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide. There are a number of reasons for that.

A first problem is that in some cases one party in a conflict offered a ceasefire in response to the UN call, but the other party was either not interested or only fleetingly interested in taking up the offer, sometimes because they didn’t see the terms as acceptable. An example was Cameroon, where SOCADEF, one of a number of Anglophone rebel groups, was quick to endorse the global ceasefire in late March, but the government simply ignored it. The fighting never stopped and both sides appear to have increased their targeting of aid workers since the UN appeal.

We also saw a different variation on this theme in Colombia, where the ELN rebel group instituted a month-long pause in violence but demanded quite extensive political talks with the government in Bogotá in order to extend it, which the government was not willing to offer. The ELN ended its ceasefire at the end of April.

Yemen is another case, though the facts are complicated. It is true that the Saudi coalition supporting the UN-recognised government offered a freeze of hostilities in early April (and subsequently renewed this offer), and the Huthi rebel group refused to accept it. But this needs to be seen in the context that the UN had been working toward a more complex ceasefire plan involving confidence-building measures by both sides, which the Saudi offer did not include. From the Huthi perspective, the freeze looked like a bit of a sham, and both sides kept on fighting.

A second problem is that even where you had seeming good-will among conflict parties to pause violence in response to COVID-19, there was often a lack of ceasefire architecture for taking advantage of these offers. It is one thing for an armed group to say it wants to reduce violence, but another to translate that wish into a technical ceasefire agreement with clear terms and some sort of security guarantee that all sides can accept. Obviously, this has been a bad period for international mediators and international peacekeepers to try to set up architecture of that type, that can sustain a ceasefire: we’re in a period when international mediators are unable to travel to conflict zones. We’re in a period where many are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement. It is very hard to go through the hard, technical work of turning offers of ceasefires into actual pauses in violence.

We’re in a period where many international mediators are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement.

But this may have resulted in some missed opportunities. In the Philippines, for example, the government called a unilateral pause in operations against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rebels before the UN appeal. The CPP did not initially reciprocate, but it did offer a ceasefire after the UN call. Yet it didn’t work, partly because the two sides had no real way to operationalise their commitments. They pursued overlapping but uncoordinated ceasefires through April, with messy results. Soldiers and communist rebels would inadvertently cross paths and end up in skirmishes. Violence increased to pre-COVID-19 levels and the CPP ended its ceasefire in April.

The third consideration, which in most respects is a good news story, has been to do with the disease. The situation in late March was one in which many expected COVID-19 to be a catastrophe – including rapid spread of the disease and high levels of fatalities in fragile states and war zones. We haven’t really seen that happen. To be sure, we have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 in some conflict-affected regions – for example, the city of Aden in Yemenbut they have not shaken up the calculations of warring parties. In countries like Libya, the level of the disease doesn’t seem to have affected either side one way or the other.

It is possible that may change, particularly as the disease begins to surge in parts of the world that were previously spared. There seems to be a high rate of infection in Yemen, although the data is bad. We are worryingly seeing an outbreak in refugee camps in South Sudan. We may see the disease spike in coming months – indeed, infections seem to be accelerating in Africa now – and it is possible that spikes may inspire armed groups to lay down their arms temporarily. But that has not happened yet.

The fourth factor is the dysfunction of the UN Security Council. If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal. Had the Council, at France’s suggestion, moved quickly in late March or early April to adopt a resolution endorsing the idea, that would have given it extra political credibility and nudged conflict parties to take it more seriously. It would not have resulted in world peace, but it would have firmed up and given momentum to the Secretary-General’s call.

If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal.

Instead, what we have seen is that for about six or seven weeks, the Council was unable to agree to a resolution endorsing the ceasefire idea, not because anyone objected to the ceasefire idea, but instead because all members supported it with caveats. At first, the U.S. and Russia insisted that they be allowed to continue counter-terrorism operations, for instance. Then the U.S. and China came to a complete deadlock over whether there should be a paragraph somewhere in the resolution saying something nice about the World Health Organization (WHO). The U.S. refused to accept any language that contained even the smallest positive reference to the WHO, and the Chinese refused to accept text that did not refer to it. It got to the point that the U.S. torpedoed a resolution that all fourteen Council members had accepted, at the last moment, because it contained a small, indirect reference to the WHO.

The consequence of this great power arm wrestling is that the UN Security Council has been paralysed and has marginalised itself in this debate. I would say also, that for those who watch the Council, it is depressing to think they can’t agree on this comparatively symbolic move, when we know that much thornier issues await, including the West Bank annexation question and the Iranian nuclear deal. If they cannot agree on a ceasefire, it is unlikely that they can agree on these issues.

Sadly, the ceasefire call is less powerful than it seemed when the Secretary-General made it. UN officials concede that the call has “fizzled”. Secretary-General Guterres has continued to push the idea but other topics, from how to manage the economic fallout of the pandemic to the fate of the nuclear deal, are likely to dominate the UN agenda in the coming months. The virus, however, may have greater staying power. It could still have severe effects on states in conflict. Politicians, diplomats and peacemakers will have to deal with its consequences for some time to come. In doing so, they will need to see if they can build more effective frameworks to prevent, pause and end violence than the ceasefire call proved to be.