Lessons from the ECOWAS intervention in The Gambia

The ECOWAS intervention, which was founded on the principle of humanitarianism, is yet to be replicated across Africa
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Most observers agree that the ECOWAS intervention in the Gambia prevented a bloodbath in that country following Yahya Jammeh’s decision to renege on his electoral concession. But what exactly made that intervention successful? Is there anything worthy of emulation by other regional bodies? I think so.

Most regional bodies are reluctant to intervene in the face of instability due to the principle of territorial integrity. Accordingly, they often recuse themselves from intervening in matters which are fundamentally within the territorial jurisdiction of any state. In fact, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was conceived to respond to this challenge and ensure that saving lives trumps other principles. But, unfortunately, the ECOWAS intervention, which was founded on the principle of humanitarianism, is yet to be replicated across Africa.

In West Africa, the ECOWAS has transcended its traditional mandate of promoting economic cooperation and integration to peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and security provisioning within the past three decades. Relying on the relevant provisions of its protocols, the ECOWAS expanded its functional responsibilities because the pursuit of economic integration alone will remain a wild goose chase if peace and security are not guaranteed.

The ECOWAS has shown the capacity to use both military and non-military options to independently address political uprisings within its jurisdiction. In The Gambia, the ECOWAS deployed its pioneering and flagship post-election military intervention, ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG), on 19 January 2017. With a standby force of about 7,000 troops who were used to surround The Gambia by land, sea and air, the ECOMIG was able to avert the anticipated humanitarian consequences of the 2016 political instability in the country. This was a remarkable feat considering that other regional organisations have not played leading roles in the face of similar crises in their own backyards.

Indeed, several countries particularly in Central Africa (e.g., Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, DR Congo) and East Africa (e.g., Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia) have, in the past or more recently, witnessed political uprisings associated with the outcome of disputed elections, full-blown civil wars, and even genocide, but the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the East African Community (EAC) have failed to take preventive measures or even intervene when necessary. Here, the decision of regional blocs to use the principle of territorial integrity as a justification for their reluctance to promptly intervene has led to an unimaginable loss of human lives and property.

In Burundi, for instance, the effort by the EAC to stem the 2015 post-election violence in the country was unsuccessful because of divisions among its member-states and the inflexibility of the Burundian government. At the time, it was reported that extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, and mass graves were widespread. As a result, the number of registered Burundian refugees in neighbouring African countries, especially DR Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, rose from 24,384 in April 2015 to 423,056 in June 2017. In this case, too, the principle of territorial integrity was favoured over humanitarian considerations.

In the Horn of Africa (HoA), the mandate of the IGAD was expanded in 1996 to contain the groundswell of intra- and inter-state armed conflicts in that region. And indeed, the organisation has played a salutary role in peacebuilding initiatives aimed at restoring a sovereign government in Somalia. Similarly, IGAD has sustained active involvement in the resolution of the South Sudanese conflict since 2013. However, the organisation has failed to show interest in the prolonged violent conflicts in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which have had unimaginable economic and humanitarian consequences for the country. By the same token, the IGAD has refused to intervene in various long-lasting border disputes in the region, particularly between Sudan and Ethiopia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Djibouti, and Somalia and Kenya. Although these conflicts suggest that inter-state relations in the HoA are characterised by mutual distrust, suspicion and uncertainty, they also question the capacity of the IGAD to resolve them. Given that there is no country in the HoA that has not been affected by violent conflicts since the creation of IGAD, it begs the question of why the organisation was quick to mediate in the internal conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan but failed to demonstrate similar commitment in resolving other intra- and inter-state uprisings in the region. Part of the answers lies in the fact that Somalia and South Sudan were considered as failed states, unable to convincingly invoke the principle of territorial integrity in order to prevent the intervention of their neighbours.

While regional blocs in Africa have laudably prioritised their core objectives of promoting economic cooperation and integration in their jurisdictions, the organic and reinforcing role of stable political environments in economic development demands that they should not be neglected. More fundamentally, African regional blocs should thrust the Westphalia doctrine of territorial integrity aside in resolving violent conflicts because the principle pales in comparison to pervasive conflict-induced humanitarian crises which ultimately affect neighbours. For interventions such as the one conducted by ECOWAS to become the norm rather than the exception, Africans will have to accept the idea that collective security trumps the principle of territorial integrity.

Currently, there is an urgent need to foster inter-state and inter-regional cooperation to address the security challenges in the Sahel region, Eastern DR Congo and other parts of the continent. The ECOWAS intervention is a case in point with regard to conflict prevention that should be emulated. Other interventions such as those conducted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda in Mozambique support the idea that if Africans are ready to prioritise the imperatives of collective security over a blind application of the principle of territorial integrity, then they can build a collective security architecture that addresses some of our challenges through peacebuilding, peace support operations and humanitarian interventions.

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