Building peace in West Africa

Mohamed Ibn Chambas: 'We are not shy about taking the initiative'
From Africa Renewal: 
page 12
Mr. Mohamed Ibn ChambasPhoto: Africa Recovery/Ernest Harschs

Mr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas was elected executive secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by the region's heads of state, and took up his duties in February 2002. At the time, he was a member of parliament in Ghana, after previously holding several cabinet positions, including deputy minister of foreign affairs. He took part in Commonwealth missions to facilitate transitions to constitutional rule in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Gambia, and between 1991 and 1996 was centrally involved in ECOWAS mediation efforts in Liberia. In New York for an International Reconstruction Conference on Liberia in early February, he shared with Africa Recovery his thoughts on the challenges of bringing peace to West Africa.

AR: When ECOWAS was originally formed, its main mission was to promote the region's economic integration. But in recent years, a number of countries in the region have experienced severe internal conflicts. To what extent have peace and security issues become a greater concern for ECOWAS, and how have they affected other aspects of the organization's activities?

Chambas: You're right. From the name, it's an economic community. It was designed by the founding fathers to increase economic cooperation and see how the countries of the subregion could work together to improve economic performance, benefit from economies of scale and achieve greater integration. Regrettably, particularly over the last decade and a half, the prevalance of conflicts in the subregion has distracted our countries from concentrating on development.

Happily, we may be seeing a turn for the better, a reduction in conflicts. Working with the international community, we have brought the situation in Sierra Leone under control. Sierra Leone today is one of the happy stories in West Africa. In the last year, we have seen tremendous progress in Liberia. We hope that this time around we will be able to bring closure to this very sad chapter in the history of Liberia. The conflict that erupted in Côte d'Ivoire could have had very destabilizing consequences if ECOWAS had not moved in a timely fashion. We have gotten the support of the international community, in particular France, but also the US, the UK, the Netherlands and the EU. They have been very supportive of us in arresting that situation.

But all these activities mean that I, as chief executive, have to devote a lot of my time addressing these issues, rather than looking at how we can establish free trade in West Africa, build a regional infrastructure to improve communications and the road network - which would enhance our competitiveness - and how we can build a customs union. Yet progress has been slow because of the inordinate time spent on peace and security issues. Yet at the same time we know that without a solid foundation of peace, security and stability, whatever efforts we make in the area of socio-economic development will come to naught.

AR: ECOWAS has already been very active in peacekeeping efforts. Should it be doing more to try to prevent conflicts beforehand, through political mediation, as happened after the September 2003 military coup in Guinea-Bissau?

Chambas: We have to get more pre-emptive, anticipate and have early warning systems in place. We are strengthening our capacity in that area. We have now four regional bureaus, observatories, which are supposed to do a deeper analysis of the situation in the cluster of countries that each bureau covers. They are to send us signals if a situation may be heating up politically. We also have a Council of Elders that we can use to try to defuse the situation. We are also using the mechanism of our meetings of heads of state to see how, among themselves, they can talk frankly to each other and prevent situations from getting out of hand. Regrettably, we have not shown the courage and the determination to move in a timely fashion to prevent situations of crisis from deepening. And when it has gotten out of hand, it has cost us in the subregion and the wider international community much more to resolve the crisis then. So you will see more activity from ECOWAS in the area of early warning, in the area of preventative and pre-emptive diplomacy.

AR: In Liberia last year, ECOWAS was very quick in getting peacekeeping troops on the ground. Those forces have now been brought into the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). What is the role of ECOWAS now in Liberia?


UN peacekeepers collecting arms from ex-combatants in Liberia: regional coordination is vital to prevent arms and fighters from crossing into neighbouring countries.
Photo: United Nations/DPI

Chambas: We still have a role to play. The comprehensive peace agreement envisages an implementation monitoring committee, to be chaired by the special representative of the executive secretary of ECOWAS. So ECOWAS has opened an office in Liberia and the special representative is in the field working hand-in-glove with the UN and members of the International Contact Group present in Liberia, namely the US, Nigeria, Ghana and EU. The committee is important to follow through on the implementation of all aspects of the agreement, especially the political aspect, so it does not become a bottleneck to the peace process. We have to hold the Liberian parties to their obligations and their responsibilities and make sure they cooperate fully, so that this time around durable peace will come.

AR: What are the challenges of trying to deal with issues of peace and security on a regional level?

Chambas: This is a major challenge. The interlocking nature of the various crises - the rebel movements, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons across weak frontiers - these have been contributory factors to the crises spilling over from one country to the other. It started in Liberia, which was more or less the epicentre of the instability. From there it spilled over to Sierra Leone. And then we saw how quickly the same elements - the armed groups, the mercenaries - were able to join the fray in Côte d'Ivoire.

So we are advocating strongly that a regional approach be adopted to resolving these crises. They cannot be dealt with in isolation from each other. We have to see the interlinkages. We have to strengthen the border patrols, so that there are sufficient troops placed at the borders to prevent easy movement of these armed groups from one country to the other. We have to intensify efforts to control the proliferation, spread and smuggling of small arms and light weapons.

The biggest opportunity to end these conflicts will come if the Security Council authorizes a mission in Côte d'Ivoire [see box] at the same time there is a mission in Liberia and Sierra Leone. We can then engage in effective disarmament in all three countries. We also have to more or less synchronize the withdrawal of our forces, so that we don't withdraw prematurely from a country and give an opportunity to armed groups to move in. If we were to totally withdraw all the forces and close down UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone, while the operations are still going on in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, the hard core elements are likely to regroup and find their way to Sierra Leone. That could threaten all the progress we have achieved in Sierra Leone.

AR: There have often been accusations that some governments in the region have been providing support, transit routes or refuge for rebel groups in neighbouring countries. Does ECOWAS have some means of getting its own members to behave?

Chambas: I think even as we have tried to handle the situation in these countries, one of the things we have insisted on is the ECOWAS protocol on non-aggression. In the past, the enforcement of this protocol has not been effective, and we are the first to admit that. Groups have crossed from one country to another to foment trouble, without the consent of the governments of neighbouring countries - but also often with the tacit support of some governments. Obviously, this situation is unacceptable. It is not in the interest of peace and stability in the subregion. We now have many member states calling for a review of this protocol, in order to strengthen it.

AR: In the past, the international community often dealt with such crises on a country-by-country basis. Do you see movement on the part of the donors in looking at these problems in more of a regional framework?

Chambas: That is the message we are getting. There is an understanding of the interrelatedness of the situation in different countries. In certain conflicts we have seen that instability in one country can trigger instability in a neighbouring country. So it is a healthy development that our partners are beginning to appreciate this, and to agree with us that we need to approach peace and security in a global fashion. They are seeing that you cannot create an island of peace and security in one country when there are so many hotspots of tension and conflict in the subregion.

AR: What do you see as the ideal division of labour between the international community and African governments in peacekeeping activities?

Chambas: We deeply and seriously believe in finding African solutions to African problems. We have seen in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire that ECOWAS has responded very actively and quickly. It has been involved directly in mediation efforts, in trying to find a political settlement. When it has become necessary for a military response, we have been willing to provide the personnel. Our limitation is that as developing countries, with poor economies, we do not have the financial resources to support our troops. This is where we have called on our partners to provide us with the materiel and the funding to enable us to engage in these missions. But we ourselves believe that it is our responsibility, which we are happy to take on, to provide the troops. If a larger force is required, then others can come and support us. But we are not shy about taking the initiative.

New UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire

Following the outbreak of civil war in Côte d'Ivoire in September 2002, the main parties in the conflict signed a wide-ranging peace agreement early the following year. Although the government army and opposition military forces remain in control of separate parts of the country, a government of national reconciliation was established with ministers from both sides. France sent 4,000 troops and ECOWAS dispatched a force of 1,300 to monitor the agreement, alongside a small UN liaison mission, known as the UN Mission in Côte d'Ivoire (MINUCI). On 4 February 2004, the UN Security Council agreed to transform MINUCI into a regular UN peacekeeping mission as of 4 April, to be called the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI).

UNOCI will have an authorized military and police strength of 6,240. Its mandate includes monitoring the ceasefire, assisting the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants, helping investigate human rights abuses and supporting the peace process so that new presidential elections can be held in 2005. According to the Security Council resolution, UNOCI is to work closely with the UN missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, "especially in the prevention of movements of arms and combatants across shared borders and the implementation of disarmament and mobilization programmes."