Monday, October 29, 2012

Communicating the ECOWAS Message (2) Mali: Time for Permanent ECOWAS and AU missions over Africa!

The Accidental Ecowas & AU Citizen”:
Communicating the ECOWAS Message (2) Mali: Time for Permanent ECOWAS and AU missions over Africa!
By E.K.Bensah Jr

 By the time you read this, it would have been more than 48 hours since a counter-coup in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau. It would have been some 96 hours since ECOWAS met up with the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations and other stakeholders in Mali to make take decisive steps for an intervention in Mali.

In all this, one wonders what the AU message has been. Considering the fact that the AU is the superintendent of the African Standby Force (under which there are regional nodes, such as the Ecowas standby force currently in Guinea-Bissau), why has it not been seen to be articulating the message that any troops from Ecowas would be under the umbrella of the Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), under which the African Standby Force is a direct outcome.

And what of Ecowas? Where is Sunny Ugoh, the Communications Director of Ecowas? Unlike Nato and the EU, I am yet to see a spokesperson for the Ecowas Commission. Even at the African Union, the Deputy President Erastus Mwencha acts like the unofficial spokesperson of the President-proper. While it is true that the Vice-President of Ecowas has been a bit more visible than his francophone predecessor, we probably cannot point the finger of blame to him on why Ecowas has arguably failed in communicating its message over Mali.

I am keen to avoid an elaboration of the timeline that led us to what might be an ineluctable slide to intervention in the northern part of Mali. All I would need to say is that had Mali not taken the matter to the United Nations to seek Chapter VII-approval, an Ecowas standby force (ESF) might just be in that country now and Malians would have probably felt less trepidation about an eventual intervention.

If the penny has yet to drop on the point I am making, then let me make it very crystal-clear: like in the Ivorian crisis, and Libya in 2011, both Ecowas and the AU have failed woefully to communicate yet-again on what kind of policy is directing them in their decisions in Mali—never mind Guinea-Bissau, which has just experienced a counter-coup and will need Ecowas leadership to show the way.

Liberia in 1990  vs Mali in 2012
In order to get a sense of why communication has failed, we need to return to history.

As you may well now know, Ecowas broke out onto the stage in 1990 when it went into Liberia under ECOMOG. Its intervention happened at a time when there was fatigue by the so-called international community on Africa. There was no Chapter VII-approval before intervention as the UN itself was playing a wait-and-watch game. Despite the fact that the United States was Liberia's biggest Western ally, not once did the US step into offer its assistance as explicitly as it has done in the case of Mali. Instead, intervention was left to the English-speaking countries of Ecowas to spearhead. It must be noted the francophones were very uneasy about intervening in Liberia, and, frankly, they feared Nigeria as well.

According to one Comfort Ero, currently  Crisis Group's Nairobi-based Africa Program Director since January 2011, who has written extensively on ECOMOG in Liberia as well as peace and security in West Africa,  there are three reasons why Ecowas went into Liberia.

First of all, ECOWAS believed that "regional instability was inevitable due to the overflow and displacement of refugees in neighbouring countries." Consequently, there was a fear that the conflict would trigger lateral pressure to such an extent that refugees would feel compelled to spill over into neighbouring countries, such as Sierra-Leone, Ghana, the Gambia, Guinea, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.
Secondly, ECOWAS went in purely for humanitarian reasons. According to Ero, "in its Final Communiqué, the Standing Committee gave a strongly humanitarian rationale for its decisions, {to that effect} adding that presently, there is a government in Liberia which cannot govern contending factions which are holding the entire population as hostages depriving them of food, health facilities and other basic necessities of life." Moreover, an ECOWAS statement in August 1990 was more "explicit in emphasizing a humanitarian objective.” In it, it stated that there needed to be a "stopping {of} the senseless killing of innocent civilians, nationals and foreigners, and to help the Liberian people to restore their democratic institutions."

Finally, justification for intervention was predicated on the 1981 ECOWAS Protocol relating to Mutual Assistance in Defence. According to Article 16 of the Protocol, "the Head of State of a member country under attack may request action or assistance from the community."

Twenty-two years later, there seems to be fudge because, it seems, Mali has not had sufficient faith in its own sub-regional institutions. Guinea-Bissau seemed quite happy to allow an Ecowas Standby Force—much to the chagrin of the Lisbon-based Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP)--into the country to replace the UN troops in May 2012. Even with Guinea-Bissau, Lisbon saw itself as needing to be seen to be playing a critical role in the resolution of the crisis. 

Weeks before the 30 May withdrawal of Angolan troops, Portugal claimed that the CPLP reserves the right to call for intervention from the Security Council. This, in my view, seemed to reflect a more stylistic approach to any resolution of the crisis in Guinea-Bissau than substance, for whether Portugal likes it or not, the former remains a member of ECOWAS, and it is that bloc that is and was that bloc that was likely to power-broker any solution to the coup!

Back in May, the Pan-African News Agency (PANA) reported that Burkina Faso would become the first troop contributing nation to deploy to the ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau (ECOMIB) when the first batch of its 170-member Formed Police Unit (FPU) landed in Bissau. It continued that apart from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Togo were also expected to contribute to the 629-strong regional force, which would replace Angolan troops.

As the Angolan security mission in Guinea-Bissau agreed to fully-withdraw by 30 May, ECOWAS defence chiefs ended their one-day meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday 14 May with an agreement to begin the deployment Friday 18 May 2012.

Among its functions, ECOMIB will seek to support the restoration of constitutional rule, provide security for VIPs and guarantee the freedom of movement of humanitarian agencies in the country, ahead of the planned Security Sector Reform in that country.

At this stage, it is premature to do a direct compare-and-contrast of the Ecowas Mission to Mali (Mission de la CEDEAO au Mali), and it is encouraging that there is already a mission in the formation. I want to discourage a finger-pointing at Ecowas; instead I would want to know why Mali did not espouse sufficient confidence in Ecowas, especially at a time when there were reports of Malians calling for Ecowas intervention. The questions I am seeking are unlikely to be answered in the here and now, so one might just have to settle for the historians to do the speculation—wherever West African historians and political scientists may be!

What I do know is this: following the meeting in Mali of 19 October, the UN and AU have both decided to establish permanent missions in Mali in order to coordinate developments around an eventual intervention. I would like to think that Ecowas might consider establishing a permanent mission there, as well, in the way the AU has established AMISOM in Somalia.

In the meantime, here are my humble proposals for Ecowas to move forward in attempts at communication.

Recommendations for ECOWAS
First, ECOWAS should re-configure its ECOWAS National Units into permanent missions and reduce the fiction that they are liaising with the public. Even if they never intended to do that, it should have been one of their aims: serve as the link between the ECOWAS institutions and its community citizens. In Ghana, they are a desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration.

Ecowas has sufficient internally-generated funds to be able to afford establishing a mission in every Ecowas member state. If the AU can establish a permanent mission in Brussels (which is regrettably largely-funded by the EU!), then it should be able to also establish missions in at least “strategic” AU countries.

Failing that, the ECOWAS National Units should establish a website, and regularly-provide citizens information on what Ecowas is doing. Few people have sufficient time to be checking the website of ECOWAS every day. The Ecowas National Unit should be bringing Ecowas to community citizens, and not expecting us as citizens to find out what they are doing. Simply put, they must be accountable. And in this era of New and Social Media, Ecowas should hurry up and re-design its website so that everything on their site can be shared to an Ecowas page on Facebook. Even the AU is beginning to appreciate the necessity of being on Facebook and Twitter. Ecowas must do same quickly or face continuing to be considered an irrelevant institution by a large part of its community citizens!

Direct action!
As a direct outcome of last week’s article, a journalist from the Global Media Alliance-sponsored ETV Ghana, Fred Smith, decided to establish a group on the whatsapp social networking site to enable interested media practitioners, journalists, and communicators work together to promote the idea of an Africa press wire service here in Ghana. While some exist already through PANAPRESS and the Africa Press Organisation, no such organisation exists in Ghana. For a country which first President promulgated Pan-Africanism, is regrettable to say the least! Interested parties can contact me directly. The list-serv to carry this idea forward can be found on



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