International Order & Conflict

Elections and Violence in West Africa: Can ECOWAS Peacekeepers Help?

in Program

By Susan Megy – Nigeria’s April 16th election has been hailed the most credible since its
return to civilian rule in 1999, yet rioting, displacement and heavy civilian
casualties in the north have rapidly polarized the country. Post election
violence in Nigeria and
earlier, in Cote d’Ivoire,
has overwhelmed an already turbulent and fragile region. These skirmishes have
reignited concerns about the progress of African sub-regional peacekeeping and
its ability to protect civilians from election-related violence.  By the end of 2011, seven of the 15 nations
in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will have held
Presidential or Parliamentary elections. 
Any ensuing conflicts would further test the capacity and resolve of
ECOWAS forces.

Civilians in the Crossfire

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and home to over 150
million people and 250 ethnic groups. In the north, young
Nigerians revolted in
response to Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern Christian’s, victory over northern Muslim
Muhammadu Buhari. As fighting spiralled, hundreds
of civilians were beaten, shot and stabbed, some hacked with machetes and some
burned to death. Churches, mosques, shops and homes were set ablaze. Rampant
looting, theft and mayhem prevailed in many areas.  More than 500 civilians died and thousands
more were displaced.

Although election-related violence in Nigeria was not as severe as in Cote d’Ivoire,
both countries suffer from acute economic inequality and both have a
predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian South. Both countries are
encountering fervent debates on citizenship and ‘true nationality.’ In Nigeria, groups
believing to be “native sons” by virtue of their ancestry have viciously
attacked those perceived as non-citizens. (1) In Cote d’Ivoire, former President
Laurant Gbagbo supported the nationalist concept of ‘Ivoirite’ or being a ‘true Ivorian’ when he openly refused to
acknowledge northerners as ‘true Ivorian.’ (2) The result was targeted attacks against
specific ethnic or “foreign” communities.

The chaos in Nigeria
and Cote d’Ivoire
powerfully illustrates how elections can exacerbate underlying religious,
economic and cultural tensions.  With
four remaining ECOWAS elections scheduled for 2011, a contested vote in one of
these remaining states could ignite further bloodshed, testing sub regional
peacekeeping capacity and willingness to protect civilians.

Peacekeeping in West Africa

 As recent history attests in Liberia, Sierra
Leone, Guinea,
Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria, atrocities in West
Africa can quickly bleed into neighboring countries. Throughout
the turbulent 1990s, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demonstrated a strong resolve to
deploy peacekeepers when conflicts paralyzed the region. Though ECOMOG received criticism for
human rights abuses in the field, the international community also praised
ECOMOG for it’s proactive stance.(3)


The peacekeeping paradigm in West
Africa has transformed since the early days of ECOMOG. First,
Africa has made significant progress over the
past decade in regionalizing its peace and security architecture. The
transformation from the now obsolete Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the
African Union shifted focus from principles of ‘non-interference’ to principles of ‘non-indifference’, reflecting African leaders’ willingness to
prioritize human security and human rights. In 2008, ECOWAS created the ECOWAS
Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF), moving from ‘an ECOWAS of States’ to ‘an
ECOWAS of the Peoples.’ Both progressive peace and security mechanisms
demonstrate African leader’s willingness to prioritize human security.

Under the auspices of the African Union, the
continent is divided into five Regional Economic Communities (RECs), each with
its own sub regional standby brigade. Together, these regional brigades make up
the African Standby Force (ASF).

The ECOWAS Standby Force (referred to as the ESF or
ECOBRIG) (4) is ECOWAS’ military/peacekeeping arm. It
is comprised of a Main Brigade (MB) and rapid reaction Task Force (TF), which
can deploy in 14 days.  Similar to other
regional brigades, the ESF has extensively tested battalion logistics and
interoperability through a series of Command Post Exercises (CPX), however,
neither the ESF nor any of the other four REC’s have been deployed to a real
time conflict.


To date, progress on African
peace and security has focused primarily on creating concepts, institutions and
frameworks. The operationalization of such concepts requires further
consideration. Major obstacles hinder regional and sub regional peacekeeping
progress, including, inadequate
and inconsistent funding, equipment and staffing shortages. Other challenges

  • Training Capacity: Current training models are not
    designed to equip troops with the required knowledge to protection
    civilians on the ground. Training is bound by host nation requirements,
    thus priorities differ from member state to member state.
  • Competition among ECOWAS Member States/Troop
    Contributing Countries (TCCs)
    : Most ECOWAS TCCs are not equipped to
    carry a heavy peacekeeping burden. In the future, influential member
    states like Nigeria and
    may find it difficult to strike a balance between obligations to UN peace
    operations and their own sub regional commitments. Competition over
    resources and donors could also create tense dynamics.
  • Collaboration Between ECOWAS and the AU: Lack of collaboration between the AU and
    ECOWAS, has led to insufficient information sharing. Sub regional
    efforts could potentially undermine African Union integration efforts,
    which could shape Africa consensus around
    collective security mandates. Collaboration between the RECs, the AU and UN has also been

The unparalleled number of elections taking place
this year in Africa, seven in West Africa
alone, increases the likelihood of violence against civilians. Emerging trends
suggest that lower intensity conflicts will become the norm in Africa – a fact
recently confirmed in Cote d’Ivoire
and Nigeria.
ECOWAS’ efficacy and resolve could be tested sooner than anticipated. As work
continues to operationalize regional and sub regional peacekeeping, rapid
deployment and civilian protection elements will be critical.



[1] Brookings: Elections and Violence in Nigeria: The Question of
Citizenship in Sub Saharan Africa.

[2] Christian Science Monitor ‘Five Key Reasons, Ivory Coast’s Elections
Led to Civil War’

[3] Alex Okunnor, “Africa’s Shining Example” African
Studies Quarterly | Volume 4, Issue 1 | Spring 2000
(accessed 1 May 2011)

[4] The term ‘ESF’ and ‘ECOWAS’ refer to the ECOWAS Standby Force and are
used interchangeably throughout this piece



Photo Credit: United Nations (UNMIL Photo/Kanalstein, Feb. 2007)

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