DAKAR -- This week’s deadly clashes between armed groups in northern Mali will likely put even more pressure on the regional bloc ECOWAS to deploy a military force it has been talking about for months. Some Malians in the north are crying out for intervention, but experts question how effective West African forces could be against terrorist groups in the desert. It is just one of the many challenges ECOWAS has faced after successive coups d’état in Mali and Guinea-Bissau earlier this year.
The institution, with 15 member countries, is known by its acronym ECOWAS. Its full name is the Economic Community of West African States - a trading bloc, created in 1975. But political crises in the region hampered economic integration, so ECOWAS has also had to turn its attention to conflict management and security.
Since its founding ECOWAS has drawn up a number of protocols, one of which establishes “zero tolerance” for the illegal takeover or maintenance of power.
When soldiers seized power in Mali on March 22 and in Guinea-Bissau on April 12, ECOWAS leaders put up this zero-tolerance policy as their guiding principle. But, as always, the challenge is in implementation within complicated circumstances on the ground.
Former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau is accustomed to military takeovers. Francophone Mali had 20 years of civilian government and relative stability before the March coup. And in Mali the later seizure of the north by armed groups has added another layer of problems.
To this day there is contention over the role of the military junta in Mali. This stems in part from a shift on the part of ECOWAS, which went from signing a framework agreement with the junta in which coup leaders had a role in the transition, to - two months later - declaring its “non-recognition” of the junta.
Sunny Ugoh, ECOWAS director of communications, says the Mali junta proved itself to be unreliable.
“We’re trying to engage the stakeholders in Mali," said Ugoh. "If we’re engaging with people who are unreliable, who are unpredictable and who cannot be trusted to live by their commitments, then it becomes difficult for us to continue to follow that track. That is the reality in Mali.”
Analysts say ECOWAS’s approach with Guinea-Bissau’s junta can largely be summed up in one word: Angola. Another former Portuguese colony, Angola has long had a strong presence in Guinea-Bissau. Given a longstanding rivalry between Angola and some West African countries, after the coup ECOWAS leaders saw an opportunity to edge the Angolans out.
One of ECOWAS’s first decisions in Guinea-Bissau was to bring in troops to replace an Angolan mission and to oversee a transition to civilian rule.
Vincent Foucher, senior analyst and a Guinea-Bissau expert with International Crisis Group, said ECOWAS’s challenge now is to forge a way forward in Guinea-Bissau. Guinea-Bissau's development has been hamstrung time and again by instability and there is deep disagreement in the international community over the transition process.
“There is a general sense in the international community that ECOWAS has been too nice with the junta, essentially because they were eager to get the Angolan mission out of the country," Foucher said. "Now that the Angolans are out, maybe now ECOWAS can start thinking seriously about the plan it envisions for Guinea-Bissau and how Guinea-Bissau must be dealt with. Clearly this will need a huge diplomatic effort on the part of ECOWAS to rebuild consensus on a case on which the international community really really is divided.”
Buy-in from the international community is also what ECOWAS is seeking for its plan to put military forces into northern Mali.
Mali’s crisis now goes far beyond political impasse and errant soldiers in the capital Bamako. With armed groups, including terrorist organizations, controlling the north, ECOWAS has turned to other African nations as well as the international community.
“In the case of Mali you have an influence from other countries that are not members of ECOWAS but play historically an important role in Mali - Algeria in particular, but also Mauritania," said Gilles Yabi, West Africa director with the International Crisis Group. "ECOWAS has to take into account their positions on the Malian issue.”
Issa Ndiaye, professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako, said while turning to the outside ECOWAS must also look to Malians themselves - something he says the institution has thus far failed to do.
He says as long as ECOWAS does not hear out the Malian people on how to manage the country’s crisis, it cannot succeed in Mali. The organization’s credibility is very much on the line, he says, and this will be a huge test.