Nigeria and ECOWAS: A Crisis of Confidence
by: Paul Pryce / 04 March 2013
As of February 2013, it appears that a majority of the troops committed to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) have been successfully deployed to that war torn West African state. Drawing its mandate from UN Security Council Resolution 2085, adopted unanimously by that body on 20 December 2012, AFISMA is intended to gradually take over responsibility for maintaining peace and security in Mali from the French intervention that was hastily initiated in mid-January 2013. With the concurrent deployment of the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali), the Malian military is expected to assume the task of exerting Malian sovereignty over that state’s internationally recognized territory in 15 months.
Of particular interest at this juncture, however, is the national makeup of AFISMA. Previous intra-state conflicts in West Africa – such as those seen in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire – have been addressed by peacekeeping forces deployed under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Yet AFISMA is not an ECOWAS initiative and it is noteworthy that one of the most significant contributions in terms of personnel and equipment to the mission has come from a country that is not in fact a member of ECOWAS: the Republic of Chad.
It is estimated that Chad, which holds membership in the neighbouring Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), has well over 1,000 troops currently deployed in Mali as part of AFISMA, greatly surpassing the troop contributions of all the other countries taking part in the mission. In addition, Chad has thus far sustained the greatest number of casualties, having lost 23 troops, ten of whom were killed in a recent attack on a rebel base near the Algerian border. This surpasses the losses sustained in Mali by the Nigerians, Togolese, and French combined.
The substantial leadership role Chad has assumed in AFISMA can at least be partially attributed to the suspicion with which many West African governments have come to regard Nigeria. Since the end of colonial rule in the region, Nigeria has emerged as an important power in West Africa. However, any ambitions toward regional hegemony that might be held by Nigerian authorities have largely been constrained by Libya, which has at times acted as a strategic balancer in the Sahel. Suspended between two poles of power – Nigeria and Libya – no one state has managed to achieve dominance over the countries of that region. In the wake of the civil war that saw Qaddafi toppled from power, Libya has experienced some instability and accordingly lost much of its capacity to project power in the Sahel.
With Libya no longer presenting competition to potential Nigerian hegemony, many of the Francophone West African states have been reluctant to see ECOWAS deploy a peacekeeping operation to Mali for fear that Nigeria might use such a mission as a pretence to expand its influence further into the Sahel. Thus, the establishment of AFISMA and the outreach to Chad could be understood as an attempt to contain Nigerian influence in the region, at least until another competitor emerges.
Such a concerted effort by Nigeria’s neighbours to curtail expansionist aspirations is not without precedent. After Nigeria essentially dominated ECOWAS operations in Sierra Leone and Liberia, deploying the vast majority of the troops needed for these missions, the Francophone West African States objected to proposals for a similarly Nigerian-led intervention during the 2002 crisis in Cote d’Ivoire. Instead, the final plan for the ECOWAS Mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ECOMICI) saw Nigeria limited to a handful of troops and officers. Ultimately, ECOMICI failed due to a lack of troops and significant logistical difficulties, leading to France assuming much of the responsibilities that were envisioned for ECOMICI.
Similar difficulties emerged out of regional animosities when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the African Union, launched its first ever peacekeeping operation in 1981, the Inter-African Force. Chad was embroiled in the midst of a civil war and Libya had occupied the Aouzou Strip, a disputed mineral rich region in northern Chad. Seeking to curtail an incursion by Libya deep into its perceived sphere of influence, Nigeria proposed and eventually led the Inter-African Force amid protests from other West African states, once again out of concern that Nigeria may seek to install a puppet regime in Chad.
This suspicion of Nigeria and its place in the region even led to many of the Francophone West African states actively supporting the independence of separatist Biafra from Nigeria in 1967. By 1970, the military dictatorship that ruled over Nigeria at the time had managed to force Biafra to surrender and re-integrate into the Nigerian state, though not before Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire went so far as to formally recognize Biafra as an independent state, contributing to longstanding bilateral tensions with Nigeria.
That Chad has demonstrated the willingness and ability to bolster AFISMA is fortuitous as history has shown that some governments in the region have been consistently willing to imperil the success of multilateral interventions simply to curtail Nigerian influence. If such behaviour is to continue, it casts doubt on the capacity for ECOWAS to emerge as a successful security community, where states set aside narrow conceptions of self-interest in order to promote the collective good of the myriad peoples of West Africa.
Nigerian officials should see the role assigned to Chad in AFISMA as an indication that intensive public diplomacy efforts are needed. Nigeria must rehabilitate its image, projecting itself to its neighbours as a partner rather than a potential threat. However, it is clear that other West African governments must also reflect on the power dynamics of the region and perhaps re-assess their priorities; can it truly be said that antagonizing Nigeria will ever contribute to the peace and security of West Africa? As ECOWAS warily monitors developments in Guinea-Bissau, where conflict brought about by a military coup in April 2012 has been worsening, Nigerian leadership and a united front may soon be needed in order to save lives.