West African states have a long history of sending their military forces to intervene in neighbouring countries, under the umbrella of a regional cooperation bloc.
Created in 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) focuses mainly on resolving regional conflicts. The group has fifteen members, of which eight are francophone (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo); five are Anglophone (The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone); and two are Portuguese speaking (Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau). The organization is dominated politically and economically by regional powerhouse Nigeria.
In the case of The Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has refused to stand down after losing the 1 December 2016 presidential election, the bloc has thrown its support behind the new President Adama Barrow.
Here is a look at the five main foreign interventions that have been carried out since 1990:
On 11 January 2013, following a United Nations Security Council resolution, the bloc authorises the immediate deployment of an intervention force that aims to help Mali retake its Islamist-controlled north. On the same day, the French military launched Operation Serval to back the Malian army and drive back the Islamists, who are pushing south towards the capital, Bamako. The West African force comprises of 6,300 men, including 2,000 from Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member. The Chadian soldiers were on the frontline alongside French soldiers in fighting the insurgents. On 1 July 2013, the ECOWAS force is absorbed by the UN’s MINUSMA stabilization force in Mali, which is currently 13,000 strong.
West African troops deployed to Guinea-Bissau in May 2012 in order to help the political transition after one of the country’s many coups. They have since served with a mandate to protect public figures and institutions. The force consists of more than 600 police officers and paramilitary gendarmes from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Already in February 1999, a lightly armed ECOWAS force was deployed to the country in a bid to help resolve the crisis. The force however withdrew several months later after failing to prevent a resumption of fighting and the overthrow of the head of state.
In August 1990, ECOWAS deployed a force of several hundred men to Liberia to intervene in a civil war that had ignited eight months earlier. The ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) quickly grew to nearly 20,000 soldiers. Although it was generally described as a peacekeeping force, ECOMOG was soon called on to take more responsibilities for maintaining order. In early 1997, more than seven years after the war began, ECOMOG carried out a major disarmament operation, which effectively paved the way for multi-party elections that were held in July of that year. The last ECOMOG soldiers left Liberia in October 1999.
In August 2003, a new ECOWAS mission, known as ECOMIL, was deployed to the capital Monrovia, which had been under siege by rebels for three months. The force, which was restricted to some 3,500 soldiers, was unable to deploy across the whole of the country, resulting it in transferring its contingent to the United Nations.
ECOMOG’s Nigerian contingent drives a 1998 – 1998 military junta, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), from Freetown and reinstates President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. On 6 January 1999, the RUF invaded Freetown. IT was expelled two weeks later by ECOMOG troops. The West African intervention force, which has up to 11,000 men stationed in Sierra Leone, officially winds up its mission in May 2000 and is replace by the UN peacekeeping force, which was formed to guarantee the Lome peace accord of July 1999, which ended the civil war.
A 1,300-strong West African force is deployed in January 2003 after a military rebellion, which effectively cuts Ivory Coast in two. In 2004, the soldiers are integrated into the UN’s mission in the country.
After weeks of tensions between the country’s President and Prime Minister, a constitutional crisis has unfolded in Guinea-Bissau in the wake of President Jose Mario Vaz’ dismissal of Prime Minister Domingoes Simoes Pereira. The constitutional crisis has raised fears of a coup, with regional leaders calling on the army to stay out of the issue.
According to a presidential decree, released Thursday (13 August), Guinea-Bissau’s President Jose Mario Vaz has dismissed the government following a row with the prime minister. The decree disclosed that “the government headed by Prime Minister Domingoes Simoes Pereira has been dissolved.” The 16-member government took office in July 2014, just two months after Vaz become the country’s first elected civilian leader. The move comes after the president acknowledged a “crisis” in relations with the prime minister that were undermining the functioning of the government. In a broadcast to the nation late Wednesday, Vaz stated that “it is public knowledge that there is a crisis undermining the proper working of institutions.” He further stated that “the efforts made did not succeed in resolving difficult relations between the president and the prime minister,” adding that a government reshuffle would have been inadequate. The president disclosed that contentious issues included the appointment of a new armed force’s chief as well as corruption. Vaz and Pereira are both members of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).
The following day, Friday 14 August, the ruling party demanded the reinstatement of Prime Minister Domingoes Simoes Pereira. Speaking after meeting with President Jose Mario Vaz, Pereira stated, “we’ve told the president that our constitution and the party status are clear – the prime minister is the leader of the party that has won the elections.” Several senior officials from the PAIGC have disclosed that they made similar demands to the president and that they back Pereira. On Saturday, a member of the ruling PAIGC party disclosed that the party has renominated Domingoes Simoes Pereira as Prime Minister. According to party vice-president Adja Satu Camara, “we sent back Friday the proposal of our party concerning the future prime minister. It is the president of the party, Domingoes Simoes Pereira,” adding that if the country’s leader rejects the proposal, the party will pursue all available options. So far that president has not reacted to the move.
The constitutional crisis in Guinea-Bissau has prompted regional leaders to warn the army to stay out of the issue. On Sunday, West African nations warned the army to stay out of Guinea-Bissau’s constitutional crisis, stating that only dialogue would end the standoff between the president and the premier, whom he dismissed earlier in the week. Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who heads the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which groups fifteen countries, appealed for talks between the two men to end weeks of tension. In a statement, he urged them “to continue to explore peaceful ways of resolving the impasse and the armed forces to respect their undertakings to stay out of politics.” The call comes just days after the UN Security Council on Friday discussed the unfolding crisis in Guinea-Bissau, stressing that security forces must stay out of it. In a unanimous statement, the 15-member UN Security Council urged all sides to “resolve the ongoing political dispute in the interest of peace in Guinea-Bissau,” adding that Council members “underscored the importance of non-interference of security forces in the political situation.” The Council has indicated that it will continue to monitor the situation closely.
On Tuesday, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that as long as there is one Ebola case in the West African region “all countries are at risk,” urging all nations to support the final battles aimed at wiping out the deadly disease in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Speaking to a General Assembly meeting on efforts to end the Ebola epidemic, which has killed over 11,100 people mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the UN chief stated, “we are on the home stretch now and what happens now is critical.” While Liberia, which was once the worst affected country, has now been declared Ebola-free, Ban has warned that in Guinea and Sierra Leone, “the battle has not yet been won,” and “any lapse in vigilance could allow the virus to spread.” Dr David Nabarro, the UN Ebola chief, told the assembly that the priority is to ensure that the outbreak ends as soon as possible, “which will take several weeks and may take a number of months… But everybody should be ready in case the disease recurs and needs to be controlled, especially in the coming 12 months.” Ban also disclosed that UN agencies who will be taking over responsibility for tackling the outbreak as the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Repose (UNMEER) scales down “will need considerable resources to go the distance and support recovery” in the three hardest-hit countries. UNMEER’s acting chief Peter Jan Graaff has indicated that UNMEER’s office in Mali closed on 31 March while its office in Liberia has handed over its operations to the UN country team. The Sierra Leone office is expected to end operations by the end of June, with Graaff indicating, “UNMEER could complete its transition by July 31 and be closed by the end of August,” noting however that if the situation deteriorates, the timeline could be changed “to ensure that the UN’s political leverage and convening power is maintained.” The UN Secretary General has indicated that he will convene an International Ebola Recovery Conference in New York on 10 July, which will aim to mobilize resources to start early recovery in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its latest figures on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. As of 31 May, there have been a total of 27,145 reported confirmed, probable and suspected cases of EVD in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with 11,147 reported deaths. In the seven days leading up to 31 May, a total of 25 confirmed cases of EVD were reported from 4 prefectures in Guinea and 3 districts of Sierra Leone,
According to the WHO, “since the week ending 10 May, when a 10-month low of 9 cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) were reported from 2 prefectures of Guinea and 1 district of Sierra Leone, both the intensity and geographical area of EVD transmission have increased.” In the 7 days leading up to 31 May, a total of 13 new confirmed cases were reported in Guinea and 12 in Sierra Leone, with officials indicating that several cases in both countries arose from unknown sources of infection in areas that have not reported confirmed EVD cases for several weeks. This effectively indicates that chains of transmission continue to go undetected. Officials have noted that “rigours contact tracing, active case finding, and infection prevention and control must be maintained at current intensive levels in order to uncover and break every chain of transmission,” and have warned that the onset of the rainy season will make field operations more difficult from now onwards.
Two response teams from Guinea-Bissau have been deployed to the border with Guinea to assess several points of entry and sensitive communities. This is due to the proximity to Guinea-Bissau of the recent cluster of cases that have been reported in the northwestern Guinean prefecture of Boke. So far, the investigation team has not been able to locate the contact who had attended the funeral of a case in Boke and who is believed to have returned to a fishing community in Guinea-Bissau.
In the week leading up to 31 May, a total of 13 cases were reported in 4 western prefectures of Guinea.
Seven of these cases were reported from the prefecture of Forecariah, which borders Sierra Leone. Multiple chains of transmission gave rise to cases in 4 of Forcariah’s 10 sub-prefectures, however all cases were either registered contacts of a previous case or had an established epidemiological link to one. Five cases were concentrated in the central areas of the prefecture where the sub-prefectures of Farmoriah, Kaliah, and Moussayah intersect. The remaining cases were reported from the northwestern prefecture of Boke (1 case), which borders Guinea-Bissau; the west coast prefecture of Dubreka (4 cases), which borders the capital city Conakry; and the western inland prefecture of Fria (1 case). The cases in Boke and Dubreka were all registered contacts of cases linked to localized chains of transmission. The case that was reported in Fria however arose from an unknown source and is suspected to have originated from an as-yet unidentified chain of transmission in the neighbouring prefecture of Telimele. Officials have indicated that investigations into the origin of the case in Fria have been complicated by active and passive resistance from communities both in Fria and neighbouring Telimele.
On the ground sources in Guinea have reported that community engagement continues to prove challenging, particularly in all the 4 affected prefectures. There have been several reported incidents of violence that has been directed at field staff during the past week.
In the week leading up to 31 May, Sierra Leone reported a total of 12 cases in three districts.
Eight of these cases were reported from a densely populated area of the Kaffu Bullom chiefdom in the district of Port Loko, which is located just north of the capital, Freetown. All but one of these cases were registered contacts of previous cases within quarantined houses in the chiefdom. The additional case is from the same neighbourhood however it was not on a contact list and was living in a non-quarantined home at the time of symptom onset. The other cases were reported in the following districts: Kambia reported its first case for over 2 weeks on 31 May. The case was identified after a post-mortem test of a community death and was not a known contact of a previous case. The remaining three cases were reported from the capital city, Freetown. Officials in Freetown have indicated that at this time, none of those 3 cases can be linked to previous chains of transmission however investigations are at an early stage.
A medical official in Guinea-Bissau reported Friday that a man, who had entered the West African country from Guinea one day after the border reopened, is now being treated for suspected Ebola. Meanwhile in Sierra Leone, which recently surpassed Liberia to report the most cases of the deadly disease, officials have banned any Christmas celebrations as the caseload of Ebola infections continues to spread at an alarming rate.
On Friday, a medical official in Guinea-Bissau reported that a traveller was placed under surveillance as he attempted to pass through the Fulamori border crossing on Wednesday. Sources have reported that the traveller, who had a high fever, had taken advantage of the lax security amongst border guards in order to escape observation. He later boarded a bus and headed for the eastern city of Gabu, where he was apprehended. The traveller, along with eight fellow passengers on board the bus, has been quarantined.
On Tuesday, the government in Guinea-Bissau reopened the country’s 300-kilometre (185-mile) land border with Guinea after officials closed it on 12 August due to the Ebola outbreak. In November, a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) included Guinea-Bissau on its list of fifteen countries at risk of an Ebola outbreak, concluding that the West African country had an “inefficient health system, which would not be able to cope with an outbreak of Ebola.” So far, Guinea-Bissau has not reported any cases of Ebola and a confirmed Ebola case would demonstrate that the outbreak is continuing to spread, nearly one year after it was first identified.
Officials in Sierra Leone have banned any public Christmas celebrations as the caseload of Ebola infections continues to spread at an alarming rate. According to the government’s Ebola response unit, soldiers will be deployed across the country throughout the holiday period to ensure that all residents remain indoors. Palo Conteh, head of the department, has not disclosed the exact dates or specified any exceptions however during previous local and nationwide anti-Ebola curfews, people have been allowed out in order to worship and for “essential business.” Under the current emergency regulations, bars and nightspots have been shut down while public gatherings have been outlawed however there is currently no general ban on walking outdoors or working. Sierra Leone, which has now overtaken Liberia to report the most cases of the deadly virus, has in the past three weeks recorded 1,319 new cases.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande will embark on a trip to three former colonies in West Africa. The official tour comes as his country puts the finishing touches to a military operation aimed at combatting extremist violence in the Sahel region. On Sunday, France’s Defense Minister announced that the country will end its military offensive in Mali, effectively replacing it with a new operation, codenamed Barkhane, which will involve some 3,000 French troops and which will span the largely lawless Sahel region. However in a sign that tensions in Mali are far from over, on Monday the French Defense Ministry confirmed that a French legionnaire died in a suicide attack near the northern town of Gao. This is the ninth casualty that France has suffered in the West African nation.
According to the President’s office, Hollande’s upcoming visit will include stops in the Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad, which is where Barkhane’s headquarters will be located. The French president will begin his African tour in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, which is currently on the economic rebound after experiencing a decade of unrest that was sparked by a failed coup in 2002. He will then visit Niger, which includes a stop at a French military base from which surveillance drones are deployed within the region. According to a source close to Hollande, because Niger is surrounded by restive areas – Nigeria to the south, Libya to the north, and Mali to the west – the president will “continue strategic talks on all these crisis areas surrounding the country and establish how we can collaborate to ensure better security in the region.” In the Chadian capital N’Djamena, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, which apart from troops, will also mobilize drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armored vehicles and transport planes.
France announced Sunday that its military offensive in Mali will now be replaced by an operation that will focus on the wider and largely lawless Sahel region, and will aim at combatting extremist violence, which is now threatening the entire area.
During a television interview Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganization of our troops in the Sahel zone.” France’s Serval offensive was launched in January last year and saw French troops deploy to aid Malian soldiers in stopping al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from descending further south and advancing on the capital Bamako. While France had initially planned to end operation Serval in May, and redeploy troops to the Sahel region to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, renewed clashes between rebels and the army in the northeastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
While the French-led Serval operation, which saw nine soldiers die over a period of eighteen months, has widely been deemed a success by the international community, Le Drian indicated that the concern has now shifted to the vast Sahel region, noting the operation aims “to make sure there is no upsurge (in terrorism) as there are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” adding “the aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
The new “counter-terrorism” operation, which has been codenamed Barkhane, will launch in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Some 3,000 French soldiers will take part in the operation in which 1,000 will remain in the northern regions of Mali while the rest will be deployed in the four other countries. Drones, helicopters, fighters jets, armored vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Suicide Attack in Northern Mali
Meanwhile, in what is a sign that security in northern Mali remains fragile, France’s Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that a French legionnaire has been killed in a suicide attack in northern Mali. This brings the number of soldiers killed in Mali since 2013 to nine.
A statement released by the Defense Ministry indicated that Serbian-born Dejvid Nikolic, 45, who held French nationality and was part of the Genie 1st regiment, “fell victim to a suicide attack” about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern town of Gao on Monday. A suicide bomber in a car targeted French troops who were on a security mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao. Seven soldiers were injured in the attack and Nikolic died of his wounds on Monday evening. He had been a legionnaire for more than twenty-five years and served in several hot spots, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. He had also worked in Africa, notably in Gabon and Djibouti. The Defense Ministry stated that his currently mission was his eight abroad. News of the death of the French soldier comes just days before President Francois Hollande is due to travel to West Africa as France prepares to redeploy some of its troops from Mali to the wider and largely lawless Sahel region in a bid to combat extremist violence.