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.
On 8 January, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated that he was hopeful that the remaining 195 Chibok schoolgirls will be rescued, as the country marked 1,000 days since the mass abduction by Boko Haram that drew global attention to the jihadist insurgency.
President Buhari stated that his government was committed to finding the rest of the more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted almost three years ago from the northeastern town of Chibok. Since being seized in April 2014, only two dozen have been found or rescued, some of whom had babies in captivity.
Earlier this month, the Nigerian army reported that it had rescued another Chibok girls, Rakiya Abubkar, along with her six-month-old baby. Another two schoolgirls have been found in the past year by troops and in October, 21 Chibok girls were released by Boko Haram after negotiations with the Nigerian government brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government. The release was hailed as a breakthrough that would lead to the recovery of the remaining girls in captivity. At the time, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu disclosed that the Nigerian government was hoping to secure the release of 83 other girls, however there has since been no update on those negotiations.
Timeline of Chibok Kidnapping
- April 2014 – Boko Haram militants kidnap 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, a region where the insurgency emerged several years ago.
- November 2014 – Extremists seize Chibok and the Nigerian army takes back the town.
- May 2015 – Newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari is sworn into office, pledging to tackle Boko Haram “head-on.”
- 13 April 2016 – Boko Haram video appears to depict some of the Chibok girls, with mothers recognizing their daughters.
- 18 May 2016 – A relative discloses that one of the Chibok girls is found, pregnant, in a forest. Pressure increases on the Nigerian government to rescue the remaining missing girls.
- 14 August 2016 – Boko Haram video states that some of the Chibok girls have been killed in airstrikes. The militant group demands the release of extremists in exchange for the other girls’ freedom.
- 13 October 2016 – Spokesman for Nigeria’s president confirms that 21 Chibok schoolgirls have ben freed as a result of government negotiations with Boko Haram
- 5 November 2016 – Nigerian military announces the first army rescue of a Chibok girl, during a raid on a forest hideout.
- 24 December 2016 – Nigeria’s president declares that Boko Haram has been crushed as the militant group is driven from its last forest hideout.
- 5 January 2017 – Nigeria’s army states that soldiers have found one of the schoolgirls wandering in the bush near the forest stronghold.
As of 8 January, roadblocks in the country’s main cities have been lifted and protests by disgruntled soldiers have ceased. The situation across the Cote d’Ivoire has returned to normal following the conclusion of negotiations between the government and soldiers.
MS Risk advises all travellers to the country to remain vigilant as tensions may flare up again over the coming days and weeks if an agreement reached between the soldiers and the government is not implemented quickly. We advise anyone in the country to monitor the local media and to avoid any protests and large gatherings, as they may turn violent with minimal notice.
On 6 January 2017, a group of demobilized soldiers attacked three police stations and a petrol station in the town of Bouake, the second largest city, seizing weapons from the police. Throughout the day, there were reports of sporadic gunfire and access routes to the north and south of Bouake were blocked. There were also reports of shots being fired in Daloa, and a heightened military presence reported in Korhogo, with concerns that the violence was spreading to the remainder of the county. Over the next two days, soldiers at military camps and cities across the country joined the mutiny. Shots rang out at a military base in the commercial capital Abidjan on Saturday. Troops closed off a large junction near the Akouedo base, leaving all roads leading to the camp gridlocked with traffic and hampering access to a number of neighboring districts. There were also reports of similar protests erupted in a number of central and northern towns throughout the day, including in Man.
On 8 January, the country’s Defense Minister arrived in Bouake for talks with disgruntled soldiers. Hours later, officials announced that an agreement had been reached between the government and the soldiers. While initially, a mutineer close to the negotiations had disclosed that the soldiers were satisfied with the agreement, which would address demands for bonus payments and improve their living conditions, adding that the soldiers were now preparing to return to their barracks, some of the renegade troops later opened fire outside the house in Bouake where the negotiations had taken place. A number of local officials, including the defense minister, journalists and the mutineers’ own negotiations were trapped inside. They were only allowed to leave several hours later. A statement released by the defense ministry later denied that the defense minister had been held by the soldiers.
The streets of Bouake appeared calm on Sunday and the military presence was gone. According to Sergeant Mamadou Kone, “we have cleared the corridors everywhere as promised and we have been in barracks since last night,” adding, “I confirm that all over the country all our men have returned to barracks and wait for their money. The mutiny is over for us.” He stated that the soldiers expect to be paid on Monday 9 January. Other cities across the country were also reported to be calm on Sunday, including in Abidjan, where a day earlier loyalist troops had deployed at strategic locations throughout the city. On the ground sources reported that residents rushed to supermarkets to purchase bottled water and other provisions in the event that the mutiny would last for days or weeks. There was no sign of any military presence on the streets of Abidjan on Sunday, with sources reporting that people were seen on the streets, shops were open and traffic moved as normal.
On 27 November 2016, reports emerged of suspicious activity involving MV Saronic Breeze in position 05°09’00”N – 002°37’22”E (Cotonou outer roads).
The vessel had been travelling south however it changed direction to head back into port and now has been drifting in position 04°41’50”N – 003°30’15”E since 282000ZNOV16. The owner of the vessel received the SSAS and tried to contact the vessel however no response was received. Maritime officials strongly believe that the vessel is under piracy attack and that pirates have taken control of it. Port control has been informed about the incident however no information has been received.
This month, France appeared to accept that it would need to keep thousands of troops in Africa’s Sahel region for an indefinite period because of the ongoing instability and preponderance of Islamist militants.
Speaking to lawmakers, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sought to reassure regional allies that Paris would not abandon them despite pressure on its military, which has not only seen it increase its operating in the Middle East, but also on home soli in the wake of a series of Islamist attacks in 2015 and this year. Speaking at a parliamentary debate on his country’s overseas operations, Ayrault disclosed that “France remains committed as long as the jihadist threat continues to weigh on the future of these countries,” adding, “what message would we be sending if we envisaged a reduction of our effort? We do not have the right to abandon our African brothers at the exact moment when they need us the most to consolidate the fragile balances.”
After deploying troops to Mali, France has since spread some 4,000 soldiers across the West African region in a bid to hunt down Islamists. United Nations peacekeepers have also been deployed to ensure Mali’s stability however the UN’s forces have lacked equipment and resources making a political settlement between Tuaregs and the Malian government increasingly fragile and paving the way for Islamists and traffickers to exploit a void in the northern region of the country. According to Ayrault, “we know it will be long and difficult (because) the national reconciliation process is taking time to come into effect, securing the north is slow and terrorist groups continue to destabilize the region by carrying out attacks on Mali’s borders at the entrances to other countries like Niger and Ivory Coast.”
At the end of this month, France will seek to discuss Mali when it hosts a ministerial meeting on UN peacekeeping operations in French-speaking countries to see how to increase and improve their efficiency.
The region, which spans from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, is host to a number of jihadist groups and is seen as being vulnerable to further attacks after strikes on soft targets in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast earlier this year. The region’s security concerns have further been highlighted by a recent spike in violence in northern Mali, where France intervened three years ago in a bid to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who took control of a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs and attempted to take control of the central government in Bamako. More recently, insecurity in northern Mali seems too have spread in the region, particularly into neighbouring Niger where a string of incidents this month, including the kidnapping of a US NGO worker, has prompted officials across the region to enhance security measures.