Can the Accra Initiative prevent terrorism in West African coastal states?

Although little is known about the initiative, it has significant potential for individual states and the region.

The Accra Initiative was launched in September 2017 by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo in response to growing insecurity linked to violent extremism in the region. It aims to prevent a spillover of terrorism from the Sahel and to address transnational organised crime in border areas. This year Mali and Niger were admitted as observers given their proximity to coastal states and their experience in countering violent extremism.

International interest in preventing regional instability is growing, but two years after the Accra Initiative was launched, little is known about it and its prospects for success.

The launch predates Burkina Faso’s Operation Otapuanu in March, after which Burkinabe officials told their southern counterparts of extremists’ attempts to penetrate their territories. Burkina Faso was considered a buffer against the spread of violent extremism to coastal states. But since a series of attacks in its eastern region, some close to the borders with its southern neighbours, it no longer is.

The 1 May kidnapping of two French tourists in Pendjari National Park straddling the Benin-Burkina Faso border and the murder of their Beninese guide also occurred after the initiative was launched. This incident confirms terror groups’ attempts to gain a foothold in the northern borders of coastal states.

Despite resource constraints, the Accra Initiative is funded by member countries

The Accra Initiative is a cooperative and collaborative security mechanism. It is anchored on three pillars: information and intelligence sharing; training of security and intelligence personnel; and conducting joint cross-border military operations to sustain border security. Meetings are held at two levels – heads of security and intelligence services; and government ministers in charge of security. Head meetings are held on a quarterly basis and are followed by ministerial meetings.

In May 2018, Operation Koudalgou I was conducted jointly by Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo in their border areas. This was followed by Operation Koudalgou II, conducted by Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in November 2018.  

There are several advantages to the Accra Initiative. First, it doesn’t rely on a heavy administrative structure. Rather, it operates with focal points in each member country and a central coordinator in Ghana’s national security secretariat. This reduces bureaucratic bottlenecks and facilitates communication and collaboration among members.

Second, despite resource constraints, the initiative is funded by member countries, who view ownership of it and non-dependence on external funding as important. This gives it the political commitment needed for its success and provides implementers with the leeway to set the agenda and determine priorities.

Military operations only temporarily halt terror groups’ activities, and don’t ensure continuity

Third, according to officials involved in the initiative, periodic meetings of security and intelligence heads have significantly contributed to building trust and confidence among countries, some of which had been suspicious of each other. For example Côte d’Ivoire and Togo have occasionally suspected Ghana of harbouring political dissidents. The initiative has enhanced information and intelligence sharing and fostered cooperation to prevent violent extremism.

Last, while the initiative favours a military-oriented regional response, it is complemented by non-security interventions by members at a national level. Ghana for example has developed a counter-terrorism framework and an action plan, which has dedicated one of its pillars to addressing the root causes of extremism.

Benin’s border management agency is tackling vulnerabilities in border areas by implementing developmental projects in affected localities. In May 2019, Togo established an inter-ministerial committee for preventing and countering violent extremism partly to strengthen community resilience.

National authorities in Côte d’Ivoire, in collaboration with religious leaders, have adopted a teaching kit (Mallette pédagogique) as a tool that helps track radicalisation activities and promotes peaceful religious practices. The country is also developing a national strategy for countering and preventing violent extremism.

With elections in Accra Initiative countries in 2020 and 2021, resources could be diverted to campaigning

Notwithstanding the positives, challenges remain for the Accra Initiative. Military operations, despite leading to arrests, have been ad hoc, limited in duration (four-day deployments) and geographic reach. They only temporarily halt terror groups’ activities and movements, and don’t ensure continuity. This means that situations can relapse between operations.

Countries have limited intelligence capabilities which means they can’t effectively track and control extremist groups’ movement across their borders. There are also differences in members’ sectors and operational concepts. While Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo all have gendarmeries, Ghana doesn’t. Benin has the Republican Police, a merger of their police and gendarmerie. Language barriers between English-speaking Ghana and its Francophone counterparts have occasionally hindered effective communication.

With elections scheduled for all the Accra Initiative countries in 2020 and 2021, attention and resources could be diverted to political campaigns. There is also a risk of civil liberties and political opposition being curtailed under the guise of preventing violent extremism during election time.

The threat of violent extremism in West Africa’s coastal states presents regional and national opportunities. Regionally, it offers the chance for multilateral collaboration on a common threat. Nationally, countries can address existing governance, economic and socio-political problems that violent extremist groups often exploit to get a foothold in the region.

Renewing the social contract between states and their populations, especially in border communities, should be prioritised. This means incorporating the needs of the people while rethinking the role of the state and its security institutions, including the army, in responding to emerging threats. Decentralising governance would provide the ideal framework for these counter-terrorism efforts.

States must ensure that operations and security measures don’t negatively affect people’s livelihoods. Doing so can create discontent towards governments and solidarity with extremists. Including social services in security plans, especially in border areas, is critical to winning the hearts and minds of citizens and eliciting their cooperation in tackling violent extremism.

Sampson Kwarkye, Senior Researcher, Ella Abatan, Researcher and Michaël Matongbada, Junior Researcher, ISS Dakar

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