The new ECOWAS Counter-Terrorism Strategy and its implications for West Africa

The adoption of the historic strategy marks a new phase in counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa, but doubts remain as to whether ECOWAS member states can ensure its implementation.

West African leaders have vowed to leave no stone unturned in their fight against terrorism. On 27 and 28 February 2013 this vow was embodied in the Political Declaration on a Common Position Against Terrorism, which included a Counter-Terrorism Strategy and Implementation Plan, adopted by the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) at its 42nd ordinary session in Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire. The Strategy is the result of an inclusive process that began in 2009 and has involved national, regional and international experts, civil society and media organisations. The contribution of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in the development of the Strategy highlights the important role of civil society collaboration with regional mechanisms like ECOWAS.

The principal purpose of the Declaration and Strategy is to prevent and eradicate terrorism and related criminal acts in West Africa, with a view to creating conditions conducive to sound economic development and ensuring the wellbeing of all ECOWAS citizens. The plans also seek to give effect to regional, continental and international counter-terrorism instruments and to provide a common operational framework for action.

At a time of rising transnational criminal activities and terrorism in West Africa, the Declaration was hailed as a historic achievement in ECOWAS's efforts to combat terrorism. Military coups, internecine conflicts, mercenary activities and authoritarian regimes have exposed West Africans to different incarnations of terrorism. The recent intensification of terrorist attacks in the region, particularly following the escalation of the Niger-Delta conflict in 2006 and the resurgence of Boko Haram in 2009, as well as the occupation of northern Mali by terrorist groups in 2012, have alarmed not only West African countries but also the broader international community. These developments have exposed the fragility of West African states and the profound threat that terrorism poses to peace, stability, development and territorial integrity.

A key lesson brought home by these contemporary manifestations of terrorism has been their transnational nature, whereby an attack may be planned in country A and executed in country B, and materials for the attack may have come from countries C, D, E, etc. In addition, terrorist groups in the region have tended to form alliances with al-Qaeda and likeminded groups, as well as with transnational criminal networks such as drug traffickers, arms smugglers and cigarette traffickers.

Military interventions against terrorist groups (Ansar al-Dine, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb [AQIM] and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa [MUJAO] in Mali and al-Shabaab in Somalia) signal that terrorism, if not contained, is the next major threat to peace and security in Africa. As the Africa-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) demonstrate, these missions are expensive and last for several years, emphasising the need to prioritise preventive measures. It is in the context of these considerations that the Declaration and Strategy were adopted.

The key question is whether the Declaration and Strategy can solve the complicated problem of terrorism in West Africa, which is often intertwined with transnational criminality. The effectiveness of any such instrument depends on its implementation. To achieve results, systematic actions are needed to enforce the Strategy. The commitment of ECOWAS member states, other regional actors and international partners to the practical translation of the Strategy's provisions will be key to the Strategy's success. It is therefore worth considering the Strategy's design, characteristics and key provisions.

Firstly, it is important to note that although ECOWAS had long espoused the need to prevent and combat terrorism, the Declaration and Strategy constitute the first major ECOWAS policy framework documents adopted specifically to deal with the problem. The Declaration provides broad policy areas, including norms and principles that are shared by all member states and enshrined in relevant regional, continental and international legal regimes. For example, member states unequivocally condemn terrorism and related offences such as incitement to and financing of terrorism. It also establishes the principle that a terrorist attack in one member state constitutes an attack on all.

Secondly, the Strategy is inspired by the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy to provide comprehensive steps that states must take individually and collectively to address the threat of terrorism. It rests on three main pillars: prevent, pursue and reconstruct. The most important pillar is the first, which requires member states to undertake a wide range of activities to prevent terrorism. These include ratifying and effectively implementing the relevant legal regimes, eliminating conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, enhancing early warning and operational intelligence, preventing extremism and radicalisation, and promoting democratic practices and the protection of human rights. The 'Pursue' pillar is meant to enable member states to undertake rapid, timely and effective responses to terrorism when it occurs. Some of the main objectives are to investigate, intercept and disrupt terrorists' planning, networks and activities; promote a rule-based or criminal justice approach that seeks to bring terrorist leaders and their supporters to justice; and cut off terrorists' funding and access to equipment, finances, training etc. The third pillar deals with the aftermath of a terrorist act and is aimed at rebuilding society and enabling the state to heal social wounds caused by terrorism and counter-terrorism activities.

Some of the major features of the Strategy are an ECOWAS Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit; an ECOWAS Arrest Warrant; and an ECOWAS Black List of Terrorist and Criminal Networks. The Strategy also calls for the adoption of an ECOWAS Counter-Terrorism Training Manual. An integral part of the Strategy is its implementation plan that details the practical modalities for action.

It is still too early to assess the impact of the Strategy. Its implementation will, however, have a significant effect on the modus operandi of states and of the ECOWAS Commission regarding the promotion of peace and security. If operationalised, the ECOWAS Arrest Warrant, for example, will strengthen cross-border cooperation among law enforcement agencies and eliminate safe havens for terrorists and other criminals. In particular, it will enable ECOWAS states to pursue terrorists across borders and so help prevent a Mali-like crisis in neighbouring countries.

The challenge the Strategy faces is that its implementation could be hamstrung by a lack of political will. Given the sweeping nature of the Strategy, substantial human, financial and material resources - which ECOWAS member states do not have - will be required to ensure its full implementation. The Strategy is also likely to suffer from the perennial problem of competing priorities between counter-terrorism and other issues, whereby the former often loses out. Indeed, the lack of debate on the Draft Strategy at the level of the Authority of Heads of State and Government is already a worrying sign.

While the Strategy may not be a complete answer to the problem of terrorism in West Africa, it certainly does provide a robust and proactive framework for containing the threat of terrorism. For its full potential to be realised, however, the Strategy must be implemented at all levels. ECOWAS states must take practical measures to ensure that the provisions of both the Strategy and the Declaration are scrupulously enforced at the national and regional level. The ECOWAS Commission should urgently operationalise the Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit and set up a monitoring mechanism, including log frames to keep track of states' implementation of the Strategy. At the same time the AU, through the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), should support ECOWAS endeavours, particularly the capacity-building of states and the Counter-Terrorism Coordination Unit.

Martin A. Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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