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Mediating Peace in Africa: Perspectives from the economic community of West African States

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REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko/File Photo – Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) flag is pictured during an extraordinary summit of ECOWAS to hear reports from recent missions to Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea following military coups in those countries, in Accra, Ghana March 25, 2022.

By Brown Odigie

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)Commission established its Mediation Facilitation Division (MFD) in June2015 within the Directorate of Political Affairs (DPA). This article examinesthe rationale and factors that underpin its establishment as well as themandate, scope of operation, experiences and challenges in the utilisationof the structure. While acknowledging remarkable success, the gaps thathave been observed are insufficient integrated planning, weak coordinationand spontaneity of interventions. It concludes by arguing that moreresounding achievements could be attained in preventive diplomacy andpeace mediation processes undertaken by the organisation if the identifiedgaps were to be creatively and decisively addressed.

Introduction

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) wasestablished on 28 May 1975 through the Treaty of Lagos, as a regionaleconomic group with the mandate of promoting economic integrationamong its member states. The Treaty was revised in 1993 and consequentlyregional security was inserted “to safeguard and consolidate relationsconducive to the maintenance of peace, stability and security within theregion” (Article 58), as part of an institutionalised response to the civilconflicts in some of its member states in the late 1980s and early 1990s.This was followed up with the development and adoption of the 1999Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management,Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security; the 2001 supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and the 2008 ECOWAS ConflictPrevention Framework (ECPF). Specifically, the ECPF states the objectiveof preventive diplomacy to “diffuse tensions and ensure the peacefulresolution of disputes within and between Member States by means ofgood offices, mediation, conciliation and facilitation based on dialogue,negotiation and arbitration” (ECOWAS 2008:24). This chapter attempts toexamine and analyse the knowledge, experiences, challenges and lessonslearnt in backstopping mediation interventions following seven years ofthe existence of the mediation support structure (MSS)2 and suggestsrecommendation(s) to further strengthen its utility and value to peacemaking in the ECOWAS region.

Rationale and Mandate of the ECOWAS MSS

Though established in 1975, the first legal and normative instruments inwhich the concept of mediation as a tool for conflict prevention, resolutionand management was first encapsulated was the Revised ECOWAS Treatyof 1993. Under the provisions of Article 58 of the said Treaty, memberstates of ECOWAS are urged to “undertake to work to safeguard andconsolidate relations conducive to the maintenance of peace, stability andsecurity within the region” (ECOWAS 1993). To this end, member statesshall “co-operate with the community in establishing and strengtheningappropriate mechanisms for the timely prevention and resolution of intrastate and inter-state conflicts”, paying particular attention to the need to “employ, where appropriate, good offices, conciliation, mediation andother methods of peaceful settlement of disputes.”

From these initial provisions, ECOWAS proceeded to develop amore comprehensive normative instrument for conflict prevention,management, resolution, peacekeeping and security, commonly referredto as the “1999 Mechanism.” Among other objectives, this mechanism aimsto “implement the relevant provisions of Article 58 of the Revised Treaty”and “promote close cooperation between ECOWAS Member States in theareas of preventive diplomacy and peace-keeping” (ECOWAS 1999:8).The institutions saddled with the responsibilities of preventive diplomacyand mediation by the Mechanism included the Authority of Heads of Stateand Government, (the highest decision-making body of ECOWAS), theMediation and Security Council (MSC) which operates at both ministerialand ambassadorial levels, the Executive Secretariat, which has now beentransformed to the ECOWAS Commission, headed by the president of theCommission. The Mechanism equally established the Council of Elders –now the Council of the Wise (CoW) – as a supporting organ for preventivediplomacy and mediation. By its design, the CoW is a council of eminentpersonalities, assembled by the president of the ECOWAS Commission,who uses their good offices and experience to play the role of mediators,conciliators and facilitators, especially at the early stages of conflict There are also the offices of the Special or Resident Representatives ofthe President of the ECOWAS Commission in Member States, which byvirtue of the responsibilities assigned to it by Article 32 of the Mechanism, undertakes preventive diplomacy and mediation functions on behalf ofthe President of the Commission. Together with Headquarters staff, theoffices backstop mediators, facilitators and special envoys deployed byECOWAS Authorities to Member States.

The rationale for the establishment of a mediation facilitation structurewithin ECOWAS could be said to have taken root in the uniqueness ofECOWAS experiences in peace processes starting with the politicalconflicts and instabilities that engulfed some of its member states in the1990s up until the Malian crisis of 2012. The lessons learnt, including gapsidentified in the mediation processes for the resolution of these numerousconflicts, were to inform the establishment of the Mediation FacilitationDivision in 2015 (Odigie 2016). Importantly, the organisation’s After-ActionReviews (AARs) of its 2012 interventions in Mali indicated that “aspectsof extant ECOWAS Community Instruments were compromised by someprocesses and agreements entered into in Mali due to the absence of aresourced mediation support facility at the ECOWAS Commission, as wellas the weak link between the ECOWAS Mediators and the Commission”(ECOWAS 2013:22). The report had equally noted “the marginalisation of theECOWAS Commission in the mediation process, leading to inconsistencieswith ECOWAS normative frameworks and hitches in the implementationof the 6 April 2012 Framework Agreement between the ECOWAS Mediatorand the Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State(CNRDRE)” (ECOWAS 2013:20). The existence of a well-resourced MSSwas therefore envisaged by ECOWAS Authorities to facilitate, guide andbackstop its mediation efforts in order to avoid mistakes in subsequentinterventions.The Needs Assessment report for establishing the ECOWAS MSSidentified its mandate to include the “support, coordination, and monitoring of mediation efforts by ECOWAS Institutions and Organs, byMember States and non-State actors, and by joint initiatives” (ECOWAS2012:7).

To achieve the aforementioned mandate, the Commission was toensure a mediation facilitation capacity to promote preventive diplomacyin the region through competence and skills enhancement of mediators,information sharing and logistical support; build a database of potentialmediators and resources in the region and beyond; facilitate capacityenhancement of relevant institutions of the Community, state and civilsociety institutions within the region to undertake mediation, conciliationand arbitration within and between Member States” (ECOWAS 2012:7) 5.In a nutshell, the mandate and scope of the ECOWAS MSS includeoperations and logistic support for preventive diplomacy and mediationprocesses, which among others, include the provision of information,guidance notes, analysis and intervention strategy for designatedmediators, special envoys and facilitators; facilitation, documentationand dissemination of knowledge on mediation and peace processes,including conducting AAR exercises and capacity building to enhancecompetencies and skills on dialogue, mediation, negotiation and otherpeacemaking thematic areas, including facilitating seminars and exchangeprogrammes, for mediation resources. These various components werethoughtfully designed and institutionalised to ensure a transition froman ad hoc to a well-structured and functional mediation support. It istherefore pertinent to assess how the ECOWAS MSS has fared in the yearsfollowing its establishment in 2015 to draw lessons that might be useful forits continuous utilisation and relevance.

Supporting preventive diplomacy, dialogue and mediation processes

The 2008 ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Frameworks (ECPF) urgesMember States of ECOWAS to “cooperate with and facilitate the work offact-finding missions, special envoys, mediators and any such entitiesas may be deployed into their territory for the purposes of mediation,conciliation and facilitation’’ of peace processes (ECOWAS 2008:19) This encompasses working with relevant entities to mobilise national and localresources, including eminent persons, traditional rulers, religious leaders,community groups, women organisations, the private sector and any suchactors as may be necessary, for the purpose of mediation, conciliation andfacilitation for the resolution of local disputes.Since the institutionalisation and operationalisation of its MSS in2015, the structure has been backstopping the organisation’s preventivediplomacy and mediation interventions, including conducting skillsenhancement and training on conflict analysis, dialogue, mediationand negotiation; organising dialogue fora in the lead-up to elections inmember states to build trust and confidence in the electoral process aswell as conducting inter-party dialogue to promote trust building andbipartisanism among member states’ parliamentarians.6 In the same vein,the ECOWAS MSS has accompanied and provided technical, operationaland logistic support to high-level preventive diplomacy, fact-finding andmediation missions in the lead-up to the conduct of elections, on ElectionDay and immediate post-election phases in a number of countries. This isundertaken as part of efforts to help resolve contentious issues and disputessurrounding the conduct of free, fair, transparent, inclusive, and credibleelections, as in the case of Niger (2015, 2020); Guinea (2015, 2020), BurkinaFaso (2015, 2020) and Sierra Leone (2018). This kind of support by theMSS has been quite apt. With a high premium on political power, electoralcontestations have increasingly become one of the drivers of conflicts in theregion, assuming the character of warfare (Heywood 1997:211). This wasparticularly true with respect to the 2018 general elections in Sierra Leone.

In the lead-up to the elections, various sources , including the ECOWARN8daily, highlighted several reports on a tense political environment, inter-andintra-party rivalries between and among political actors including threatsof election related violence. Against this backdrop, the ECOWAS, AU andthe UN undertook a joint high-level preventive diplomacy mission to thecountry from 20–23 November 2017. The Mission was backstopped bytechnical staff of the various organisations, including staff of the MSS ofECOWAS, providing and assisting with operational and logistic planning,stakeholders’ mapping, horizon scanning, conflict analysis and scenariobuilding as well as advising on tactics and strategies for engaging with thevarious stakeholders and actors in the electoral process.Amongst others, the mission reiterated the need for the conduct ofpeaceful, transparent, inclusive and credible elections in Sierra Leone;assessed the risks of election-related violence and urged for a peacefulelectoral process; explored options to further support dialogue andconsensus by political actors and stakeholders on critical and contentiousissues and promoted agreement on all sides for the signing of a Codeof Conduct on peaceful electoral processes. The ECOWAS MSS alsofacilitated a series of trainings on the use of dialogue and mediation astools for the prevention and mitigation of electoral related disputes andviolence for a number of peace actors (political parties’ representatives,CSOs, traditional and faith-based leaders, youth and women etc.) inFreetown and other regions of the country.The presidential election was held on 7 March 2018 with no clearwinner. Following the release of the results of the first round of the election,and within the framework of the organisation’s preventive diplomacymandate and efforts to have a seamless political transition in SierraLeone, the President of the ECOWAS Commission, embarked on an official visit to Sierra Leone from 22 to 24 March 2018, and held consultationswith stakeholders involved in the electoral process, including the thenincumbent and outgoing president Ernest Bai Koroma, a delegation fromthe two major political parties, the All Peoples Congress (APC) and SierraLeone Peoples Party (SLPP), the National Electoral Commission, (NEC),International Partners and Civil Societies Organisations. The periodbetween the first round and the second round slated for 31 March 2018experienced political tensions, manoeuvring, alignment, and realignmentsof actors. The High Court had issued an interim injunction ordering theNEC to suspend all preparations for the run-off poll, based on a complaintsubmitted to the High Court on 21 March 2018 by a Sierra Leonean citizen.Following the hearing of the case, the injunction was vacated on 26 March2018, thus paving the way for the NEC to proceed with its preparations forthe Presidential run-off election.Strategically, the Head of the ECOWAS election observation missionand his counterparts from AU, Commonwealth, the Electoral Institute forSustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and EU were on hand to assessthe situation and brainstorm on the way forward. Based on the principleof subsidiarity, complementarity and comparative advantage, and underthe leadership of the ECOWAS Head of mission, bilateral and multilateralmeetings were held with the NEC and the two flag bearers and their partyleaders, resulting in a consensus to hold the run-off on 31 March 2018. Forits part, the NEC approached the Supreme Court to obtain a pronouncementenabling it to exceed the constitutionally allowed 14-day deadline for theconduct of the run-off poll.

The head of the election observation mission,who now assumed a preventive diplomacy function undertook mediationand facilitated dialogue between and among Sierra Leonean politicalactors and stakeholders and significantly contributed to defusing tensionsassociated with the post-election period and the uncertainty occasionedby the interim injunction. Under the leadership of ECOWAS, the Heads ofInternational Election Observation Missions (IEOMs) met with the APC andthe SLPP candidates separately, then jointly with the NEC on 26 March2018, and also with the diplomatic corps and development partners on27 March 2018 as well as with the incumbent president Ernest Bai Koroma,  who reiterated his commitment to a peaceful conduct of the poll andreadiness to hand over power to the winner of the election.The run-off was eventually held on 31 March 2018 amid persistingtension, lack of trust, mutual suspicions and accusations betweenpolitical actors and stakeholders, with both parties claiming victory.The methodology for tallying the results and its transmission from districtsto regional centres by the NEC became a contentious issue. The ECOWASHead of Mission alongside with other Heads of IEOMs continued theirengagements and facilitated dialogue with the parties and stakeholderswith the aim of avoiding an unwarranted delay in releasing the results,with the potential of snowballing into post-election violence. On 2 April2018, the Heads of IEOMs succeeded in securing the commitment of theAPC, SLPP and the NEC with a duly signed agreement on the way forwardfor the compilation and transmission of results of the election. The resultswere announced by the NEC on 4 April 2018, declaring the candidate ofthe SLPP, Julius Maada Bio winner of the presidential run-off election with51.81% defeating the candidate of the APC, (then ruling party) KamaraSamura, who secured 48.19%.With the elections over, stabilising the country’s politics and polityin the immediate post-election phase became imperative, as the battlefor supremacy shifted to control of the parliament, with the two partiesclaiming majority. The situation in the parliament had degeneratedinto chaos following the election of an SLPP member as speaker of thenew parliament in a controversial circumstance on 25 April 2018. Thisnecessitated the swift deployment of a joint ECOWAS-UNOWAS high levelmission from the 27 to 30 April 2018 to hold consultations with variouspolitical actors and stakeholders with the aim of dousing the tensionand safeguarding the stability of the country. Against the backdrop ofcontinued mistrust, especially among the leadership of the parliament, theECOWAS MSS, with the support of the resident representative office inLiberia, organised an inter-party dialogue for the leaders of the parliament,held in Accra, Ghana from 26 to 27 October 2018, aimed at promotingunderstanding, trust building and bipartisanism which are necessary forthe efficient functioning of parliamentary business.

The ECOWAS MSS had equally provided support between 2015–2016to Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria and current AU envoyto the Horn of Africa, who at the time was ECOWAS’ special envoy toGuinea Bissau for the resolution of the country’s protracted political andinstitutional crisis (Odigie 2019); backstopped the organisation’s mediationof the 2016 post-election impasse in the Gambia (Odigie 2017); the 2017/2018political crisis in Togo (Odigie 2020) and the joint ECOWAS-UNOWAS goodoffice mission to Liberia undertaken from 26–27 December 2019 to dousetension spawned by a planned protest of the Council of Patriots against thegovernment’s alleged mismanagement of the economy.The ECOWAS’ interventions and management of the 2016 post-electionimpasse in The Gambia particularly showcased the significance andbenefits of a comprehensive, integrated and structured inter-departmentalcollaboration for preventive diplomacy and mediation processes at thelevel of ECOWAS. It may be recalled that following his initial acceptanceof defeat in the 1 December 2016 presidential election, President Jammehvolte-faced and demanded a rerun, an action the ECOWAS, AU, the UNand the international communities condemned. Following a series ofpreventive diplomacy engagements, the Authority of the ECOWAS Headsof State and Government at its 50th Ordinary Session, held in Abuja,Nigeria on 17 December 2016, resolved to uphold the result of the electionsand guarantee the safety and protection of the president-elect, Mr AdamaBarrow. Consequently, the authority appointed Presidents Buhari ofNigeria and Mahama of Ghana as mediator and co-mediator respectively.They were given a mediation mandate to engage with Jammeh and Barrowon adhering to the constitution of The Gambia in respect of the declaredresults of the 1 December 2016 elections; determine a comprehensive andpractical timetable to ensure the smooth transfer of power on 19 January2017; consult with the UN, the AU and relevant partners in supportingthe smooth transition of power; and develop a mechanism for mediatedsettlement for the outgoing president in support of the maintenance ofpeace and stability in The Gambia.

Pursuant to their appointment as mediators, the ECOWAS Departmentof Political Affairs, Peace and Security immediately liaised with the minister for foreign affairs of Nigeria, being the head of President Buhari’sMediation Support Team (MST) to brainstorm and strategise on theexecution of their mandate. Consequently, a platform was establishedthat enabled regular exchanges between the mediators’ team and theECOWAS Commission technical team for planning, scenario building,coordination, generation of options and strategies for the mediationprocess. The ECOWAS MSS provided backstopping services to the entireprocess. Internally, an inter-departmental committee and a situation roomwas established and chaired by the Commissioner of political affairs,peace and security (CPAPS). The committee included representatives ofrelevant directorates, divisions and units within ECOWAS, such as politicalaffairs, early warning, peace keeping and regional security, legal affairsand communications directorates, including the Peace Fund.The inter-departmental committee coordinated activities andensured synergies across ECOWAS, especially between political andmilitary planning. Whilst the early warning directorate provided frequentupdates and information pertaining to election results, and the changingdynamics, the legal directorate provided insights into constitutional andlegal issues, and the political affairs directorate that houses the MSSprovided political analysis, mediation strategies and options, backgroundinformation and documents to guide response interventions, and activelysupported the mediation missions to Banjul.

A communication channelwas established with partner institutions, namely the AU and UNOWAS toshare information and explored options and coherence of interventions,upholding and respecting the principles of subsidiarity, complementarityand comparative advantage.The inter-departmental committee also undertook daily reviews ofevents in The Gambia, monitored trends and events in the field, providedtechnical advice to the leadership of the ECOWAS Commission, andinterfaced with the technical teams of the Mediators. The committeegathered relevant staff to exchange information, built a commonunderstanding of the situation, harmonised points of view on areas ofsupport and reached a consensus on the approach to be adopted. It regularlyappraised events in The Gambia, fine-tuned its approach and policy options  and decided on next steps to ensure effective delivery of the mediationmandate. Unfortunately, this kind of a comprehensive and integratedhorizontal inter-departmental collaboration in support of preventivediplomacy and mediation processes has yet to be institutionalised.Learning from The Gambia experience and several others, theMSS in 2018 developed a mediation guideline (ECOWAS 2018) a policyand operational document that identified eleven principles, a sortof standard operating procedure, to which the organisation and itsmediators, facilitators, and special envoys could commit themselves. Theguidelines aimed at promoting integrated and comprehensive planning,professionalism, enhanced coordination, and collaboration in jointmediation initiatives with other entities, as well as improved internalhorizontal and vertical coordination of interventions.Despite the availability of the practice guidelines, one continuesto observe gaps in respect to the need for a systematic and structuredapproach, and an inclusive and integrated planning and effectivecoordination of interventions. More resounding achievements couldbe attained in preventive diplomacy and peace mediation processesundertaken by the organisation if these gaps were creatively and decisivelyaddressed.

Conclusion

The establishment of the ECOWAS MSS in 2015 was greeted withenthusiasm and immense goodwill from a wide array of peace-makingpractitioners in the region including the UNMSU and other similarstructures and entities. It has remained a leading example for other RECS/RMs on the African continent. Seven years of the existence of the Structure(from being a division, to a directorate and now, a unit within the Mediationand Coordination of Regional Political Affairs Division of the Directorateof Political Affairs) underscored its resilience and relevance. Despite itsfrequent remodelling, it has nonetheless, achieved remarkable feats inbackstopping preventive diplomacy and peace mediation processes,promoting mediation knowledge management and building capacity andskills enhancement for a wide range of peace actors across the region.

Brown Odigie is Program Officer, Capacity Building, Mediation Facilitation Directorate, Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS), ECOWAS Commission, Abuja

*This article was first published in Accord.