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ECOWAS meeting

Mark CaldwellJuly 17, 2013

Ahead of Mali's July 28 elections, regional body ECOWAS meets to discuss the situation there and in Guinea-Bissau where the absence of a functional government has allowed drug trafficking to flourish.

Image: Reuters

Mali is battling an islamist insurgency, while Guinea-Bissau seeks to recover from a coup. Regional leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) grouping have used diplomacy, sanctions and a plan for military intervention to nudge Mali towards a restoration of constitutional order. The case is much worse for Guinea-Bissau which has been nicknamed the ‘narco state'. ECOWAS needs to commit to a common strategy to help the coup-plagued country implement security, justice and electoral reforms needed to escape its status as a link in drug trafficking to Europe.

DW: Both Mali and Guinea-Bissau are ECOWAS states. What can the summit do to help them return to democracy?

Paul Melly: The process in Mali is more advanced, because the military action has been taken by the French forces backed up by the African intervention force, now being upgraded to full UN status, with a planned manpower of 12,00 personnel and other French troops.

ECOWAS is to maintain pressure on Mali's political class to complete the electoral process and also move into negotiation for national settlement in the northern part of the country. That will be challenging. ECOWAS must sustain pressure on Mali's political elite to engage with groups in the north, and reach a negotiated outcome. Guinea Bissau is more difficult because the institutions are much weaker.

What sort of scenarios are up for discussion at the summit about Mali?

There will be a report presented by ECOWAS mediator, President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso; and his co-mediator President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. The route ahead will be about providing a strong framework of support for rebuilding a constitutional government in Mali. It was very striking last year when the soldiers staged a coup in Bamako, and overthrew the civilian political system. ECOWAS was quite uncompromising and firm in stating that in West Africa it is no longer acceptable to take power through the barrel of the gun and that civilian political rule had to be restored.

Fundamentally, ECOWAS will want to provide a supportive framework for rebuilding constitutional rule. Everybody is aware if the Malian political class in Bamako just go through the motions of electoral politics, the elections themselves, but fail to fundamentally engage with deep-seated problems in the north,which are not just about the Tuaregs but affect a number of different communities, then there is a risk of renewed crisis in the future. ECOWAS will be focusing on how it can help Mali to rebuild its civil institutions. There is also the question of the need to strengthen ECOWAS' ability for crisis intervention within the region. ECOWAS had been seen as the leader in Africa in this respect because of its past interventions particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But when the Mali crisis happened, though ECOWAS had planned, it wasn't really able to deliver on those military interventions until the wider international community also got involved. That caused a big shock among African political leaders. ECOWAS can now start the process of reviewing how logistical and planning structures can be strengthened.

Is Guinea-Bissau now back on the road to democracy?

It is too early to say. Although there is a process of moving towards constitutional democratic structures and formalities, there are some very deep-seated problems in the country. It is very poor, with a very narrow economic base. It is a small country with a disproportionate size of military. It is trying to find ways of making the military part of the civil state, yet the country faces huge security challenges, not just instability, but it has also fallen under the influence of the international drug trafficking industry. The scale of the South American drug trade flowing through Mali is very hard to control due to the nature of the Mali coastline that is characterized by many islands and forests. This has created an ideal environment for trade in the drugs that are then taken to Europe, across the Sahara.

The question of how to rebuild Guinea-Bissau is more difficult than in Mali where jihadists took over the north, while the south continued functioning normally. Guinea- Bissau is in a more fragile situation and rebuilding the state will be a difficult,and long term task.

Do you expect Nigeria itself to be a topic at this ECOWAS summit, in particular because of its decision not to arrest Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir earlier this week?

ECOWAS has a fairly open exchange of views, and West Africa as a region has a strong sense of identity, and therefore what happens in your neighboring country is also your business. From that viewpoint, Nigeria could well be discussed. On the other hand, everybody will probably understand the diplomatic difficulties if it had arrested Bashir, so it is a very difficult problem.

Is ECOWAS an alliance which is in good health? Is it fit for the future?

In political terms, it is probably the strongest political bloc in Africa and one could argue that it is one of the strongest regional blocs anywhere in the emerging and developing world. Although it was originally set up as an economic grouping, in political terms, ECOWAS has gone far ahead of other groupings in the developing world because it began to develop a sense of shared institutional beliefs. Regional co-operation doesn't just consist of heads of states agreeing as individuals or heads of government.

The shared agenda of building up a fundamental commitment to West Africa, to democratic governance is quite strong, the shared identity as West Africa is also very strong. It is in a much stronger political position than the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the East African Community. The major countries in the region are democratic or committed to principles of democratic governance. In SADC, some countries have very well established democracies, but some do not. This brings difficulties in tackling such issues. In East Africa, there is a degree of doubt about the commitment to democratic choices, choosing instead to concentrate on economic integration issues. ECOWAS has a shared concept of how politics is shared. As we saw in Niger some years back, ECOWAS piled pressure on the president to stop dismantling institutions. They have a common understanding and none of the members dissents. This is a major plus and is quite unusual in the developing world generally.

Paul Melly is an associate fellow with the Africa Program at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Interview: Mark Caldwell