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Peace-making role for West African trade bloc

Senegalese and Malian soldiers train with U.S. special forces in Mali - May 2010
(US Army Africa)

With a string of political crises in West Africa over the past few months it has been a busy time for mediators of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has a mandate and history of intervention - which in terms of scale sets it apart from other trading blocs in Africa.

ECOWAS was formed in 1975 with the goal of economic integration of its 15 member states. But the Liberian civil war in 1989 proved a watershed, with a group of key countries led by Nigeria committed to military intervention. That muscular approach was formalized by a 1999 protocol on conflict prevention which explicitly linked economic development to peace, and a 2001 protocol on good governance which ruled "every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections”.

ECOWAS uses, among other instruments, fact-finding and election observer missions, the appointment of special representatives, mediators, sanctions and the formation of international contact groups to resolve or prevent conflicts. IRIN looks at some of the measures it has taken to try to resolve the region's recent crises.


Following the toppling of Amandou Toumani Touré in a coup on 22 March by Capt Amadou Sanogo, ECOWAS has used both stick and carrot to help Mali back to constitutional rule. It has crafted a deal which will allow a civilian head of state to take office and run the country until elections next year, and has signalled its support to roll back a Tuareg rebellion in the north, where the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has taken advantage of the confusion to unilaterally declare an independent state.

ECOWAS has an array of punitive measures it can deploy against recalcitrant juntas. At an Extraordinary Summit on 29 March, it imposed comprehensive sanctions against Sanogo and his National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy, and suspended Mali from the regional body.

Ambassadors from ECOWAS countries were recalled, borders closed, and a travel ban on the coup leaders was imposed. More severely still, Mali's assets with the Central Bank of West Africa (BCEAO) were frozen, and all financial assistance to Mali from the West African Bank for Development (BOAD) and the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development (EBID) was suspended.

A Framework Agreement signed on 6 April demands power be handed to Djouncounda Traoré, the former speaker of parliament, for 40 days. Thereafter, an interim civilian president will run Mali until elections are held within 12 months. Sanogo and his men have been granted amnesty, but also warned that any statements seen as undermining the agreement would lead to the reinstatement of targeted sanctions against them.

What seemed fine on paper was complicated by the flight to France on 23 May by Traoré, after he was beaten by an irate crowd of Sanogo supporters who stormed his office, throwing the deal into confusion.

ECOWAS has appeared resolute over the north, where the MNLA and Islamist groups have seized control. It has condemned the separatists and has reportedly made plans for 3,000 troops to be deployed to the contested region to help restore Mali's territorial integrity.

''ECOWAS will have to be careful with military threats and must be able to follow up with a credible threat of force''

Cape Town-based Petrus de Kock, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told IRIN the quick response by ECOWAS to Mali sent a message that it would not tolerate coups and unconstitutional changes of government. The immediate dispatch of the region's "top brass to the country had a huge impact… But ECOWAS will have to be careful with military threats and must be able to follow up with a credible threat of force [against the MNLA] and deal with an insurgency that threatens regional instability… But you do not want to put it [military force] at the forefront and play a brinkmanship role… ECOWAS's role is to build trust between the parties and design a political vision."


Guinea-Bissau has a long history of political violence and instability. ECOWAS is mediating a solution to a 12 April coup which halted the second round of elections that Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Júnior - a strong proponent of security sector reform - seemed set to win. ECOWAS immediately announced its intention to deploy a 629-strong standby force to stabilize the country.

The first wave of 70 Burkina Faso paramilitary police - out of a complement of 140 - arrived on 17 May; Nigeria has made a commitment to deploy 300 security personnel (140 police and 160 soldiers); Senegal would make up the rest.

On 22 May the coup leaders handed power to interim President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo and Prime Minister Rui Duarte Barros. The 28-member cabinet is said to include two army officers, including a coup participant, Col Celestino Carvalho.

ECOWAS is expected to be heavily involved in arranging free, fair and transparent elections scheduled within the next 12 months as part of the post-coup deal. The withdrawal of the 200 strong Angolan technical-military cooperation mission (MISSANG) - deployed in March 2011 to support security sector reform - was announced ahead of the coup. The coup leaders had claimed MISSANG’s intention was to annihilate the army.

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Guinea-Bissau has been a perennial concern for the regional body. It stepped in during a 2004 army mutiny - triggered by the non-payment of salaries - providing a US$500,000 grant to assist in wage payments. In 2008 an audit by the army found more than the half 4,458 soldiers were either senior officers or non-commissioned officers.

Following the 2 March 2009 assassinations of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and his armed forces chief of staff Gen Batista Tagme Na Wai, ECOWAS convened its 19 March 2009 Mediation and Security Council meeting in the capital Bissau, as a show of solidarity, and recommended a joint initiative with the UN to deploy a combined force of army and police to protect state institutions. This recommendation was not supported by the government of the interim president Raimundo Pereira, however.

An ECOWAS meeting in Cape Verde, in April 2009, in collaboration with representatives from 29 other countries and international organizations, provided a $13.5 million grant for security sector reforms, such as pensions schemes and the building of a police academy, and came on the back a $2 million reintegration project established by the regional bloc in May 2007 for about 30 senior Guinea Bissau officers to be trained in agriculture in Brazil.

David Zounmenou, a senior researcher for democracy, armed conflict and human security at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN ECOWAS's response to the Guinea Bissau coup "raised some concerns" as putschists had been included in the transitional government and this conflicted with the organization’s 2001 supplementary protocols, as "the military are imposing who should be part of the transition," which excluded Gomes and was in contravention of the country's Constitution. "Because of this the UN has distanced itself from ECOWAS [in its response to the coup]."


When in 2001 former Niger president Mamadou Tandja began tampering with electoral laws to extend his term in office, and dissolved parliament and the Constitutional Court which opposed his moves, ECOWAS suspended Niger's membership.

Tandja's new constitution concentrated power in his hands. ECOWAS responded with the dispatch of a mediation team led by former Nigerian president Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar. Tandja rejected ECOWAS proposals for the appointment of an opposition member to the post of prime minister and a 12 month window for the drawing-up of a new constitution and elections.

Niger was suspended from the African Union after a coup in February 2010 toppled Tandja. But ECOWAS adopted a softly-softly approach to the new military rulers after they immediately dissolved Tandja's new constitution and appointed Mahamadou Danda as prime minister. ECOWAS took a back-seat in the transition and trusted coup leader Salou Djibo's declared intention to return to pre-Tandja constitutional rule - with the proviso of an amnesty for the mutineers. Mahamadou Issoufou was elected president in March 2011.

De Kock said ECOWAS’s response to the Niger crisis was "to reshape and get more influence over the situation. It was a hands-off approach. ECOWAS was there. It just had to deal at a different level and it was more about diplomacy."

Côte d'Ivoire

Once seen as the epitome of stability, Côte d'Ivoire presented a different challenge to ECOWAS. After a more than decade-long crisis, beginning with the 1999 coup d'etat and ending with a contested election taking the country to the brink of a renewed civil war, ECOWAS was to wear two hats - playing both peacekeeper and facilitator for the electoral process.

The regional body was the first to deploy a stabilization force to protect state institutions after the start of the 2002 civil war, which was to last for five years. The ECOWAS Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (ECOMICI) paved the way for the UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (MINUCI) in May 2003, which was succeeded in April 2004 by the UN Peace Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), which replaced both MINUCI and ECOMICI.

Côte d'Ivoire was divided between north and south, and ECOWAS, the former colonial power France, South Africa and the Africa Union (AU) became involved in negotiations to end the conflict. A 2007 power-sharing deal mediated by ECOWAS member Burkina Faso saw New Forces leader Guillaume Soro appointed as prime minister.

The first round of the presidential polls was held on 31 October 2010 and ECOWAS and other international bodies declared the results free and fair. The second round in December 2010 was mired in controversy, but ECOWAS quickly accepted the results, although the former South African president and AU mediator Thabo Mbeki accused the body of being too hasty in accepting the outcome of Alassane Ouattara's narrow victory. The AU backed ECOWAS’s endorsement and this was confirmed following the AU ad-hoc investigation by five African heads of states.

The UN Security Council, at the request of ECOWAS, passed Resolution 1975 of 2011 providing MINUCI with the mandate to protect civilians during the post-electoral crisis, after the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept the results and a stand-off ensued threatening to engulf the country in a renewed civil war.

ECOWAS at an extraordinary session on 24 December declared that if Gbagbo did not accept the results it would have “no other option but to take all the necessary measures, including the use of legitimate force, to realize the aspirations of the Ivorian people." It was a high-risk strategy: Apart from the difficulty of conducting a full-scale military intervention, there was the real threat of a nationalist backlash against West African nationals in Abidjan, and some ECOWAS members such as Ghana argued against military force.

''No other organization in Africa would have been able to deal with the complex situation… and that's because ECOWAS had the experience of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea Bissau''

The stand-off was resolved when in April 2011 Ouattara's forces, with the assistance of French troops, captured Gbagbo, who was handed over to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. 

Zounmenou said the links established by ECOWAS with the AU, European Union and UN meant there was a very quick response to complex issues during the crisis.

"ECOWAS played a principled, consistent and fair role in resolving it, as it had been there since 1999. ECOWAS defined the negotiation process and monitored the implementation of the Ouagadougou peace agreement. No other organization in Africa would have been able to deal with the complex situation… and that's because ECOWAS had the experience of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea Bissau. My only problem was ECOWAS allowed French troops to take the military option," he said.


The Role of ECOWAS in Managing Political Crisis and Conflict
Confronting complex political crises in West Africa
Journal of African Elections - West Africa
Chronology of instability


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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