ECOMOG – Condensing Successes and Failures


In August 1990 a regional security arrangement set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) came into being, it was named ECOMOG after ECOWAS Monitoring Group. Its task was to bring stability to one of the most volatile and coup-ridden regions in the world – West Africa. Its creation was triggered not by the pre-emptive wishes of the statesmen of a well-integrated region but by the implementation of drastic measures that tried to cope with a serious regional emergency that was the Liberian civil war (Howe 1997: 151).

After going through a brief synopsis of ECOMOG’s three major engagements, these will be assessed firstly in terms of their tactical-military innovations and difficulties and then in terms of the geopolitical challenges they faced as well as their role in working towards the stabilization of the region. Lastly, the strengths and weaknesses of regional arrangements for security will be assessed against the background of the United Nations’s (UN) and the African Union’s (AU) frameworks in terms of the challenges and innovations that ECOMOG poses to the current debates surrounding the architecture of peacebuilding in Africa.

ECOMOG’s interventions and cheer existence as an institution represents a very interesting and rather unique experiment with regional integration. Peace-building that uses regional arrangements as platforms or primary motors can in fact be a desirable route for a variety of reasons but its future is still in the open due to major institutional and political shortcomings. In Africa in particular, after the Somalia and Rwandan debacle, the international community has been invariably reluctant to intervene and tended to stay away from the continent’s perceived “barbaric” wars (Kaplan 1994; Khobe 2000;Hutchful 1999:61). It is in this context that the ECOMOG model remains a viable, if still uncertain, alternative.

“If efforts by the West African peace-keeping force failed it would be a big disaster for Africa”
Prince Johnson (Inter Press Service 1992)

Liberia was in tatters in 1990. After the scuffles between Doe and Tolbert in the late 1970s and beginnings of the 1980s, Charles Taylor, a renegade officer within Samuel Doe’s ranks that had fled to the United States, returned to his “homeland” with intentions that combined, governing, trafficking and looting with a hint of pan-Africanism. After his mainstream American education, Charles Taylor together with Foday Sankoh, had become one of Ghaddaffi’s Libya most infamous Green Book students and was able to efficiently set up his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) thanks to his ability to move within the dark political networks of West Africa as few were able to and thanks to the consent of Coute D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso (Adeleke 1995: 569, Howe 1997: 153). To Doe and Taylor one must add Prince Johnson, an ex-officer in Taylor’s ranks which set up his parallel armed group, once again a dangerous warlord born out of the instability in Liberia. It is against this backdrop that ECOMOG is set to intervene, paired on the side of Samuel Doe. Doe, Liberia’s incumbent president by then, was a close friend of Nigeria’s Ibrahim Bahbangida. The political altercations prior to the Liberian intervention reflected the existing geopolitical tensions within the region between Francophone and Anglophone countries.

At the end of the day ECOMOG , despite claiming that democratization and humanitarianism brought it to Liberia, ended up taking sides and compromising its neutrality, breaking with what Tharoor sees as the “the oxygen of peacekeeping” – impartiality. According to Tharoor (Tharoor in Malan 1997:19)., “the moment they are seen by one side as the ‘enemy’, they become part of the problem they were sent to solve”, a view that is shared by Hutchful (1999:67) when he argues that ECOMOG took sides, in this case when pairing with Prince Johnson, and compromised neutrality.

“We should not rush…after all we are keeping the peace”
Foday Sankoh (SLNA 1999)

Kabbah, the president of Sierra Leone and Abacha’s personal friend, was struggling in 1997 with an unholy alliance between the Revolutionary United Front and the lower ranks of the national army (AFRC) that even ended up assuming power over Freetown. The regime led by Paul Koroma had Foday Sankoh as number two and brought together “two different groups of alienated youth in arms” (Abdullah 1998: 230-234). John Paul Koroma’s AFRC and Foday Sankoh together took power over Freetown temporarily until the Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops drove them out of the capital and put Kabbah back in power. It had not been just the case that the defeat of Guinean and Nigerian troops in Sierra Leone previous to the intervention that were on Kabbah’s side had hurt the pride of the regional hegemon but most importantly that the stability of the region was once again seriously under strain.

The initial fiasco of the intervention was illustrated by the capture of 300 Nigerian troops by the rebels and a follow-up disproportionate and revengeful naval bombing by ECOMOG. The high numbers of civilian collateral damage of this bombardment “forced” Nigeria back to the regional negotiation room for a diplomatic embargo that was settled together with the regional rivals of Guinea and Coute d’Ivoire. This embargo was unfortunately ineffective leaving Nigeria and ECOMOG not choice but give it another shot at a military solution. Only after the ECOMOG force more than tripled in numbers (from 3 000 to 10 000) was it able to oust the twisted rebels that were Paul Koroma and Foday Sankoh, forcing them back into the bush. The story was not however over since ECOMOG’s forces faced a last humiliation in January 1999. ECOMOG had to be rescued by British paratroopers in 1999 from a reinvigorated rebel counter-attack that had damaged ECOMOG’s military to the extent of it being on the verge of complete collapse (Berman 2003: 46).

Guinea Bissau – ECOMOG goes on holiday

“ECOMOG is having a nice holiday in Guinea-Bissau”
Frequent comment on the streets of Bissau in 1999 (Drift 1999:12)

In Guinea-Bissau, the last of ECOMOG’s interventions, the ending of the eleven month conflict in April 1999 also had a regional dimension to it. Negotiations were done under the auspices of both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the CPLP (Community of the Portuguese Speaking Countries). A truce was developed into a ceasefire, and foreign troops were allowed to enter the country in order to supervise the ceasefire. However, when negotiations for a peace agreement started, the rebels under Ansumane Mane demanded that all foreign troops had to be withdrawn, and Nino Vieira’s government wanted a buffer zone to be established by Senegal at the border. These two preconditions led to the breakdown of the negotiations. On the first of November a peace agreement was finally signed involving the deployment of ECOMOG, which later turned out to be rather unsuccessful (Adebajo 2002; Uppsala 2006). ECOMOG had put together for the first time a team that was Nigerian-free in a clear attempt to free the organization from its Nigerian chains and its aggressive tactics (Ero 2000). It was a mainly Francophone composed force but its partiality overtly leaning towards Nino Vieira and once again its military ineffectiveness and feebleness deemed it another failure as the troops, although they were asked to do so, did not actually manage to stay until elections were held. ECOMOG’s credibility was once again undermined.

The Love of Liberty brought us here - Liberian National motto

Analysing ECOMOG’s interventions on purely tactical-military terms one acknowledges that first and foremost the force lacked military expertise. Difficulties comprised soldiers’ inexperience together with constant disputes within the force that caused a succession of military commanders being deposed and replaced apparently due to incompetence (Howe 1997: 161). According to Maxwell Khobe, an ECOMOG officer, there was “no common or central logistic administration system” as well as a lack of standardisation of equipment, arms and ammunition, poor sea and air lift capabilities and poor coordination and liaison with international relief agencies (Khobe 2000). The lack of military know-how was in turn not compensated with adequate military logistics, it was not just the case that the military equipment was old, outdated, terribly maintained and unreliable but more gravely that the soldiers were not being paid regularly or fairly. The ECOMOG mission in Liberia was terribly under-funded. In addition, Liberia saw a mission that was planned to last for no more than a few months dragging on for eight long years.

Similarly, in Sierra Leone, the 3000 ECOMOG soldiers were part of a tactical disaster on how not to engage Revolutionary United Front rebel troops that were arguably more experienced, motivated and vastly outnumbering the peace-enforcing force. The lack of training of Nigerian troops in counter-insurgency seemed to be a major liability as was the controversial decision to bring the Private Military Company Sandline International into the scene for privatised “peacekeeping”.(Geberie 2003: 150,154; Ero 2000)

Both missions were also plagued by language difficulties. The diversity and inadequate coordination of different sets of multi-lingual captaincies strained the communication process and interoperability between the units. This added up to ECOMOG’s somewhat anarchical and decentralized organization both in its lateral (within national contingents) and horizontal (between contingents) capabilities (Howe 1997:168). Inadequate payment to the soldiers of ECOMOG brought about the temptation, and sometimes necessity, of illicit mining, looting, thieving, smuggling and other corrupted practices, particularly in the Liberian case (Berman 2003: 46). The result was, in a way, a gradual blurry of the boundaries between the official and warlord armies whereby “ECOMOG cultivates its own warlords and mercenaries” in the form of the Kamajors and Sandline Internatinal (Hutchful 1999:72; Ero 2000).

ECOMOG’s tactics were delivered on a “deal-with-it-as-you-go” ad-hoc manner. This was so due to the problems with communication and decision-making channels between ECOWAS political committee and its military branches and with the much decentralized structure of an army that had been quickly and artificially “bolted” together. This in turn meant that officers on the ground held a high level of flexibility in their mandate which came both as a “curse” and a “blessing”. A “curse” in that rushed and bad decisions were often taken that simply worsened tensions and problems on the ground, intentionally and unintentionally displacing, bombing people and infrastructure and increasing the levels of ethnic tension. Questions of legitimacy arose. A “blessing” because flexibility and improvisation meant that ECOMOG’s mandate did not suffer from the traditional delays and lengthy political diplomatic scuffles that have traditionally plagued United Nations missions. ECOMOG was further able to recognize its own limitations and seek help from the AU, the UN and other international partners (such as the United Kingdom) as its “initiatives flagged” (Hutchful 1999:62).While on the ground, it held a strong mandate whereby peace-keeping and peace-maintenance gave way to pro-active peace-enforcement with its moral and political dilemmas that frequently brand “peace-enforcement” as a contradiction in its own conceptualization.

Between Gulliver’s army and West Africa’s Security Guardian

“Nigeria is the true African Super Power”

Charles Taylor’s sarcastic remarks on Nigeria for deluding itself as Africa’s big brother (Okoroafor 2003)

The politics of ECOMOG are indissociable from the regional politics of its Gulliver– Nigeria(Adebajo 2002). Nigeria is by far the main contributor to ECOMOG, its provision of US$12 billion (Bah 2005: 78) makes it the indisputable backbone of the organization. This, together with the previously observed “intimacies” between those in office in Nigeria - Bahbangida and Abacha- and those chiefs of state that ECOMOG came to rescue - Samuel Doe and Kabbah -brings about the further question of the genuine intentions of Nigeria. Is it advancing a truly regional security arrangement or has it been using it to disguise under the appearance of multilateralism what is in fact the self-help foreign policy of a regional hegemon mixing with regional patronage politics. The answer to this question is hardly clear-cut, since the “breakdown of sovereignty” (Hutchful 1999:66) in the region that ECOMOG tried to reverse was a threat to the region as a whole but particularly to Nigeria as the balance of power that had been tilting in its favour could dramatically be reversed.

On the one hand the interventions were not insulated from regional rivalries and power-politics but on the other hand they did not lack the authority and strength of the presence of the regional power -Nigeria- and was proud to contain a fair amount of local knowledge and cultural savoir faire that was nonetheless double-edged and in practice very questionable (Howe 1997:163). ECOMOG’s proximity and obvious interest in their regional surroundings brings about questions of impartiality and neutrality of the intervention that were always marred by the sense that those interventions were realpolitik actions of a threatened hegemon. These fears were attempted to be controlled by the advent of UN-ECOMOG joint initiatives such as the incorporation of two US-financed Tanzanian and Ugandan battalions in Liberia in 1994 (Howe 1997:158). There was nevertheless certain degree of hypocrisy in the announced ambitions of bringing “democratisation” and peace to the countries in which ECOMOG was intervening while at home repressive governments such as Abacha’s Nigeria did not give much leeway to such ideals. In addition, despite their inexcusable violence and degeneration, many of the rebellions had started as reactions to what were undoubtedly oppressive and autocratic regimes. Interestingly enough, the autocratic nature of some of the regimes that are were active participants in ECOMOG apparently helped smoothen the decision-making process in the conduct of the war (Hutchful 1999:81).

These dilemmas are also illustrated in the inherent technical difficulties that the requirement of a two-thirds majority for deployment brings about. This provides space for the unresolved political questions between Francophone and Anglophone Africa to potentially undermine the institution, particularly in the case of an eventual intervention in a Francophone state (Gberie 2003:152). Furthermore, ECOMOG’s reliance on Nigeria for military, economic and political support also means that any eventual crisis in this country will also bring unpredictable consequences to the organism.

“Current efforts are praiseworthy but inadequate”
Report of Security Council Mission to Sierra Leone (SCMSL 2000:15)

ECOMOG has been operating in what constitutes a Regional Security Complex, “a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from each other” (Bah 2005:78). Its essence as a security organization represents a model that is novel in its goals and that constitutes an innovation, particularly in the African continent, that I will now try and situate within the wider UN peace regime architecture.

When looking at the UN charter, Article 51 of the charter protecting the right of individual and collective self-defence precedes Chapter VIII, the chapter concerning Regional arrangements. Article 52 recognizes regional arrangements as viable to deal with matters related to international peace and security as long as they comply with the “purposes and principles of the United Nations”. These regional arrangements are encouraged to try and solve disputes by peaceful means before they refer them to the Security Council.

Although enforcement actions still legally require a “go-ahead” from the Security Council, the United Nations welcomes security arrangements such as ECOMOG as long as they represent an extension of its principles and purposes (Malan 1997: 16). The perils of UN peacekeeping, strained by the realpolitik chains of the Cold War, determined that a permanent military force was an impossibility right from 1947. Regional security arrangements offer in this instance a further alternative for the UN when organizing the means for its activities in addition to the traditional case-by-case ad hoc arrangements.

The provision of this chapter however does not offer immunity or full autonomy for the regional arrangement to do as it pleases as there is an allusion to articles 34 and 35 that safeguards the primacy of the Security Council to investigate any disputes and the right of any Member of the United Nations to bring any dispute or grave situation to the attention of the Security Council for further scrutiny. This attempt to devise a system of checks and balances between the regional and international spheres of the peace architecture has been put under strain, particularly in the UN-ECOWAS co-deployment in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The UN conceded with some unorthodox and uncharacteristically aggressive methods of ECOMOG on what was at times clearly a chapter VII intervention – peace-enforcement. This can, to some extent, damage the perception of the United Nations as a unbiased and rightful player in the peace architecture scheme as was reported by Francis et al (2005).Nonetheless, in the case of ECOMOG, its interventions marked a clear break with any form of classical peacekeeping. The Liberia and Sierra Leone interventions were of a clearly interventionist nature where coercive action was used for peace-enforcement objectives. ECOMOG interventions can arguably be classified as third generation as they are examples of situations whereby political authority collapsed or was at least severely undermined and the intervention sought to, at least rhetorically, to bring a political solution to a humanitarian disaster. These contrast to second generation interventions traditionally associated with negotiated settlements of proxy Cold War conflicts (Malan 1997:23; Hutchful 1999:68).

The prospects for an African Standby Force integrated under the scope of the African Peace and Security Council are still feeble. Only “baby steps” have been taken but ECOMOG has undoubtedly been seen as an important precedent from which lessons can and should be learned and whose progress has been attentively monitored and debated within the organs of the AU (Ero 2000). This wish comes not only in the context of international reluctance to intervene in “African problems” but also in the African wish to “break the dependence on outside military assistance in responding to African conflicts” (Ero 2000). At the end of the day, the success of the PSC and the sought after African Standby Force will very much depend on the will and success of sub-regional organizations such as ECOWAS (in the form of ECOMOG), SADC and IGAD (Murithi:2005).

The lengthy and strenuous ECOMOG engagement in Liberia and the volatility of its actions in Sierra Leone were determining features that any balanced assessment of the institution cannot escape from. One can also be positive and look at the wider perspective of ECOMOG as a unique experimentation in peacebuilding. ECOMOG holds a viable and possibly a necessary alternative to the more traditional forms of peacebuilding but there is still a lot to be done concerning internal political scuffles as well as issues concerning the technicalities and practical military capacity of its intervening force.

In terms of the architecture of peacebuilding the unfolding of the ECOMOG saga has posed both great dilemmas and opportunities for the international community at large and for the African continent in particular. Its model of intervention is surely innovative but its methods were unorthodox and its efforts at best, very “clumsy”. Its interventions provide a picture whereby ECOMOG’s decentralized nature gave it an edge of autonomy but also of anarchy where little progress was witnessed from intervention to intervention even in the case of Guinea-Bissau where the biggest improvement seemed to be “submitting periodic reports to the UN security Council concerning its activities in Guinea-Bissau” (Sams & Berman 2000:48). The unsatisfactory learning curve of the organization, which repeatedly committed the same mistakes, was reflected on how its actions were constantly questioned in matters of ethics in the rules of engagement and the professionalism of its soldiers as well as the underlying Nigerian politics of self-help

In his African Affairs article Gberie (2003) portraits ECOMOG’s interventions as heroic failures. Conversely, Hutchful (1999) claimed the Liberian intervention as a success, even if a tainted one. Perhaps his claim as a successful operation would have been different had he witnessed how badly “Liberia’s lessons” had be learned in the proceeding re-intervention in Sierra Leone and in Guinea-Bissau. It must be against a criterion of evolution that ECOMOG’s performance must be evaluated. Were lessons actually learned or were the same mistakes repeated again and again? If so, are these mistakes likely to be once again committed in the future? Although ECOMOG’s and Nigeria’s rhetoric was often unconvincing in the true humanitarianism of its cause and in the sustained legitimacy of its mandate, ultimately ECOMOG’s final judge will be the future direction of the African Peace regime and its faith. If the regional alternative proves to be, not just the soundest option but a viable one as well, ECOMOG’s critics will ultimately have to concede that, despite all its misdemeanours, the project in its vision and ambition represented a turning point in the history of peacebuilding. If instead, regional integration in Africa halts and it never spills over to the political and security dimensions, Africa will either be fully dependent on a continental AU for any endeavour or fully rely on external help. In this latter case, even praises of ECOMOG for just “trying” (Howe 1997:176) will be destined to belong to the footnotes of the books of conflict studies.

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