For its first debate of the year, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) opened the series of Abuja Debates for 2014 with a discussion on conflict management in West Africa. By gathering a broad range of stakeholders, the FES once more created a platform of informal dialogue among representatives of civil society and high-ranking officials. Specifically, the event brought together officials from the ECOWAS Commission and the Diplomatic Corps with representatives of the ECOWAS Parliament, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), the West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF), the Nigeria National Youth Service, Nigeria’s National Defence College (NDC), and journalists.
In contrast with the Economic Community of West Africa’s (ECOWAS) reputation as a stalwart of regional peace and security, recent events in Mali have pointed towards new challenges the organisation is facing in managing violent conflict. Member States have been confronted with new, transnational threats; indeed, the potential for fragility has increased further. At the same time, co-operation among governments in a multi-level system has become ever more complex. Still, panellists agreed that collective action had become more than ever necessary. In addition to providing insights in operational details, the debate gave ample room to address the dimension of conflict prevention and ECOWAS’ potential in both fields.
After a welcome address given by the Regional Coordinator of FES West Africa, Mr. Felix Henkel, the Provost of the NDC, Dr. Istifanus Zabadi, gave an introduction on the most pertinent challenges. Subsequently, the panel consisting of Ms. Julie Sanda (NDC), Dr. Abdel Fatau Musah (ECOWAS Commission, Director Political Affairs), H.E. Jacques Champagne de Labriolle (Ambassador of the French Republic in Nigeria), Gen. Hassan Lai (ECOWAS Commission, Acting Director Peacekeeping and Security Department), Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim (Senior Fellow, CDD) and Hon. Saheed Akinade-Fijabi (ECOWAS Parliament) discussed in an interactive debate.
The debate among panellists and the ensuing discussion with the audience highlighted the importance of considering long-standing problems at the grassroots level and to employ prevention mechanisms to thwart conflicts from erupting in the first place. Dr. Musah maintained that, although not known much to the public, preventive diplomacy was a major mechanism used by the ECOWAS Commission, as demonstrated recently by successful missions to Togo, Niger, and Cote d’Ivoire. Dr. Jibrin pointed out the need to increase the publicity and sharing of the actions of ECOWAS with a wider public.
The presence of the Ambassador of the French Republic in Nigeria permitted to consider the role of international actors in conflict management in West Africa – especially France – and their relation to local stakeholders. H.E. de Labriolle argued in favour of a more sustainable and comprehensive understanding of collective security and new opportunities for intra- and inter-regional cooperation.
The question of inclusiveness in conflict management and resolution surfaced several times throughout the evening. ECOWAS was demanded to work with more stakeholders, in particular with an organised civil society and with the ECOWAS Parliament. Several attendants demanded more involvement of youth and women in conflict management.
The officials from the ECOWAS Commission seized the opportunity to share some insights on ECOWAS’ endeavours in troop mobilisation and political reaction in the Mali case. They also bade to consider the obstacles the Commission was faced with and went on to pledge their readiness to move closer to an “ECOWAS of the people” rather than further strengthening what was indeed an “ECOWAS of Heads of States”. It was agreed that much would depend on civil society’s and parliaments’ ability to put pressure on national governments to mobilise the political will necessary to realise this goal.