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The West African Fight Against Terrorism


Despite West Africa’s lesser fame as compared to the Middle East, it is one of the principal regions of the ongoing fight against Islamic fundamentalism, while also becoming an increasingly important economic space. It’s fight came to the forefront of world news in 2013 with the French intervention in Mali under the banner of Operation Serval. Since then, it has continued under the aegis of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) with French and international involvement, against a still not repressed terrorist threat. 1 Nigeria meanwhile, has emerged as the largest economy in Africa. This conflict and the evolving structures of West Africa represent a splendid portrayal of various international relations theories at work operating within a rich and varied tapestry. Furthermore, it is a region which is neglected in the attention paid to it relative to the potential effects upon its population of more than 350 million.

Power balances are shifting within the region, with France as a regional hegemon within her former colonial sphere but with growing strength from Nigeria. This has been met with a change from France’s often chilly relations with Nigeria to a more conciliatory position, while China’s position throughout Africa has continued to strengthen, although so far without significant military capacity 2 International institutions abound, with the CFA Franc, ECOWAS, African Union, a proposed Eco currency zone encompassing primarily former-English colonies, and various international institutions, most importantly the United Nations. In addition to the
cliché of ethnic conflicts within Africa, there are also religious differences with a Muslim north and a Christian south. Furthermore, there are a mixture of states which range from democracies (such as Benin, Ghana, and Senegal) to a host of partly free states, to entirely undemocratic states like Mauritania. Economic structures in the region vary from state to state, with limited economic coordination between them - Sénégal and the rest of the zone for example, have almost no correlation in business cycles. 3 Ironically, in one of the subjects that they are united in economically, in being all open economies specialized in the production of raw materials (at least for the various CFA Franc member states, but the other states exhibit broadly similar characteristics as well) the type of resources produced include both oil and non-oil manufacturers, meaning greatly different economic policies in response to external economic stimuli. 4 Simply being part of the periphery does not exclude highly divergent economic objectives. Finally, there are language differences with countless vernaculars and the high languages of French, English, Arabic, and some Portuguese. For the purposes of this paper, the borders of West Africa constitute the Atlantic to the South and West, Algeria and Western Morocco to the North, and Cameroon and Chad to the West, with the states within these regions and countries constituting West Africa.

Military might such as Operation Serval would dominate realist understanding of West African.

Military might such as Operation Serval would dominate realist understanding of West African.

Realist Perspective

From the Realist perspective, a critical change that has taken place within the region is a rapprochement between France and Nigeria. 5 This rapprochement would be, to their eyes, driven principally by the shifting balance of power within the region, as alternate players have entered, the principal one being Islamic rebels in the north. France’s military presence across the various Francophone states in the region thus no longer represents - - for now at least - - a threat to Nigeria’s interests, but instead a valuable device that serves to keep the chaos in the north away, while Nigeria struggles internally to combat terrorism such as Boko Haram. Alternatively, it could be that with a certain tipping point having been passed, Nigeria might have surpassed France in its direct power in the immediate region, although its influence still lags behind, and a more friendly policy vis-à- vis Nigeria could be a recognition of the need for increased cooperation to serve French security interests.

The only significant conflict between states in the region was between Chad and LIbya, the Toyota War, saw the Chadians decisively beat the Libyans.

The only significant conflict between states in the region was between Chad and LIbya, the Toyota War, saw the Chadians decisively beat the Libyans.

Within West Africa, most of the conflict stems from asymmetrical warfare, as the
insurgency in the Maghreb and Nigeria - - the two primary conflicts in the region - - are fought principally against insurgent armies, not against opposing conventional military forces. Unconventional forces engaged in asymmetrical warfare represent a classic answer to the problem of confronting superior military power, and their capacity has been increased by advances in technology. This has included a “deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money.” 6 The increasing capacity of modern
technological systems thus directly complements the capacity of such terrorist groups.

Although realists see ethnic partition as a viable plan to resolve ethnic conflicts, there has been very little of such in West Africa, with the map of the region staying largely the same since independence. Despite various internal wars, conflict between states has been limited, with only the Chad-Libya war - - which resulted in status quo ante-bellum - - and the Agacher Strip War, which led to an arbitration of disputed land, involving open warfare between two parties. While this might be viewed as prolonging the incidents of ethnic struggle within states, it avoids the recognized realist problem of increased temptation to ethnic separatism after successful independence. Given that the states within the region are almost all multi-ethnic, legitimizing such actions would decrease stability of all of them by increased internal conflict; the most obvious case is Nigeria where independence in Biafra could result in referendums for independence from hundreds of other Nigerian ethnicities. 7 It is undoubtedly the case that some of these ethnic groups, such as the Tuaregs in Mali, increase pressure on their state, but provided they are unable to cooperate to enhance their power with Islamist rebels, their capability to combat the hegemony of the state is limited. 8 Sovereignty in most of the countries in the region is compromised to a greater or lesser extent. Most former French colonies, continue to maintain exceptionally close ties to France. This is most visible in the West African CFA Franc (of which Guinea is not a member), which continues to be pegged to the Euro after the dissolution of the French Franc, with monetary policy controlled by Paris. This would be as the realist perspective would indicate, which emphasizes that power flows to the dominant countries, in this case France.

Additionally, there is ECOWAS, which has various institutions which supercede the
sovereignty of involved states in various ways, such as a multilateral armed force under the ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), various ECOWAS departments, free trade zones, and integrated rail projects. However, decisive events within the region such as Operation Serval occurred outside of the formal institutional fabric of these organizations, a product of bilateral actions taken place between parties in the region. 9 That this occurred after extensive debate over the topic by African governments within such formal
institutional settings might well be proof to realists that informal negotiations and decisions continue to trump excessively rigid international institutions. There are also planned regional institutions such as the Eco currency, composing the former English colonies and Guinea, that can be but seen through the lens of regionalism; the economic benefits of such an arrangement, especially in light of the Euro crisis, are none to negative, while the potential foreign policy benefits - the removal of the CFA Franc and a diminishment of French influence in the region - are clearly evident.

The biggest conflict in the region, the Biafra War in the late 1960s, saw the French back Biafran rebels against a government supported by the British.

The biggest conflict in the region, the Biafra War in the late 1960s, saw the French back Biafran rebels against a government supported by the British.

Thus, from the perspective of the realists, the relations within the region - - as always - - are driven principally by shifts of power. France is the main hegemonic power in West Africa, particularly within her former colonies, while Nigeria is the rival, who has grown in wealth and influence relative to France. This was met with chilly response by the hegemon, but did not reach the point of conflict, at least after the Biafra War. Such hostility might have continued, if not for the expansion of danger from Islamic rebels, which plague Nigeria as well, and which have
caused a rebalancing of power in the region to face this new threat. These rebels were capable of providing greater power due to the advances of technology that have aided their engagement in asymmetrical warfare - still a necessity against the greater power that France can deploy against them in a conventional engagement - and due to the power vacuum caused by the break-up of Libya. Although regional institutions exist, they are not very important, being brushed aside in moments of crisis and are overshadowed by the foreign policy objectives of singulars states.

ECOWAS is one of the institutions which Liberals would ascribe much of the working of the region to.

ECOWAS is one of the institutions which Liberals would ascribe much of the working of the region to.

Liberal Perspective

In contrast to the realist perspective, a liberal perspective would understand the
institutional structure of the region as forming the structure of response to terrorism and international relations. ECOWAS is the principal regional grouping, and is an excellent demonstrator of the tendency of institutions to shape countries of which they are representative, and to bring about a spillover effect as they expand to undertake new subjects and roles. ECOMOG, the aforementioned Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, might stand as a representative of this; it did not exist at the time of the formation of ECOWAS, but instead came into existence as needs arose. It would be responsible for peacekeeping in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, while ECOWAS has organized the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), demonstrating a regional response to the situation. The creation of a free trade zone has ultimately led to growing regional concordance in halting common threats.

Although economically fragmented, there is some increased consolidation in West Africa.

Although economically fragmented, there is some increased consolidation in West Africa.

Benefits are furthermore, not simply zero-sum. Nigeria for example, is France’s largest trading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa, with trading ties valued at some €4.2 billion per year, from the year 2015. 10 This would do much to explain increasingly friendly relations between France and Nigeria, in contrast to a realist logic that would see this as being driven by alternate threats. Guaranteeing of the security of other states helps to promote stability, fulfilling such common objectives as defeating rebel ethnic groups. Increased trade and commerce, and increased investment, may be benefits of the common market. ECOWAS and other regional
institutions along with strong and friendly national relationships within thus helps to mutually benefit all of the states, in a fashion that is not a zero-sum game.
These institutional structures extend beyond just the economic level. ECOWAS includes a court to deal with human rights violations, the Community Court of Justice. The liberal perspective stresses the growing importance of human rights, and this is an indicator of the at least public attention which such ideas are given. International law has progressed beyond that just between states, to deal with individuals as well. As liberals would point out, this helps to eliminate the role of violence in decision making, at the domestic level as well as the state level. An example of this could be the trial of Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, who was brought to justice for crimes against humanity and sentenced to a life in prison. 11 By enabling institutionalized justice at the domestic level as well, liberals thus hope to provide for more stable and peaceful society.

While realists might see incidents like Operation Serval as an example of the superiority of ad hoc and informal decision making processes, liberals might conversely understand it as a confirmation of the need for international legitimacy for interventions. Operation Serval drew upon UN Security Council Resolution 2085, as well as the request for intervention of the Malian government. The French intervention would be supported by ECOWAS states acting as well under the authorization of the UN. 12 UN Security Council Resolution 2085 extensively delineates the need to protect various human rights and the rights posed to this by rebels actions in the north of Mali and the possibility of perpetrators facing punishment under international human rights conventions. It draws heavily on the responsibility to protect civilians, established by previous international commissions. Thus, it has clear importance that it takes from liberal humanitarian
intervention, and focuses on a multilateral intervention, even if France took a leading role in initial operations.

Thus, the situation in West Africa is not a zero-sum game, as the realists would see it, but instead is predicated upon potential for collaboration and support, which brings mutual benefit to the states involved. This can be seen in voluntary institutional arrangements such as human rights courts and free trade zones throughout the region. These institutions drive friendly relations between the states. An incident like the Biafran Civil War, where Nigeria was supported in the region by, among others, Niger and Chad, while Biafra had the support of France, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire, would be impossible based on the institutional trust and interdependence that has been built up between them.

Liberal perspectivists might see some of the violence in the region along interethnic and inter-communal lines as stemming from unscrupulous elites mobilizing supporters for personal gain. In Nigeria, politicians seeking political power would utilize various supporters for suppressing the vote and engaging in ethnic struggles, these flaring up when government administrative capacity was reduced. 13 Although this incorporates certain elements of the power vacuum that realists are concerned with, it also focuses on how the liberal perspective view sees
many of the ethnic struggles that occur as being motivated by elites who stir up fighting and competition for their own power. This has potentially positive take-aways for the region; as governmental administrative structures improve, ethnic violence and struggles will be better contained. Thus, for liberals, West Africa’s internal phases would be a phase that would be the result of the state-building process. There are not yet strong enough governments to be able to prevent various independent actors and politicians from being able to stir up terrorism and internal fighting, but there is still a regional and international commitment to stability and an attempt to deal with the great excess of human rights abuses, under a framework of collective security. A regional institution of ECOWAS has gradually expanded to provide for a regionalinstitution that can meaningfully serve to keep order and stability and provide collective goods to all. Negotiation, formal institutions, and increasing economic exchanges have helped to cool tensions among states, prevent states like Mali from falling to chaos, and helped to cement the formal idea, even if it is not yet universally practiced, of human rights.

Religious boundaries aren't generally as hard as might be portrayed, since there is always significant undertones of African indigenous religions which influence Christianity and Islam.

Religious boundaries aren't generally as hard as might be portrayed, since there is always significant undertones of African indigenous religions which influence Christianity and Islam.

Identity Perspective

A long influential theory has been the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis, promoted by Samuel Huntington more than twenty years ago. This theory postulated increasing conflict on the border between “civilisations,” these being defined into various groupings by Huntington. 14 West Africa lies on the border of his proclaimed “Islamic” and “African” civilisations. There are indeed, several states in the region which are divided into Islamic and Christian components, such as Nigeria, and Côté d’Ivoire, and Nigeria, where there has been significant religious strife.

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However, it must be questioned whether applying the variety of conflicts in West Africa to a purely civilisational label is especially revealing. The main ongoing conflict is the Maghreb insurgency, which occurs purely within the “Islamic” zone, while the state bonds within the region continue to proliferate under ECOWAS. The majority of conflicts occur within the countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, and within regions which are there primarily Islamic. 15 Although civilisational conflict may be participant of the affairs of Nigeria, its effects elsewhere are less significant.
At the same time, it should be emphasized that the region does not fit many of the
characteristics proposed by Huntington purely on a geographic basis of conflict, there is also importance to ties to the broader “civilisational” and religious backings. In the Maghreb conflict, there continues to be significant communication and links between the terrorists present in this region and co-belligerents in the Middle East. 16 . Thus, although it may be excessive to formulate the region as an example of the Clash of Civilisations, there may be some impact upon it nevertheless.

Language is a structure which is involved as well. The three principal high languages in West Africa are French, English, and Arabic, and there is also a minor Portuguese influence in Guinea-Bissau. Naturally, French is the main language in former French colonies, English in former English colonies, and Arabic has important influence along the northern fringe of French colonies. Ethnic groupings are often discussed in relation to the stability of states in Africa and problems experienced with development and government. Within West Africa, these issues have been influential in various problems experienced. Most tellingly recently has been Mali, with the north of Mali riven asunder from southern Mali both by an Islamist insurgency but also by the long-running war of the Azawad rebellion. Most of the boundaries in the region were drawn arbitrarily, with little respect for ethnic - - or even geographic - - differences on the ground. To some extent this is inevitable, as many tribes and language groupings in the region are too small to produce meaningfully effective states, and ethnic boundaries are not inherently set in stone,
but these elements of disunity have played an important part in West Africa. Tuaregs form the primary element in the Azawad rebellion in Mali, but the Nigerian Civil War was also partially predicated upon different ethnicities producing a war between the Igbo of Biafra and the rest of Nigeria. 17 Of course, the deleterious impact of the resource curse of Nigeria’s vast quantities of oil should not be ignored as well, as it produces intense struggles for resources in the region. 18

West Africa has liberalized over the years but there are still problems of democracy.

West Africa has liberalized over the years but there are still problems of democracy.

Governments in the region tend to be authoritarian. With the exception of the former French colony of Benin, no country has been ranked by Freedom House a fully fledged democracy for more than twenty years. Most states are ranked partly free, with only Benin, Ghana, and Sénégal classified as being fully liberated. 19 Thus, turning to the Democratic Peace Theory can shed little light upon the friendly relations between states in the region. However, within states the lack of democracy may have played - - and may still play - - a role in the continuance of ethnic struggles and conflict, as per the ideas of Francis Fukuyama. Religious structures within the region may also play a part in the formation of democracy, as the correlation - - although not necessarily causation of course - - of Islamic countries and non-democratic political systems could be party to the reduced number of democracies in West Africa, with Benin and Ghana both being minority Muslim, although Sénégal is almost entirely Muslim.

Therefore, from the identity perspective, the fighting in Africa and problems with
development would principally stem from the states themselves. West African states have faced various problems which have prevented the formation of democracy. These problems include low economic position, various ethnic groupings and colonial past, and religious differences. The solution would be to democratize those countries in stress to achieve the “End of History” and
the peace between various groups who can resultantly co-exist. However, it is prevented by the very forces that it would solve. Although democratization can occur haphazardly, in most of the states there is a lack of the identities-ideas- institutions that social constructivists stress as being vital for shaping responsible democracy. In Nigeria, as a recent example, even though a peaceful
election occurred in 2015, the resultant president of the English-speaking state has gradually turned to increased authoritarianism. 20 His election may have been possible due to an ineffective and immature Nigerian media, which failed to call him upon various false promises. (Thankfully this has never been a problem in countries like the United States, which is renowned for its responsible fourth estate). So too, Nigeria has been responsible for targeted killings of peaceful protesters in Biafra. 21 These well show the ease with which democracy can regress in a region in which her ideals have not yet been carefully sown for a prolonged period of time. From this perspective, the fighting in the Maghreb will inevitably continue until these states have made the transition to democracy and sustained it meaningfully for enough period for the roots to have been deeply planted. Although there may be transitions and maneuverings of states within the region, such events are merely the superstructure of the conflict produced within a region where identities emphasizing the fruits of democratic peace have not yet been solidified.


West Africa is a complex region , the product of the intricate mural of itself and its interactions with the rest of the world. However, despite - or perhaps because of this complexity - it is still a region which well illustrates the principles of all schools of international relations, and does so in a manner which brings unique advantages from each in understanding the region. Be it a region based on growing reconciliation between estranged rivals united against a new enemy, growing closeness based on institutional structures that promote human rights and will one day end the conflict that plagues the region, or which sees the tendrils of democracy that will once and for all end the history of fighting over religion, ethnicity or resources in the sands of the Sahel, West Africa is a place with promise for the future and a fascinating interplay of forces in the present. It is well that we attempt to come to know this land and its intricacies.


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