While the West seems hell-bent on withdrawing from the global stage and focusing instead on domestic issues, recent developments in Africa point to the continent pulling in the other direction: towards concerted action and deeper integration. The firm response from the Economic Union of West African States (ECOWAS) to the Gambian president’s refusal to accept the outcome of this month’ s elections is a case in point. Unwilling to stand idly by while another self proclaimed president-for-life undermines the democratic will of his people, ECOWAS has promised to intervene to ensure that the incumbent, Yahyah Jammeh, relinquishes his 22-year hold on power, and peacefully hands over the reins of government to the election winner, Adama Barrow.
ECOWAS has gone so far as to threaten military intervention to “restore the people’s wish” if Jammeh does not step down on January 18, the date on which the new president is due to be inaugurated. The support that ECOWAS has received from the UN and the African Union (AU) for its robust defense of Gambian democracy is a testament to a new ethos guiding peacekeeping in Africa: African peacekeepers for African crises. Furthermore, it speaks to the fact that regional and continental bodies, like ECOWAS and the AU, no longer see their role as merely that of a referee between warring parties, operating under a strict peacekeeping-but-nothing-more remit.
In the Gambia, ECOWAS clearly sees itself as the guarantor of democratic legitimacy and one that is willing to show some teeth in enforcing that principle. While this is a relatively new trend for African organizations that have historically favored non-interventionism (a policy that suited the continent’s many despots and juntas in the past), the slow but steady shift towards increased democracy in Africa has brought with it a newfound respect for democratic norms. The precedent for this kind of intervention was set in Mali in 2012 after a military coup toppled the government of Amadou Toumani Touré. ECOWAS countries imposed sanctions on Mali and bordering countries blockaded it, pressuring the junta into negotiations and ultimately accepting the creation of a national unity government. Examples of more traditional peacekeeping missions led by African forces can found in Somalia, where several African countries have contributed troops to the African Union mission there to combat the Al Shabaab Islamist militant group. Similarly, in Democratic Republic of Congo, soldiers from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi have established an “offensive” combat force, with a mandate to “neutralize and disarm” Congolese rebels and foreign armed groups in the war torn country.
A further encouraging sign of regional cooperation in Africa can be found in a recent agreement among 43 coastal nations to create a special maritime security fund with the aim of tackling the rampant illegal fishing and piracy affecting the continent. The agreement, which was signed at an AU meeting in Lome, Togo outlines plans for new regional structures specialized in policing African waters against the smuggling of weapons and people as well as illegal and unreported fishing. Illicit fishing is estimated by the AU to result in around $285 million in lost revenue in West Africa alone, and while piracy off the coast of Somalia has fallen precipitously since international forces began patrolling its waters 2012, West Africa still sees a few dozen hijackings a year by mostly Nigerian-based militants. The new agreement will see countries around the coast of Guinea boost maritime surveillance and information sharing in a way that has been sorely lacking in the past, and which has hitherto allowed pirates to operate freely.
A similar endeavor has been in place among East African maritime countries since 2012 bringing together the enforcement capabilities of the Comoros Islands, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania. The initiative, dubbed Fish-i Africa allows for the real-time sharing of information and intelligence as well as the coordination of actions against vessels suspected of operating illegally off the coast. The system is meant to complement the fledgling coast guard these countries are slowly developing – in one recent example, Mozambique used international financing to buy a fleet of patrol vessels to crack down on its rampant illegal fishing problem, responsible for yearly losses in excess of $57 million. The government should now deploy them, not just to protect its waters but also as a way of paying back its loans.
Finally, and standing in stark contrast to the current move towards isolationism evident in the West, African countries are pushing forward with plans to create a continent-wide free-trade area designed to emulate that of the European Union. At the 27th annual African Union summit in Kigali, Rwanda last July, all 54 member states committed themselves to the creation of a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) by the end of 2017. If successful, it will result in the world’s largest free-trade area in terms of member states, serving a population of over 1 billion people, rising to 2 billion by 2050, with a GDP of over $3 trillion. This would constitute a momentous achievement, not only for Africa, where currently only 11% of trade is intercontinental, but for the world at large which would now have one enormous market to trade with rather than 54 states, each with their own onerous rules and regulations.
Although the obstacles are numerous, the trend is clear: Africa is moving towards deeper integration, boosting growth and increased security. This is a welcome transition that should be supported by the West and the world at large.
Image: Albert González Farran (Flickr).