Echoes of Liberia: The Need for ECOWAS in Nigeria

Nigeria is home to the African continent’s largest economy, largest population and most famous Islamic militant organization. Boko Haram has systematically terrorized villages and taken control of small cities in northern Nigeria almost completely unencumbered. The group intends to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. Thus far, it has been wildly successful.

It is the tale of two Nigerias: northern Nigeria, a predominantly Muslim region inhabited mostly by ethnic Hausas, and southern Nigeria, a predominantly Christian region inhabited mostly by ethnic Yoruba and Igbos. Perhaps the sharpest difference between northern and southern Nigeria is the economic welfare of the two populations. Like so many extremist groups throughout history, Boko Haram’s origin is rooted in economic discontent. Despite the vast oil deposits in northern Nigeria, the people living there are destitute, with nearly three quarters of the population living in poverty. In the Christian south, prosperity is wider spread, with about one quarter of the population living in poverty. Various factors — such as economic inequality between the North and South, the election of a Christian president in 2011 when Muslims believed it was their “turn” to lead, mistreatment of Muslim Nigerians by the Christian government forces, and ongoing tensions between the Muslim and Christian populations within the country — have led to the radicalization of Boko Haram. With another presidential election fast approaching, tensions are rising and concern over violent backlash is growing. Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has been criticized for the perception that he has done little to combat the militants. In late January, the group assaulted multiple villages in the Adamawa state, killing approximately 40 civilians and 200 “combatants,” with Nigerian troops notably absent. Despite a souring mood in the South and the increasing danger in the North, the International Crisis Group does not predict the country will split. Whether Nigeria officially splits or not is virtually inconsequential; Boko Haram’s violent campaign is already splitting and destroying one of the most powerful countries in Africa, and it must be stopped.

The problem with stopping Boko Haram is that if the current Nigerian government is unwilling or unable to do so, then who will? The United States established the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in late 2008 and has military personnel in Nigeria to advise and aid in the country’s fight against Boko Haram, but tensions between AFRICOM and the Nigerian military, stemming from actions by both sides, has seriously hindered the United States’ influence in the fight. The likelihood of an international coalition of countries deploying troops to fight the militants — like the coalition that has formed to combat ISIS — is slim given the general lack of attention paid to Nigeria in the international news media and the failures of past “humanitarian interventions” by Western countries in Africa. This leaves few options.

There is one underutilized option that Nigeria has at its disposal. The Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), a sub-regional international organization comprised of 15 West African states, does not sound like a formidable military force, but it has intervened militarily in the region in the past, most notably in the Liberian Civil War and Sierra Leone. The Economic Community Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) is the military force of ECOWAS and had both successes and failures within Liberia during the civil war. Despite the varied outcome of its intervention, ECOWAS should utilize military force within Nigeria because the nature of the conflict is different than in Liberia, and the lessons learned from that intervention could be applied in this intervention to stop Boko Haram and foster peace within Nigeria.

In the Liberian Civil War, ECOMOG faced two warring factions that began fighting after a fraudulent election in 1985. The primary militant groups were Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The civil war that ensued was brutal. Combatants and civilians were targeted and many suffered vast human rights abuses. ECOMOG deployed troops in the late summer of 1990 and succeeded with its primary goal of establishing a cease-fire in late 1990. Despite the early success, another militia, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (UNLIMO), emerged and fighting resumed. It was at this point that ECOMOG chose to take a side in the war rather than remain neutral. Human Rights Watch found this situation problematic, and others questioned the group’s intentions.

Humanitarian interventions are controversial because they impede on the first priority of international law: state sovereignty. In the Liberian Civil War, most of the troops were Nigerian. There was also a sense that perhaps ECOMOG’s involvement was a political move under the auspices of an impartial peacekeeping mission by West Africa’s most powerful country to maintain order in the region so that economic growth could continue. Regime change through humanitarian intervention is frowned upon in the international community, while the protection of human rights is praised. Human Rights Watch took issue with the ECOMOG intervention in Liberia because the protection of human rights was not a priority, but the U.N. praised ECOWAS’s action in the Liberian Civil War despite its shortcomings and despite prior authorization for action by the U.N. Security Council. In fact, the Security Council called for all the factions and states involved in the conflict to abide by ECOWAS’s statutes, which essentially set a precedent for allowing sub-regional organizations to intervene in conflicts involving member-states. The U.N. gave ECOWAS its blessing.

The African Union (AU) is already in the process of organizing a regional coalition to defeat Boko Haram, but tensions between Nigeria and some of the countries in the coalition — and a lack of official authorization of “cross-border operations” into Nigeria — have already tempered the mission’s success. ECOWAS could avoid the problems experienced during the Liberian Civil War and the potential problems of the AU intervention, and contribute greatly to the AU effort if it executes its mission correctly. A clearly defined goal will be crucial to ECOWAS’s legitimacy, and that goal would have to be the protection of human rights and the protection of innocent civilians who have been targeted throughout northern Nigeria. This conflict would not involve warring factions fighting for control for power within a member-state like in Liberia; no unstable interim governments would be necessary; and there would be no accusations of imperialistic motives or lamentations about a dependence on Western or rival African militaries to undermine the mission.

Of course, the most crucial aspect of a humanitarian intervention is the execution and outcome. If ECOWAS cannot provide enough military strength and stratagem to defeat Boko Haram — which is possible considering Nigeria itself has played the most prominent role in ECOWAS throughout its history due to Nigeria’s economic and military superiority over the other member-states and the devastating Ebola outbreak that has crippled many member-states in the past year — the mission will fail and the organization’s legitimacy will be called into question. But if ECOWAS states its goals clearly, employs an effective strategy, and works with the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people, it will set a positive example of the potential for sub-regional organizations to effectively address the problems facing their own member-states. As an economic commission specific to West Africa, it has the ability to help restore some measure of stability to Africa’s largest economy after the intervention is concluded — a contribution the AU is less likely or able to provide.

Furthermore, it must be noted that even if a military campaign defeats Boko Haram, guns, tanks, or drones cannot defeat the extremism that motivates the group. Boko Haram is not just another radical power-hungry militia; it is a terrorist organization fueled both by radical religious beliefs and by vast economic and social inequalities. Ultimately, if Nigeria is to rid extremism from its borders, it must confront the social and economic conditions within those borders that allow extremism to persist.

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