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West Africa: Regional Security Comes to the Fore

Commentary, 30 January 2012
Terrorism, Africa
With fewer elections scheduled for 2012 in West Africa, the emphasis will shift to regional security and dealing with complex security threats. Terrorist groups and local militias are still a major problem, while religious conflict and instability threaten the region’s largest economy; Nigeria.

With fewer elections scheduled for 2012 in West Africa, the emphasis will shift to regional security and dealing with complex security threats. Terrorist groups and local militias are still a major problem, while religious conflict and instability threaten the region's largest economy; Nigeria.

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By Dr Knox Chitiyo for RUSI.org

Elections and post-electoral challenges were the main dynamic in West Africa in 2011. In the Cote d'Ivoire, Alessane Outtara, who had won the December 2010 elections, took office in April 2011 after former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to cede power, was arrested by UN and French forces after a protracted conflict. Highly contested but successful elections were also held in Nigeria, Niger and Liberia in 2011. In 2012, with fewer elections scheduled, the emphasis will be on regional security. West Africa faces increasing threats in environmental, food and human security. However, it is Nigeria and the crisis facing that country which will generate the most column inches in 2012. 

Regional Security: the Threat of Transnational Terrorism

Food security and the threat of famine are major concerns in 2012, particularly in the Sahel region. The region was ravaged by drought for much of 2010 and remains highly vulnerable to changing weather patterns. With diminished food reserves and the possibility of continued drought and rising food prices, there are fears that 2012 could see a major food crisis in the Sahel. Averting this will entail heightened regional and international food security strategic partnerships.

Drug trafficking and organised crime are major challenges in West Africa: in Guinea-Bissau, for example, the institutionalisation of the drugs trade has led some to call the country a 'narco-state'. Piracy has also become commonplace in the Gulf of Guinea with ships and their crews being seized by increasingly sophisticated maritime criminal gangs. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the UN have called for a comprehensive regional strategy and action plan for maritime security in 2012. The shipping industry, insurers and clients will put increased pressure on regional governments to increase maritime security resources. Last year terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region was a major threat: Al-Qa'ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and local insurgents attacked military and civilian targets - particularly Western tourists - in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. In 2011 there was a better co-ordinated regional response but so far the region has struggled to move from reactive counter-terrorism to a more preventive approach.

There are also fears that 2012 could see an informal, pan-regional insurgent alliance between groups such as AQIM, Nigeria's Boko Haram and Somalia's Al-Shabaab. The three groups have already claimed an ideological partnership and the long and often porous borders mean that Boko Haram and AQIM, in particular, could translate their rhetoric into reality. All three groups have criticised state corruption and western 'decadence' and have called for the establishment of Islamist states with enforced Sharia law. All three groups have some local support and it is this that makes it unlikely that a purely military solution can be found in 2012. A deeper concern is that the increasing religious-sectarian polarisation in Nigeria could spread across the region, pitting Christians against Muslims in a series of regional flashpoints.

Nigeria: Breaking Down?

Nigeria is the region's largest economy and most populous country. The second half of 2011 saw a significant deterioration in the country's security situation. The post-electoral period saw an upsurge in attacks by Islamist group Boko Haram. In August, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of the UN HQ in Abuja. Since then, there has been a spate of bombings, attacks on civilians and gun battles between Boko Haram and Nigeria's military. During the Christmas period the group claimed responsibility for bombings in north and central Nigeria and also in the capital Abuja. On 21 January 2012, the northern city of Kano was rocked by a series of co-ordinated bomb attacks which ripped through police, immigration and intelligence offices, killing nearly 200. Boko Haram claimed responsibility. In January 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan declared a State of Emergency in northern Nigeria. This followed increased religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in northern and north-central Nigeria.

On top of this, the government removal of the fuel subsidy has seen an increase in the price of basic commodities and has triggered street protests across the country to demand the subsidy's reinstatement. The security crisis and economic protests could derail President Jonathan's domestic reform agenda in 2012; he had pledged to invest in infrastructure and education, but the government is increasingly being pushed to militarise the state and push resources towards security. Nigeria's crisis is of global concern: it is an OPEC member and is also one of the key economies for the region and the continent. Global fears of the Balkanisation of Nigeria will lead to enhanced security and development partnerships between Nigeria and the international community.

Cote d'Ivoire: Forging Ahead

There is still a good deal of interest in the future of the Cote d'Ivoire. There has been a fragile peace since President Allesane Outtara took office in April 2011, following the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo by UN, French, and pro-Outtara forces in Abidjan earlier that month. A great deal of progress has been made towards the creation of a truly national military, with Gbabgo loyalists and Outtara militias being incorporated into the National Republican Forces of the Cote d'Ivoire (FRCI). There has also been a national programme of reconciliation to resolve lingering animosities. In December 2011 the Cote d'Ivoire held parliamentary elections. Although Gbagbo loyalists boycotted the polls in protest at his incarceration by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the polls were judged to be reasonably free and fair by observers and could mark an important way-station on the return to political stability and democracy in Cote d'Ivoire, with municipal and regional elections scheduled for March/April.

But it is unclear as to whether the government really controls the military: non- or late payment of salaries has resulted in serving or former soldiers attacking civilians. Militia forces and warlords remain accountable to no one, particularly in west-central and southern parts of the country. Outtara has demonstrated that he is a shrewd politician but there is a lingering concern that 2012 could see a contest of wills between the president and the various military factions. Meanwhile, Ivorians will closely watch the Gbagbo trial in The Hague. Gbagbo is accused of crimes against humanity during the post-elections conflict in early 2011 that claimed thousands of lives in Cote d'Ivoire. All the indications are that Gbagbo's trial, like that of Charles Taylor, will be protracted and will not be concluded in 2012.

Knox Chitiyo

Dr Knox Chitiyo is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House

The views expressed here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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