Why West Africa Matters Now More Than Ever to UK Strategic Interests

Show of force: Nigerian soldiers training to fight the Boko Haram terrorist group. Image: VOA / Nicolas Pinault

The UK has a vital interest in enhancing stability across West Africa, not only through providing security assistance, but also working closely with regional bodies and helping to address the underlying drivers of insecurity.

West Africa has over the years been fraught with insecurity, from the violent extremist activities of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region to the nefarious activities of Islamic State in the Sahel region. Some of the factors that have led to a rise in insecurity in West Africa are socio-economic, such as high levels of poverty, unemployment, inequality and illiteracy. There are also political factors such as endemic corruption, weak state institutions and poor governance. Added to these are other factors such as ethno-religious friction and climate-induced conflicts.

However, West Africa remains significant to the UK’s long-term strategic goals for several reasons. Firstly, there is the region’s geostrategic proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, which the UK relies on for its maritime trade in raw materials and goods with Africa. Secondly, the UK has geo-economic interests in the region, particularly relating to oil and gas resources. UK companies manage big projects in the region such as the Greater Tortue-Ahmeyim LNG project and the 1,980 km cross-border Niger-Benin crude pipeline. Thirdly, there is the need to counter the growing regional influence of Russia and China, both of which are competing with the UK for strategic relevance in West Africa. Peace and security in this troubled region remain vital to securing the UK’s strategic interests.

Given West Africa’s geostrategic importance to the UK, in addition to the spike in armed conflict and communal violence in Nigeria’s northwest and other parts of the sub-region (such as Togo’s first-ever jihadist attack recently), there is an urgent need for the UK government to consider specific interventions to secure its long-term strategic interests. Even more important is the need to avoid an over-militarisation of the approach to peace and security in this troubled region. This is particularly important given that most of the region’s states have responded to the activities of violent extremist organisations with brute force, which has in some instances led to accusations of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. Such approaches tend to pit societies against states and external actors in West Africa.

One way the UK can more effectively enhance stability across West Africa is to prioritise security assistance targeted at ensuring security sector reform, rather than handing out sophisticated weapons. Attention in this regard must be given not only to military components but also to state police services, paramilitary forces and intelligence outfits. Furthermore, the UK’s security assistance must also prioritise strengthening the oversight functions of the legislature, which are central to checking the excesses of the coercive apparatuses of states across West Africa.

As the UK adopts a 'Global Britain' posture in a changing Europe, it must also recognise and work closely with key states in West Africa in its bid to effectively ensure stability in the region

The UK must also focus its efforts on addressing the underlying drivers of insecurity across West Africa through the provision of support for initiatives and programmes aimed at poverty reduction, school enrolment and job creation, to mention a few. Until adequate attention is given to these root causes of insecurity as a complement to signing defence pacts, the tendency to relapse to conflict even after the restoration of peace and security will remain high.

Furthermore, the UK must consider regional factors and commit to working closely with regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Doing so is important to UK strategic interests in the region. It is significant that both the UK’s core and vital interests in the region include ensuring a peaceful, viable and stable market from which it can benefit, especially given the implications of Brexit for the UK economy and the withdrawal of French forces. This explains the visit by a high-level UK government delegation shortly after the UK began finalising its negotiations with the EU in the aftermath of its decision to exit the Union.

Giving adequate recognition to and reinvigorating multilateral cooperation through political and financial support for regional bodies is fundamental to legitimising their role in peace processes. However, the UK must ensure that in doing so, it holds ECOWAS accountable. This is important considering ECOWAS’s complacency on certain matters that affect the peace and stability of the region. A good example of this is the way it has responded to the recent military coups in the region, which has been mostly reactive rather than adopting proactive measures that reduce the likelihood of such occurrences.

As the UK adopts a ‘Global Britain’ posture in a changing Europe, it must also recognise and work closely with key states in West Africa such as Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana in its bid to effectively ensure stability in the region as identified in the UK’s Integrated Review. These approaches must also consider the peculiarities and uncertainties occasioned by the global coronavirus pandemic, and what these portend for the UK’s strategic interests in West Africa.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Fola Aina

Associate Fellow; International security analyst and researcher

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