Africa is often portrayed as a continent ravaged by war, terrorism, poverty and political instability. But over the past five decades few violent conflicts have occurred between states. In Europe, for comparison, there have been more than 25 inter-state conflicts since 1945.
West Africa, a region of 16 independent states, has experienced 53 successful and 40 failed coups since 1950. There are also cross-border security challenges such as terrorism, banditry, piracy and the wide presence of arms.
But, since independence in the late 1950s, the region’s countries have not gone to war with one another – except for a minor armed confrontation between Burkina Faso and Mali in 1985.
In a recent paper we explored the possible reasons for this. As scholars studying the political dynamics of west Africa, we arrived at our insights by analysing historical data, diplomatic interactions and scholarly research.
We found evidence that the principles of non-aggression and peaceful settlement of disputes defined the relationships between west African countries. The 15 states under the umbrella of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) positively identify with the fate of others in the bloc. The regional body was formed in 1975 by west African countries seeking to promote economic development.
We found a strong correlation between decades of regional cooperation and the rarity of conflicts between states in west Africa.
We conclude that systemic cooperation between states in the region has led to a collective identity forming over time. A sense of community has developed. The community has developed conflict management mechanisms. This has prevented members from going into war.
This finding highlights the importance of collaboration and diplomacy in maintaining peace and resolving conflicts.
Making sense of the ECOWAS peace
Regional dynamics and historical factors shape conflict, as can be seen in the Horn of Africa. That region has witnessed conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and between Ethiopia and Somalia, for example.
In the west African region, we found that the security arrangements agreed under ECOWAS have helped to foster peace between states.
The ECOWAS agreement was updated in 1993. It includes principles that were absent in the earlier pact. Among them are:
solidarity and collective self-reliance
non-aggression between member states
promotion and strengthening of good neighbourliness to maintain regional peace, stability and security
peaceful settlement of disputes among member states
active cooperation between neighbouring countries
promotion of a peaceful environment as a prerequisite for economic development.
This has led to west African countries choosing peaceful dispute resolution over sovereignty. For example, a border dispute between Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire was settled in 2017 through an international tribunal. This approach has prevented violent conflicts.
A key factor is that member states have mechanisms for settling disputes peacefully. In both Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s wars, which threatened to engulf other countries in the region, ECOWAS used these settlement mechanisms. It deployed military troops to supervise ceasefires brokered by the then Ghanaian president, Jerry Rawlings.
Another factor is what in our study we call pan-West Africanism. We describe this as a regional version of pan-Africanism that emphasises unity and collaboration among countries. In practice it has facilitated trade, cultural exchanges and diplomatic collaborations. It has also created a sense of shared identity and solidarity among member countries.
We argue that the idea of pan-West Africanism has promoted regional solidarity and reduced the possibility of violence in inter-state relations. It is not just a philosophy, but a practical approach to regional integration and cooperation.
Our paper supports the argument that systemic cooperation among states can lead to a collective identity forming over time.
This has happened with the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Their collective identities are based on norms that reflect the history and political cultures of their member states.
The importance of shared identity and peaceful coexistence is often overlooked in explaining complex international relations. But it’s essential in understanding the relations of west African states.
Written by Abubakar Abubakar Usman, Researcher, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia)