Author Topic: The Evolution and Conduct of ECOMOG Operations in West Africa  (Read 3681 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.


  • Guest
The Evolution and Conduct of ECOMOG Operations in West Africa
« on: August 13, 2009, 02:35:39 am »

The Evolution and Conduct of ECOMOG Operations in West Africa

Mitikishe Maxwell Khobe
Chief of Defence Staff, Republic of Sierra Leone

Published in Monograph No 44: Boundaries of Peace Support Operations, February 2000


The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) is a non-standing military force consisting of land, sea and air components, that was set up by member states of the ECOWAS to deal with the security problem that followed the collapse of the formal state structure in the Republic of Liberia in 1990. The force successfully restored an atmosphere that permitted the reinstatement of a functional state structure in Liberia. It is currently engaged in the process of re-establishing the authority of the democratic order and ending a nine-year savage civil war in the Republic of Sierra Leone.

The success of the force — despite numerous shortcomings and some failures — has attracted international attention. But in order to understand the operations of ECOMOG, it is necessary to provide a bird’s eye view of the nature of the political states that created the force, the type of security threat that faces them collectively and individually, and the external interests at play in the West African subregion.

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the evolution and conduct of ECOMOG operations in West Africa. In particular, a background to the development of the ECOWAS conflict resolution mechanism provides the basis for an understanding of the authority and political dynamics that have influenced ECOMOG in the field. The focus then falls on the concept and conduct of operations, before concluding with some observations on the problems and prospects facing ECOMOG as a subregional peace support force.


ECOWAS and the idea of allied armed forces

As mentioned above, ECOMOG is a military force formed by member states of ECOWAS from units of their national armed forces. ECOWAS itself consists of sixteen member states with a total population estimated at some 216,2 million people. The official languages of member states are English, French, Portuguese and Arabic. The economy of member states is predominantly agricultural and their major exports are petroleum, gold, diamond, bauxite, iron, coffee, timber, cotton and groundnut. The main external economic investors in the subregion are France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Arabs of Lebanese and Syrian origin. Internal official trade between member states is low due to poor interstate infrastructures (particularly road, railway and telecommunications); different colonial histories and heritages; and deep-seated distrust between the ruling élite. However, informal crossborder trade and population movement are quite widespread.

The population of the subregion is dominated by young people, most of whom lack education, technical skills and the general prerequisites to function effectively in a modern economy. There is a wide disparity in distribution of wealth and income among the population and between the urban centres and rural areas. Consequently, there is constant pressure on the governments of member states to increase the tempo of development in both urban centres and rural areas. However, these governments lack the resources to provide what the youthful population needs, and this creates a process of permanent agitation for change that is not clearly defined beyond the demands for an immediate improvement in living conditions.

West Africa, therefore, is a hotbed of political, economic and social agitation that has resulted in the growth of insurgent and revolutionary movements supported largely by economically marginalised youths and estranged members of the élite. The governments that have emerged from this environment tend towards autocracy and repression, while the political system favours the exclusion of the opposition and opposing views. This is achieved either through one-party structures or outright military rule. The security structure of states is devoted to the preservation of the regime and the undermining of those who oppose it. The latter often includes the rulers of neighbouring states.

Healthy competition for development among states is what every seriously minded person desires, but deep-rooted suspicion and rivalry between the ruling classes of the various member states have created a fertile ground for outside interest to undermine the élite of these countries. These outside interests are sometimes pure private economic interests with designs on monopolising the export trade of particular states, especially their mineral resources and produce, or they can include those who seek to control the state political structure for criminal purposes. In addition, there are those who have found the drug trade very lucrative, and who want to manipulate state structures to ensure that they have maximum gain from hard drugs.

The security problem among the various member states is compounded by the multi-ethnic nature of these states. Without exception, all states in West Africa are a forced amalgamation of different nationalities, some with opposing cultural value systems. These states were put together at the turn of the century by France, the UK, Portugal and Germany for their own administrative and economic convenience.

Consequently, internal struggle for political power and economic privileges between the élite of the various national groups is a constant factor in the politics of the subregion. In many instances, the nationalities which make up these states find themselves dispersed over more than one state, and the élite of these divided nationalities assist one another to gain power in their respective states of residence. Once such goals are achieved, the successful rebels try to export such ideas across their borders into countries that are otherwise stable.

By the late 1970s, West African leaders had recognised that they needed to pool their resources to address the various internal security problems in their respective countries — problems that often overflowed to their neighbours. They realised early enough that the success of an insurgent or revolutionary movement in one country is bound to spread to others. Consequently, they signed a non-aggression pact in Lagos, Nigeria in 1978. However, this Non-Aggression Treaty only addressed the issue of the open support that the various ruling classes might give to the opponents of incumbent rulers. It failed to address the issue of the various insurgent movements that were threatening most of the regimes internally.

It was in recognition of the fact that the Non-Aggression Treaty did not provide mutual security against the very real threats of internal insurrection that the member states, prodded by Nigeria and Ghana, negotiated and signed the Protocol on Mutual Defence Assistance in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 29 May 1989. The Protocol provided for a non-standing military force to be used to render mutual military aid and assistance to a member state that falls victim to external aggression. However, the actual purpose of the Protocol is evident in Article 4(b). This provides for a collective response where a member state is a victim of internal armed conflict that is engineered and supported actively from outside, and which is likely to endanger the peace and security of other member states.

Under Article 18(2) of the Protocol, member states are not entitled to intervene militarily if the internal armed conflict poses no danger outside the borders of the afflicted state, and if it is not supported from outside. In order to secure the military assistance of the Community, the head of state of the country desiring assistance is required to ask for it in writing through the chairperson of ECOWAS. Once received, such a letter serves as a signal for the military force of the Community to be placed on an emergency footing.

The nature and composition of the military force envisaged under the Protocol is defined in Chapter V, Articles 13 and 14. It was to be known as the Allied Armed Forces of the Community (AAFC). Each member state was required to earmark units from its national armed forces that, in an emergency, would be placed at the service of the Community. The AAFC was to be under the command of a force commander who would be appointed by the head of state who chaired the Community on recommendation of the Defence Council of the Community, which consists of the ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs of member states. The force commander is to act in concert with the chief of defence staff of the particular member state that receives military assistance from the Community.

According to the Protocol, the AAFC would be used as follows:

    * Where two member states are in conflict, the Community will interpose the AAFC between them as a peacekeeping force.

    * Where a member state is the victim of internal armed conflict supported from outside and its head of state has requested military assistance from the Community in writing, the AAFC will be sent to it as an intervention force.

Although the Protocol was invoked with respect to the Liberian crisis of 1989/90, the AAFC never materialised. Rather, a smaller group of ECOWAS member states put together the intervention force known as ECOMOG.


Since ECOMOG operations started with Liberia, it is necessary to discuss some of the events in the country that led to the creation of the regional force. On 12 April 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe took advantage of the absence of the senior officers who had planned the coup to terminate the oligarchic government of President William Tolbert. When these officers saw that the marines had actually assassinated President Tolbert at the executive mansion in Monrovia, they took to their heels. Master Sergeant Doe, realising that he was now the most senior among the soldiers at the executive mansion, declared himself head of state. Among his subordinates was Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor, a member of the General Services Agency (GSA) at the time.

In an attempt to legitimise his rule, Doe organised an election in 1985 and declared that he had won. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor had embezzled government funds and escaped to the United States. On 24 December 1989, Taylor spearheaded an insurgent movement, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to overthrow the government of President Samuel Doe. Taylor was supported by the late President of Côte d’Ivoire, Felix Houphet-Boigny, who was an in-law and had been a close friend of President William Tolbert.

The NPFL made rapid military gains and, by the middle of June 1990, were fighting in the vicinity of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The fighting was of a most savage nature. The combatants respected neither life nor property and killed Liberian nationals and foreigners indiscriminately. Civilians were particularly targeted in the conflict. They were murdered in their thousands and in the most brutal manner. The result was a massive refugee problem as thousands of civilians fled to neighbouring countries.

The internal security situation further deteriorated when the commander of the advance unit of the NPFL that was operating in the vicinity of Monrovia, Prince Yormie Johnson, revolted against Charles Taylor and formed his own armed movement. Liberia gradually started sliding into anarchy as the government of President Doe was clearly losing the capacity to protect life and property, enforce law and order, or even to carry out the normal routine of administration. Thousands of foreign nationals were trapped in the fighting. Many of them fled for safety to their embassies, churches or with international relief agencies, but they were chased from these supposed places of refuge and massacred by Liberian combatants. Many countries that attempted to evacuate their nationals could not do so because of the state of anarchy.

It was under these terrible conditions that President Doe called on the Community to assist him to restore normality in his country. His request was a test case for the Protocol on Mutual Defence Assistance. The government of President Doe was clearly unpopular at home and was on the verge of military defeat by the insurgents. In addition, Doe himself was not on good terms with his neighbours — particularly Côte d’lvoire, an influential country among Francophone members of the Community. On the other hand, President Doe was a friend of General Ibrahim Babaginda, the president of Nigeria and the most powerful country in the Community.

The request by Liberia for assistance therefore split the Community. The Anglophone countries, led by Nigeria, were prepared to assist, while the Francophone countries were opposed to military intervention. They preferred dialogue and negotiations, which suited Côte d’Ivoire, because their protegé, Charles Taylor, was on the verge of a military victory despite his problems with the breakaway faction of Prince Yormie Johnson.

On 7 August 1990, with all semblance of government having disappeared in Liberia, the Anglophone countries under the auspices of the ECOWAS Standing Mediation Committee (which they dominated), met in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia and took a decision to send a military force to intervene in the conflict in Liberia. The Francophone members of the Community, with the exception of Guinea (the only Francophone member of the Standing Mediation Committee), were opposed to the military intervention.

The intervention force was designated ECOMOG and troops were contributed by Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. The force was placed under the command of a Ghanaian general, while the bulk of the land and naval forces and the entire air force was contributed by Nigeria. The force was given the mandate to restore law and order in Liberia, to create an environment that will allow humanitarian operations, and to secure a peaceful atmosphere that will facilitate cease-fire negotiations. There is considerable evidence that the US supported the initiative of the ECOWAS Standing Mediation Committee. It is also important to note at this stage that the initial troop-contributing countries were all members of the ECOWAS Standing Mediation Committee. At a later stage, Senegal, as a result of Nigeria’s persuasion, contributed troops. However, the Senegalese withdrew their contingent after it had suffered five casualties and constant harassment, including being taken hostage by NPFL combatants.

ECOMOG troops under General Quinoo landed in Liberia on 24 August 1990. They quickly secured the Freeport in Monrovia with the co-operation of Prince Yormie Johnson and President Samuel Doe and his Armed Forces of Liberia. Charles Taylor and his NPFL opposed the force, accusing it from its inception of a lack of neutrality. Perhaps the political atmosphere under which ECOMOG entered Liberia and began its march to history is best illustrated by the nature of the factions which supported its arrival. Prince Yormie Johnson and President Doe were sworn enemies of both Charles Taylor and each other. Each welcomed ECOMOG with a view to use it to advance his own political objectives. Doe wanted the force to restore his political authority, which would involve military action against Charles Taylor and Prince Yormie Johnson. Prince Yormie Johnson, on his part, wanted the force to relieve the military pressure on him from Taylor’s forces, giving him the opportunity to reorganise and consolidate while waiting for an opportune moment to eliminate both President Doe and Charles Taylor.


ECOMOG is deployed and operates under the directives of the authority of the heads of state of ECOWAS. This authority is usually exercised, on behalf of all heads of state, by the head of state who has been elected by his colleagues as the current chairperson of the Community. Day-to-day issues and political directives are handled by the ECOWAS Secretariat, which is headed by an executive secretary. Military operations are entrusted to the force commander. There are also two other supervisory political structures — the Defence Council and the Defence Commission.

The Defence Council consists of the ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs of member states and is headed by the current chairperson of the Community. It is this Council that examines the situation on the ground, decides the strategy to be adopted and the means of intervention to be used. The Defence Commission consists of chiefs of defence staff of the armed forces of member states. It is a purely technical committee that advises on military operations.

Until the recent meeting held in Lagos, Nigeria in April 1999, the governments of troop-contributing countries exercised considerable political control over their contingents — a factor with grave operational implications. The force commander did not have absolute operational command and control of the contingents under him and could not always deploy them according to his own operational appreciation. Usually, the home governments of the contingents dictate where and how troops from their countries will be deployed. Each contingent commander answers to both the force commander and his own chief of defence staff, and the views of the latter inevitably carry more weight than the former.

The effectiveness of ECOMOG depends directly on the level of political consensus existing within the community on how the mission it is engaged in should be handled. Achieving this consensus has been one of the biggest problems to plague ECOMOG operations. In Liberia, there was a clear division between the five members of the Standing Mediation Committee and the other eleven members of ECOWAS. In Sierra Leone, there was deep disagreement on when force should be employed and to what extent. This has led to situations where some member states actually offer their territories and give extensive support to the insurgent movements against which ECOMOG is conducting military operations.

ECOMOG should ideally be constituted and deployed at the sole discretion of member states. This again has not been the case, because of the enormous influence and interest of the external economic investors in the politics of the subregion. Consequently, all ECOMOG operations are considerably influenced by extraregional interests. Sometimes, conflicts of interest between countries outside the subregion directly hamper the deployment, reinforcement and logistic support of troops engaged in ECOMOG missions. In Sierra Leone, for example, the limited interest of the US and the uncertain attitude of France have been major factors in the slow military progress of the troops on ground, despite considerable commitment by Nigeria.

ECOWAS member states lack the economic resources to sustain the kind of large-scale military operations that are dictated by situations the ground. Where the necessary political will is lacking among the Western powers, the level of logistics needed by commanders on the ground to get the job done, becomes equally absent. Consequently, ECOMOG military operations usually start off on a sound footing and then get bogged down by insufficient logistics. This creates the opportunity for Western powers to force negotiations and settlements that represent such a compromise that, in most cases, they satisfy no one.

The rivalry and deep suspicion between the ruling classes of West African states further complicate the political environment. Member states sometimes refuse to participate actively in, or even oppose ECOMOG operations because a rival member state played a prominent role in the decision to send troops or is seen to be taking credit for the initial start-up of the operation. In other cases, a statement giving prominence to the role of a particular country can trigger resistance and refusal to send troops from others.

There is also the fear of smaller countries of the dominant role of Nigeria in ECOMOG. Some fear that ECOMOG is a kind of imperial excuse used by Nigeria to interfere in the internal politics of smaller states. Although the evidence on the ground contradicts this fear, some non-regional countries have exploited it to discourage these countries from active participation in ECOMOG. Ironically, when some of these states are overwhelmed by their internal armed opposition, they start pleading for intervention by ECOMOG under Nigerian leadership or active participation. This scenario played itself out in Guinea-Bissau, where the regime of President Veira was very lukewarm to ECOMOG until he was overwhelmed by his own political enemies. His desperate effort to secure Nigerian participation in the ECOMOG force that was sent to his assistance failed. As it were, the entire operation failed and he was overthrown by his opponents.

The different colonial experience of member states is another political issue that affects ECOMOG operations. Francophone member states see the security goal of the subregion differently from Anglophone member states. They regard ECOWAS more in terms of economic co-operation and trade. They are not comfortable with the level of political integration which ECOMOG of necessity entails. Consequently, they see ECOMOG more as a military force designed to solve the security problem of Anglophone member states, using the collective economic resources of the entire Community. This attitude, coupled with their very close political, economic and security relationship with the former imperial metropolitan state see them adopting a lukewarm attitude to all ECOMOG operations. Indeed, many of the insurgent leaders enjoy very close relations with leaders of Francophone member states and have considerable economic investments in these countries.


The military missions that ECOMOG has carried out since it came into existence in 1990 may be categorised as follows:

    * intervention;
    * peace enforcement; and
    * peacekeeping.

The concept and nature of operations in each category are briefly discussed below, along with the key aspects of community relations, peacebuilding, and command and control.
Intervention missions

In its intervention operations, ECOMOG has usually been deployed at the request of a legal government to stop a situation from degenerating further into anarchy. Except for Guinea-Bissau, the de jure government was no longer able to carry out the function of governance. In Liberia, the government virtually existed only in the Presidential Palace while its opponents had little control over the actions and activities of combatants fighting for them. Consequently, civilians became principal targets of the conflict. The security and economy of neighbouring states were strained by the influx of refugees and criminal armed groups. In Sierra Leone, the government was removed in a military mutiny and the succeeding illegal regime could not control the activities of the enlisted ranks who carried out the mutiny. Thus, the state actually protected criminals who went plundering other people’s property, raping women and murdering opponents. The de jure government was assisted by ECOMOG to return to power and reinstate law and order.

ECOMOG intervention missions have involved combat action against insurgents or factions which resist the authority of the de jure government. Such intervention missions are aimed at securing a cease-fire, creating a conducive atmosphere for negotiations and the protection of non-combatants through establishment of safe havens where civilians can escape from the savagery of the conflict and live a normal life under direct ECOMOG protection. Even though the principle of intervention is that the consent of the conflicting parties is needed before the intervention force can enter, situations prior to the intervention, in most cases, have not warranted securing the agreement of all the parties in the conflict.

This inability to secure the co-operation of all armed groupings before deployment has been a sore point with critics of ECOMOG. However, such critics should remember that, in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, these armed groupings had become indifferent to the suffering of the civilian population. In Sierra Leone, the illegal regime initially rebuffed efforts at a negotiated solution. When it was compelled to sign an agreement, it quickly reneged on it, thus leaving intervention as the only option left for ECOWAS leaders. In Liberia, the NPFL was opposed to any form of agreement that would halt its military action, because it believed it was on the verge of military victory. Meanwhile, the situation was actually slipping out of control. The country had descended into anarchy. The options were intervention or to allow the population of Monrovia either to be massacred by drug addicted combatants who were out of control, or to die as a result of starvation and disease.

Peace enforcement

All ECOMOG intervention operations have so far been successful. They have forced armed groups to accept negotiations that, in most cases, led to a cease-fire. ECOMOG is normally asked to monitor and enforce the provisions of the cease-fire. Because the factions that signed these cease-fire agreements do not do so in good faith, violations are rampant. This compels ECOMOG to use force to get the recalcitrant parties to adhere to what was agreed. Sometimes, this will involve outright and large-scale military operations against the most belligerent insurgent group or groups. ECOMOG missions, at this stage, change from intervention to peace enforcement. At all stages, the ECOWAS Secretariat is kept informed.

Peace enforcement operations of ECOMOG have always led to a widening of the initial safe havens established for non-combatants. This compels armed groups to realise that they cannot achieve their political objectives by military action. It takes appreciable time for armed groups to reach this conclusion. In the period that ECOMOG is engaged in military action to force them to such a position, extensive logistic support and troop reinforcement are required. This is because the groups which it is fighting against are not conventional armies, and their strategy is to bring intolerable hardship on the civilian population in order to make ECOMOG and the legal authority it supports unpopular. They usually do this by carrying out extensive ambush operations on commercial vehicles in order to render the roads unsafe. They also carry out extermination operations against undefended communities in order to terrorise others into submission and collaboration.

In order to checkmate this strategy of terror, ECOMOG has had to deploy over wide areas, but in most cases, it has not had adequate troops and logistics to do so. It is usually at this critical stage that ECOMOG suffers operational reverses that Western powers exploit in order to step in and force all the parties to negotiate. These negotiations are normally under the auspices of ECOWAS, and in all cases a general settlement is reached. A consistent aspect of these general settlements includes disarmament, the formation of an interim or transitional government, the return of refugees, military reform, and the staging of general elections. ECOMOG is usually tasked to carry out the disarmament, ensure the security of UN personnel and the interim or transitional government, as well as to assist in the process of military reform and the conduct of general elections. At this stage, ECOMOG missions change from peace enforcement to peacekeeping.


ECOMOG peacekeeping missions normally start off on a very difficult footing. It takes considerable effort, time and diplomacy to persuade the parties that fought ECOMOG that the force is now neutral. However, ECOMOG has successfully overcome these difficulties and can rapidly transform itself from a fighting force to a peacekeeping force that enjoys the confidence and respect of the very insurgents it was fighting. The key to this success is because ECOMOG has always enjoyed the trust and confidence of the civil population. In many instances, it has intervened when general anarchy has set in, and has saved the civilian population from the savagery of gunmen. ECOMOG is thus perceived as a liberator by the larger society.

ECOMOG soldiers have also shown remarkable humanity in their treatment of captured or surrendered combatants. The initial fears which insurgents have had about ECOMOG disappear when, in contact with ECOMOG troops, they are given food, cigarettes, medicine and made to feel at home as fellow soldiers. In most cases, the combatants find that they receive better treatment from ECOMOG troops than from their own commanders. ECOMOG High Command also makes a deliberate effort to reach the leadership of the insurgent movements and to establish sound interpersonal relations. The success of this strategy has been manifested in the ready acceptance, or sometimes even request by the insurgent leaders for ECOMOG to assume responsibility for their personal security.

Community relations and peacebuilding

In all phases of its operations from intervention to peacekeeping, ECOMOG pays considerable attention to community relations. It assists the host communities to restore destroyed infrastructure, such as power houses, water supply, communication and broadcast facilities. In many instances, the allowances of ECOMOG troops (which are paid in US dollars) provide the basis for the resumption of commercial activities. ECOMOG soldiers are known to be liberal spenders, and the local merchants find the security they provide and their dollar expenditure sufficient encouragement to resume their business. As economic activities pick up, reconstruction work quickly follows suit. These in themselves provide alternative employment opportunities for some of the combatants.

ECOMOG has successfully undertaken the disarmament of combatants and a return to a state of law and order in Liberia. But it did not succeed in carrying out military reform because of the determination of the NPFL — which won the general elections —to exclude other armed groups from the military. This tragic decision still has serious security consequences for the government of President Taylor. The excluded groups simply bided their time and have now restarted a new insurgent war in Liberia. In Sierra Leone, the task of reforming the armed forces was entrusted to the author as commander of the ECOMOG Taskforce Sierra Leone. ECOMOG has also been tasked to carry out the disarmament programme jointly with the UN.
Command and control

Like most multinational peace support forces, ECOMOG has experienced difficulties in trying to operate a unified command. Because of the high level of distrust among member states and the influence of non-regional powers, troop contingents usually arrive in the mission area with different and sometimes conflicting instructions. From the perspective of a former force commander, it appears that the kind of key instructions on rules of engagement, given to various national contingents in a typical ECOMOG operation by their home governments, could vary from contingent to contingent as follows:

    * to take active part in all military operations, including combat in all parts of the mission area;

    * to take active part in combat, but only in a particular part of the mission area;

    * to take active part in combat only on the approval of the home government, after assessing the situation;

    * to avoid taking part in any form of offensive operations, but to defend if the contingent is attacked; or?

    * not to participate in any fighting whatsoever and to refuse deployment in areas where contingent personnel might be exposed to the dangers of combat action.

The command structure of ECOMOG is very simple. At the top is the force commander with below him the deputy force commanders who are also the contingent commanders of their countries’ troops. The force commander operates a small planning staff headed by a chief of staff, who deals with common problems and co-ordinates the activities of the various contingents in close co-operation with his deputies.

The central planning staff, under the directive of the force commander, usually designates various sectors of the mission area to the respective contingent commanders — taking into consideration their strength, instructions from their home governments, their affinity to the host country and the level of their equipment, arms and ammunition.

ECOMOG does not operate a common or central logistic administration system. Each country provides its own contingent with arms, ammunition, food, transport and communication equipment. Nigeria has provided the entire force with petrol, oil and lubricants. The US, through a private company called Pacific Architect Engineers (PAE), has assisted ECOMOG operations with transport helicopter services, communication facilities, vehicles and general repairs and maintenance. The services provided by PAE are used commonly by all the contingents.

In operations, the force commander’s mission is given to the contingent commanders, who then task the various units of their contingents. Because of the high level of control by home governments, the contingent commanders enjoy considerable autonomy from the control of the force commander. There have been instances where contingent units were pulled out of their areas of deployment without the approval or even the knowledge of the force commander, thus endangering the deployment of flanking contingents. Some contingents have also at times refused to come to the aid of other contingents without clearance from their home governments.


Operational challenges

Despite problems of command and control, among others, ECOMOG has achieved more success than expected by its founders and the international community. It has provided clear proof of what is possible if African states pool their resources to address a problem. Though the force has been successful, it would be foolhardy to ignore the considerable problems that have been identified in the course of its operations. The most salient of these may be summarised as follows:

    * excessive control by home governments;

    * language differences;

    * lack of standardisation of equipment, arms and ammunition;

    * different training standards, doctrine and staff procedures;

    * poor sea and air lift capabilities;

    * absence of vital air-to-ground support assets, particularly ground attack helicopters;

    * lack of logistic support for some contingents;

    * inadequate resources to deal with humanitarian problems;

    * poor co-ordination and liaison with international relief agencies; and

    * the misrepresentation of force activities by mercenary organisations and the international mass media.

Many of these problems and their implications have been discussed above, and others are common to virtually all multinational peace missions. For example, the problem of language differences is ubiquitous, and is overcome at high command level either by the use of interpreters and/or the appointment of bilingual (French and English) officers as contingent commanders or staff officers.
Since member states of ECOWAS have limited capacity to manufacture military ordinance and equipment, it will remain difficult to standardise equipment, arms and ammunition. A possible solution is for member states to earmark specific units of their armed forces for ECOMOG service. Such units could be equipped with similar equipment, arms and ammunition. The training standards, doctrine and staff procedure of these ECOMOG earmarked units could be harmonised by an ECOMOG standing command staff whose headquarters would have to be designated and manned permanently. However, these innovations would require more political will than what is currently in existence among member states.

The economy of most member states is poor, hence they rely on non-regional states to sponsor their contingents for ECOMOG operations. The level of political will in such sponsor states determines the extent of logistic support that will be provided to the units they are sponsoring. Sometimes, these sponsor states change their policy or experience budget problems which have a direct impact on the continued stay of contingents they are sponsoring in the mission area and/or their operational effectiveness.

Nigeria remains the only member state of ECOWAS that has the capacity for heavy military air and sea lift. The country is thus in a position to support its troops effectively, but other member states often lack such capability. This is sometimes responsible for their reluctance to contribute troops for ECOMOG operations. There have been suggestions in some quarters for the creation of an ECOMOG support command that would have ships and aircraft capable of lifting heavy materials. In addition, the command would maintain logistic depots all over the ECOWAS subregion, which ECOMOG troops could draw on during emergencies. This suggestion is expensive, and can only be realised with the assistance of the UN and the wealthier nations.

The geographic terrain of most parts of West Africa favours insurgency warfare and guerrilla operations. Experience in Liberia and Sierra Leone has proved that helicopters are crucial to operations in these areas. Unfortunately, West African armed forces have very few helicopters for combat and support operations. The Nigerian Air Force, which displayed exemplary gallantry in ECOMOG operations, seems to have learned this lesson and is addressing the problem. Other member states need to do the same so that there will be improved air support in future operations.

In the course of their operations, ECOMOG troops have repeatedly encountered the problem of civilian refugees fleeing towards their positions. In most cases, the forward units with whom they come in contact do not have the necessary food and medicine to take care of the large number of refugees. They are consequently forced to share their operational rations and medicines with civilians. Efforts to get relief agencies to take over the management of these refugees have always proven difficult. Relief agencies do not want to go to the frontline and ECOMOG usually lacks the transport facilities to move such large numbers of civilians to sites that are acceptable to relief agencies. In addition, relief agencies are reluctant to hand over their food and medicines to ECOMOG to administer to the refugees. This problem has been persistent and a solution has not yet been found by ECOMOG high command.

ECOMOG has so far operated in countries with valuable mineral deposits which are of interest to many parties. Among these parties are mercenary outfits who seek to associate their operations with ECOMOG successes and hence boost their marketing potential among prospective clients. Mercenary outfits have successfully manipulated the international mass media and created several false impressions about their role in ECOMOG activities. In some instances, they even claim direct responsibility for successful operations carried out, without their involvement, by ECOMOG. The operation in Sierra Leone is a classic case in point.

Sandline International and Executive Outcomes have made several false claims about their roles in the restoration of the democratic government of Sierra Leone. As the commander on the ground, the author is in a position to state that, contrary to what the international mass media have reported, Sandline and Executive Outcomes played no significant role in the operations to reclaim Sierra Leone from the illegal regime that ousted the democratic government. The operation was planned and executed by ECOMOG, and the forces employed by the force commander were mostly those of the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Air Force with the Nigerian Navy later joining the operation. The service of the non-Nigerian helicopter that supplemented the efforts of the Nigerian Air Force was fully paid for in cash by the government of Sierra Leone.

The future of ECOMOG

The restoration of constitutional governments in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the conclusion of the impeding disarmament exercise in Sierra Leone will mark the end of the active deployment of ECOMOG. In accordance with the political framework under which the force operates, it will be dissolved and the contingents will return to their respective countries. However, many observers are of the view that, while the contingents return home, ECOMOG headquarters should remain in a designated member state. They believe that this is necessary to consolidate the nine years’ experience gained during the force’s operations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau.

There have also been several suggestions that certain aspects of the force should be transformed to a permanent status, in order to quicken the reaction time in future emergencies. Elements suggested for transformation to permanent status include a logistic support organisation, a joint training body for officers and senior non-commissioned officers, and a joint Intelligence agency. It has been suggested, for example, that all member states should train their military cadets, staff officers and senior officers in one military academy, staff college and war college. This would solve many problems of language, different training standards, doctrine and staff procedures.

There has also been a further recommendation that member states should harmonise their procurement of certain categories of military equipment, so that their various contingents can operate and co-operate with less difficulty in future operations. Some have gone so far as to propose that there should be a deliberate effort by member states to tailor their military procurements in such a way that these incorporate likely requirements for ECOMOG service. Thus, member states should improve their sea and air lift capabilities if they can afford to, so that they can sustain their future ECOMOG contingents. In addition, they should improve their combat and transport helicopter assets.


Although the above are as yet merely suggestions, proposals or recommendations, they are positive signs that ECOMOG has created an awareness among West African leaders, intellectuals and military experts that the force is a positive security development that requires some finetuning. Given the growing number of conflicts on the African continent, ECOMOG is a reminder of the fact that the right tool for conflict resolution can be found from within the continent, if African countries are prepared to pool their resources. ECOMOG is therefore a lesson which should not be forgotten, because it also points to the fact that there is no need to wait for outsiders to help if Africa itself can address its problems effectively.

Brigadier General Mitikishe Maxwell Khobe, is presently Chief of Defence Staff, Republic of Sierra Leone. As a Nigerian army officer, he was a previous force commander of ECOMOG in Sierra Leone.