West Africa is beset by internal and external security crises. In addition to burgeoning levels of violence linked to Islamist extremism throughout the Sahel, there has been a string of military coups d’êtat in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, as well as failed coup attempts in Niger and Guinea-Bissau. The persistence of violence, instability, and military coups throughout the region has intensified calls for comprehensive security sector reform (SSR) throughout the region. (The term SSR, in this context, includes reforms to the policies, structures, and capacities of institutions and groups engaged in the security sector—defined broadly to include defense forces, law enforcement, corrections, intelligence services, border management, and customs agents, as well as certain non-state actors such as private security services—in order to make them more effective, efficient, and responsive to democratic control.) Indeed, many believe that a multilateral, region-wide initiative on SSR is essential during this tense political moment in West Africa.
It was therefore encouraging when, last November, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met to announce its commitment to a new Policy Framework for Security Sector Reform and Governance (SSRG). Unfortunately, this Framework is deficient in a number of serious ways. One of the most significant problems is that the Framework focuses too narrowly on things like “resource mobilization and financing” and “professionalization and modernization” of the security sector, while paying insufficient attention to the central role of corruption in the security sector as a key impediment to genuine SSR. As a result, the Framework fails to clearly establish anticorruption as a core principle and a key element of SSR programming, and lacks sufficient guidance to member states on how to mitigate corruption risks in the security sector.Read more: Security Sector Reform in West Africa Must Include Anticorruption Measures
That corruption in the security sector undermines national security and political stability is well established, both in general and in West Africa specifically. For one thing, corruption in the security sector hollows out defense and security forces, rendering them less effective, less professional, and less well-equipped. Corruption therefore can enable armed groups to gain power and influence—particularly in neglected and under-policed rural areas. Furthermore, when citizens experience or perceive corruption in a country’s security services, this can generate greater resentment and distrust of the central government, which in turn can undermine the state’s legitimacy and the ability of the security services to work effectively with the civilian population.
Yet as Transparency International (TI) correctly observed, SSR initiatives in West Africa—including the ECOWAS Framework—have neglected anticorruption in favor of more technical “train-and-equip” approaches to reform. Especially after the wave of military coups and coup attempts among ECOWAS member states since 2020, it is clear that this approach is insufficient. ECOWAS can and should revise the Framework to include provisions that require member states to implement strong anticorruption measures into their national SSRG programs. Three such revisions are particularly important:
- First, the Framework should be revised to include specific commitments to greater transparency and access to information in the security sector, including explicit and robust whistleblower protections and mechanisms for anonymous reporting of corrupt and abusive activity.
- Second, the Framework lacks adequate provisions dealing with corruption and fraud risk in security sector procurement. A revised Framework should include a specific commitment to pass legislation requiring that member states set up financial audit and planning bodies and avoid single-source procurement deals, which are particularly vulnerable to fraud.
- Third, the Framework should be expanded to include personnel management mechanisms to fight fraud and corruption. For starters, the Framework should mandate a code of conduct for security personnel that contains provisions prohibiting fraud and solicitation or acceptance of bribes. The Framework should also encourage meritocratic recruitment strategies and prohibit nepotistic hiring practices. Additionally the Framework should require member states to commit to measures that would mitigate the risk of fraudulent payments to “ghost soldiers,” whose names appear on the payroll but are not actually in military service. (There are various ways to do this; one solution would be to link payments to a biometric database that keeps track of active security sector personnel in each country.)
These revisions to the ECOWAS Framework will not end corruption in the security sector in West Africa, but they would encourage meaningful progress, and would send a strong signal to the public that the security apparatus of each of the ECOWAS member states is worthy of trust. In the wake of recent political instability and ongoing violence, such reforms are more important now than ever.