1.3. Security Sector Governance in West Africa: Regional norms, Local experiences

Chair: Ms. Ornella Moderan

Panellists: Ms. Emma Birikorang; Gen. Lamine Cissé (Ret.); Col. Abdourahmane Dieng

Rapporteur: Ms. Armelle Vessier, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces

Good security sector governance (SSG) is essential to sustainable peace and effective rule of law. While confronted with a regionalisation of threats, African countries increasingly strive for agreeing common standards for good governance that will allow their security institutions to be more effective and accountable, and easier to coordinate. Progress has been made, as demonstrate the adoption of an African Union Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform in 2013; and more recently the endorsement by the Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) of a regional Policy Framework on Security Sector Reform and Governance (SSRG). This formal endorsement at the highest political level of ECOWAS came as the outcome of seven years of negotiations, highlighting an emerging, if fragile, regional consensus on the necessity to improve security governance practices across the board, especially in light of current security threats. Yet, much remains to be done in terms of country level implementation.

How can good security sector governance increase the capacity of West African states to effectively ensure their own protection and respond to the justice and security needs of men, women, boys and girls on their territory?

The ECOWAS Policy Framework on SSRG was developed on the premises that good security sector governance reinforces state and human security, by improving the efficiency, effectiveness, accountability and transparency of security institutions. The Policy Framework set a number of fundamental principles which can help to improve context specific relevance of reform programmes, so that security institutions are better fit to responding to the needs of the population they serve. Full integration of human rights, human security, rule of law and gender equality is constituent of good security sector governance.

What lessons of experience have informed the development of regional norms on security sector governance and reform in West Africa?

The recent case of Mali shows that using SSR as a post-conflict instrument of governance is not enough; SSR must be used proactively as a conflict prevention tool. This lesson is clearly reflected in the Policy. In the case of Guinea Bissau, a narrow focus of the Defense and Security Sector Reform programme on retirement issues led to the realization that defining reform in monetary terms rather than in overarching governance terms is not sustainable. While the country still lacks a basic justice system (there are no prisons), the reform process continues to be undermined by an influential group of former military officials requesting unaffordable compensations to retire.  

Another key lesson, confirmed in their own ways by the experiences of Ghana and the Republic of Guinea, is that reform agendas must be home-grown, developed through continuous dialogue among national stakeholders (not just the security establishment). The ECOWAS Policy clearly reflects this lesson, that SSR must come from a national and inclusive decision, and not from outside. Whether this decision is explicitly stated (like in Guinea) or develops in a more organic manner through a seemingly “natural” growth or non-deliberative practice of SSRG principles (like in Ghana) – depends on the context. Either way, in order to be any successful or sustainable, reform initiatives must be rooted in democratization processes. Acknowledging the complexity and expensive costs of SSR, the experience of Guinea also shows the advantages of building with external partners a consensus which is predicated on nationally defined priorities, in order to secure sufficient support for reforms to take place.

What is the role of regional organisations, such as the ECOWAS, in facilitating the transposition of norms into effective practices which advance human, national and regional security?

While fully acknowledging their primary responsibility in initiating and conducting SSR, ECOWAS encourages member states to build strong democratic institutions by providing political and technical support, as needed. In Guinea Bissau, ECOMIB had an explicit and exceptional mandate to lead the reforms in lieu of the Bissau Guinean state. More commonly, though, ECOWAS aims to support national authorities in conducting their own reforms, rather than replacing them (Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea). In the recent case of Mali, ECOWAS did not engage in SSR assistance as such, but contributed to creating an enabling environment for SSR by supporting the political process.  ECOWAS also has a great role to play in facilitating communication and coordination between Member states, in order to improve the response to transnational threats. While naturally-occurring (“organic”) SSRG is laudable, it also presents a number of challenges. This is where regional support could effectively promote and reinforce national ownership of SSR processes, particularly through monitoring, review and evaluation of SSRG initiatives.


There is a strong need for democratic consolidation in order to achieve effective SSRG in West African states. Far from being an end in itself, the adoption of an ECOWAS Policy for SSRG should be regarded as an opportunity for improving governance practices across the region. The practical gains of this Policy will depend on how it is utilized by Member states and their partners.