Twenty years on—the study on ECOMOG that inspired the formation of Africa’s regional standby brigades

Adebayo Olowo-Ake, a former Research Fellow at a Think Tank who now works for a humanitarian organisation, reflects on “The start of a modest journey to the pacific management of conflict at sub-regional level in Africa”
He recalls, with great humility, that exactly twenty years ago today—Tuesday June 1 1996—as a researcher, he submitted the outcome of an independent study he had undertaken for the ‘Organisation of African Unity’ (OAU), now replaced by the ‘African Union’ (AU), proposing the creation of sub-regional peacekeeping forces (instead of the much touted centralized’ African High Command’,

Adebayo writes from India

Twenty years ago today, I presented the outcome of my research work, recommending the establishment of an instrument for the management of conflict on the African continent to Dr. Eduard Benjamin (of Guinea), then serving as Executive Secretary of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for onward transmission to the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU, now African Union—AU). It was an effort that took enormous resources to undertake and conclude.

As a researcher with the Lagos-based African Resource Development Centre in the 1990’s, my focus had been on development and not conflict resolution. However, it soon dawned on me and my colleagues that it was virtually impossible for African States to initiate any meaningful development projects in the midst of armed conflict. This being the prevailing scenario across most of Africa in the 1990’s, I persuaded the Board to let me work on that study and for us to present it as an ‘independent’ policy framework upon which the then OAU could build.

It is instructive to recall that at that time and in the preceding decades before it, the OAU had been pre-occupied with setting up what it called an ‘African High Command,’ which was an offshoot of Kwame Nkrumah’s prognosis for defeating colonialism in Africa through military means. Despite its attraction, it never really took off. Nonetheless, the OAU was completely fixated on that idea and stuck resolutely to it, despite its lack of traction.

By the time the Liberian and Sierra-Leonean crises broke, ECOWAS leaders, in what was aptly described byProf. (Mrs.) Margaret Vogt as “a very bold move,” were to establish the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to intervene in Liberia (and later Sierra-Leone), originally to evacuate West Africanrefugees who had been trapped in the conflict.

It is useful to recall that ECOMOG was established at the first session of the Standing Mediation Committee held at the Kairaba Conference Centre in Banjul, The Gambia, from August 6-7 1990. ECOMOG troops landed in Liberia in August 24 1990, and as I argued in my study, it was one of the fastest of such military deployments in history!

Kwame NkrumaAt the core of my argument was my fascination with the idea that the best approach to re-modelling Nkrumah’s idea (but re-directing the focus of the proposed instrument to the management of armed conflicts—since no African country remained under colonial domination any longer), was what I referred to as “a sub-regional approach,” a la ECOMOG. My study argued that:

“Sub-regional solutions are rather more attractive and effective in addressing socio-economic, political and military problems. This is on account of so many reasons some of which Olav Knudsen has identified. They include the following:

  1. ‘Sub-regional cooperation would be preferable to schemes with a broader geographical scope.’ The adage that two heads are better than one finds expression in states doing better what they can do together, ‘more easily and less costly…than at some other more costly level up to the global scale.’ There is a more positive response to schemes the closer they are located to home.
  2. It has further been argued that sub-regional action gives an individual state ‘a more predictable international political environment.’ When the politics of neighbouring states are harmonised, the area becomes more stable if done within a multilateral framework. This harmonisation will require a ‘reduction of one’s own freedom of action in return for this increase in stability.’ Certain limiting principles will have to be agreed upon within which state policies will be maintained. Perhaps the greatest index in favour of sub-regional security arrangement is that it has the advantage of uniting states with a clear and primary interest in issues pending and are by this fact committed to finding a solution. Larger organisations have been identified as having too large an agenda and too crowded a programme that is more practical and advantageous to take your case to smaller fora.”

From my initial research into Colonel (later Maj.-Gen) Mohammed Magoro’s report on the experience of the Nigerian contingent deployed on the continent-wide mission deployed to Chad, and from my extensive study of previous pacific resolution instruments as well that the challenges that bedeviled that OAU mission in Chad (in the late 1970s),I was persuaded that those experiences would not inspire the OAU to want to take another ‘risk’ with deploying a huge, continent-wide instrument, nor would they encourage Nigeria to deploy its forces alone in future African missions. It was also my considered opinion(from doing background work for the King’s College London’s Liberia study team of Abiodun Alao and John Mackinlay), that most African states had the military capacity to undertake short term pacific missions but did not have the financing to stretch such missions beyond 90 days. Therefore if a standing force would be workable, it must be relatively cheap to manage and deploy.

That thinking led me to studying the European Corps (EUROCORPS), a force that was developed from the erstwhile Franco-German Brigade (which was a confidence-building instrument for enhancing Franco-German relations after several years of bilateral mistrust and devastating wars). That study was facilitated by the German Embassy in Lagos, through its then Defence Adviser, Lt.-Colonel Nickel and saw me spend time at the Ministry of Defence in Bonn, interviewing senior German military officers in charge of German Peacekeeping Forces (Africa and Europe) and those deployed within the EUROCORPS. At the end, I was convinced that the EUROCORPS model, when fused with the ECOMOG example, would significantly reduce the cost of maintaining my proposed sub-regional peacekeeping forces. In support of this line of thinking, I noted that:

“The EUROCORPS is not designed to be an out-of-area force but a confidence-building instrument with a high potential for deterrence. It has a brigade of various national battalions and does not allow different nationals in one battalion in order to forestall operational difficulties that may arise from the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the respective armies. One very interesting feature of the force is that it is a ‘designated force.’ This means that each contributing member-country designates its contributing unit but maintains it within its territory. The troops thus incur no financial burden on their country as they exercise locally and still draw their allowances in local currency. The General Staff determines training and joint exercises. Troops are only deployed out of their different countries when these are to take place. Peculiar joint training exercises will require a different approach, as will be peculiar deployment in actual operations. For instance, naval manoeuvres can only involve countries having not just a coast, but also a navy as well as the kind of platforms required for the particular exercise envisaged. The same will be applicable to the air force.”

My published study, titled EUROCORPS & ECOMOG—Models of an African Strategic Peace Equation, thus argued the thesis that an ECOMOG-like force be established by the OAU for each of Africa’s sub-regions, rather than pursuing the previous approach to havea centralised, continent-wide African High Command (that never gained traction). I submitted inter alia that:

“Having come this far, I am encouraged to argue the thesis that the OAU sets up a military conflict management component of its overall crisis  management machinery on a sub-regional platform like the ECOMOG example. The latter has been a reasonable and positive arrangement for some of the main reasons which are examined hereunder, while its command and control, training and welfare system can be reformed on the lines of those of the European Corps, which metamorphosed into this from the Franco-German Brigade. ECOMOG came into being largely because member-states of ECOWAS had more stake in the security of their sub-region. A larger OAU initiative may not have been put into immediate operation, especially if member-states in whose sub-region the crisis was were not powerful and influential enough to induce accelerated response from the OAU.

I propose therefore, the establishment of an African Corps to be referred to as the AFRICORPS. It will stand on five legs to be known as AFRICORPS North, AFRICORPS West, AFRICORPS Central, AFRICORPS East and AFRICORPS South. The AFRICORPS will embody all that the EUROCORPS represents, carrying out various mandates ranging from confidence building missions to peacekeeping operations. The sub-regions will set up their own AFRICORPS on ECOMOG lines with command and control, training and exercises as well as general staff organisation on the same pattern as the EUROCORPS.

This regional security regime as proposed will be located thus:

AFRICORPS Supreme Headquarters—OAU Addis Ababa (General Staff Headquarters only)






Since the units each country sets aside to serve under the AFRICORPS will be designated, they will be stationed at home and will exercise at home except during organic exercises when the sub-regional General Staff headquarters will determine its command structure and its distribution among contributing states. All personnel serving under the Corps will be paid in their local currencies except when on external training or operational deployment.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      In the face of a seemingly superior argument advanced by my study, the OAU would later jettison the African High Command idea in favour of the establishment of what would be known as ‘Regional Standby Brigades,’ (it did not find my ‘AFRICORPS’ label attractive), but based on structures as exactly proposed by me. As I write this, Africa now has its regional peacekeeping forces with at least three readily operational and active ones, viz. the ECOWAS Standby Brigade, the East African High Readiness Standby Brigade and the SADC Standby Brigade.

Today, on the 20th Anniversary of the submission of that study, I fondly recall the role of those who believed in my thesis and encouraged me all the way. They include the now late Ambassador Eduard Benjamin of Guinea, who, as Executive Secretary of ECOWAS, persuaded me not to give up, despite the difficulty in raising funds to undertake the project. He it was who also received the final study in his office then located on King George V Road, Onikan, Lagos on Tuesday June 1 1996 and promptly dispatched it to the OAU Headquarters in Addis Ababa. I also recall the profound support given by Ambassador John Blell, then High Commissioner of Sierra-Leone to Nigeria, as well as some senior officers of the Nigerian Armed Forces then serving in ECOMOG. I recall the unprecedented support I got from my teacher, ProfessorAkinjide Osuntokun, and very senior colleagues, Professors Bola Akinterinwa, Margaret Vogt, and Rasheed Akinyemi (then at the University of Vienna). I am indebted to all staff of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos, especially those in the Library, including Mrs. Abimbola Dada. I equally note the support of Colonel Nickel (DA German Embassy in Lagos), who facilitated my study trip on the EUROCORPS to Germany, and key officers in the Ministry of Defence in Bonn—then Lt.-Colonels Sattler and Anhold. I will not end this tribute without expressing my appreciation to Madu Onuorah, (then Defence Correspondent of The Guardian of Lagos, whose reportage of the study no doubt further contributed to influencing the OAU to give it deeper consideration), and Ishola Akinyemi of the then National Concord Newspaper, whose photo of the handing over was used in the inside cover of the published monograph.                                                                                                                                                          The writer, Adebayo Olowo-Ake, wrote in from New Delhi, India. These are his personal reflections based on an independent study he conducted twenty years ago for the then OAU as a research scholar. They do not represent the views of his current employers.


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2 thoughts on “Twenty years on—the study on ECOMOG that inspired the formation of Africa’s regional standby brigades

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