ECOWAS military intervention in Sierra Leone: anglophone-francophone bipolarity or multipolarity?

Author:Dumbuya, Peter A.


On May 25, 1997, a military junta led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's one-year old government of national unity. The 33-year old major had been held at the Pademba Road Prison pending trial for his alleged involvement in the September 1996 abortive coup d'etat against the government. Hours after his release from the central prison, Koroma, whose trial was scheduled to commence on May 26, announced the formation of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and called upon Nigeria to release from detention the leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Foday Sankoh, whom he then invited to join the military junta as vice president.

After two days of fighting, Kabbah appealed to General Sani Abacha of Nigeria, who was also chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for military assistance under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and other bilateral agreements to restore his government to power. When Nigerian troops, who had been stationed in Sierra Leone since 1995 to help train and equip the country's army troops fighting the RUF, failed to dislodge Koroma's junta, Abacha decided to deploy the Nigerian-led ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) troops stationed in neighboring war-torn Liberia since 1990 to reverse the coup in Freetown. In February 1998, nine months after the coup, ECOMOG troops fought their way into and recaptured Freetown, forcing the leaders of the AFRC and their RUF collaborators to flee into the provinces. Kabbah returned to Freetown on March 10 and named the Nigerian General Maxwell Khobe to head the Sierra Leone army. However, ECOMOG's reversal of the coup by February 16 did not end the brutal civil war which was now in its seventh year. As Nigerian forces became more involved in the conflict against the RUF and its allies in the army, some began to question this "third mission" and the authority for it, after the first two missions, namely reversing the coup and restoring Kabbah to power, had been successfully accomplished by the end of February. (1)

This paper discusses ECOWAS' response to the coup in Sierra Leone and questions whether anglophone and francophone divisions in the subregion hindered military cooperation in Sierra Leone, and before that Liberia. For instance during the Liberian civil war (1989-97), West Africa magazine argued that "a subtle division of influences between francophone and anglophone elements within ECOWAS arose" when Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire raised questions about the legitimacy and neutrality of ECOMOG. (2) Instead of a rigid anglophone-francophone divide, ECOWAS's intervention in the conflict in Sierra Leone led to the formation of diplomatic alliances that cut across colonially "established linguistic and ideological alignments and rivalries and singular definitions of state interests." (3) In the absence of clearly defined state interests, we often look to power distribution among states in the international system to predict how a state might behave under certain circumstances.

Drawing upon a conceptual framework found in the work of Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in which he stated that "The tradition of geopolitics holds that location and proximity will tell a great deal about how states will behave," I argue that ECOWAS's military response to the coup in Freetown produced a "checkerboard pattern of alliances" of mixed anglophone and francophone states led by Nigeria and Ghana as the two major protagonists, with Burkina Faso leading a third group of states that gave public support to the doctrine of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign member states of ECOWAS. (4) Rather than the bipolarity suggested by the anglophone-francophone divide, what obtained in West Africa during the crisis in Freetown was a multipolar structure that cut across linguistic lines. Established in 1975 to promote economic cooperation and integration, ECOWAS found itself so embroiled in security and military matters that it had to reinvent itself as a peace enforcer. This paper concludes that ECOMOG drove the AFRC out of power because it lacked domestic and international support for its continued existence. Both the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the United Nations (UN) backed up ECOWAS's actions with sanctions of their own against the junta, thus hastening its collapse in February 1998.


Relations between and among sovereign states are central to the study of foreign policy. This stems from an understanding that only nation-states are capable of manipulating the international political environment. However, more recent studies have begun to examine the role of non-state and non-human actors in shaping the external environment. Similarly, since the 1950s, the classical or traditional approach to the study of foreign policy, with its emphasis on legality and morality, has given way to the realist or scientific theory which holds that a state's national interests lie at the core of its foreign policy objectives and goals. The realist approach, which has dominated both Nigerian and Ghanaian foreign policy studies, views foreign policy as an extension of domestic politics. (5) In Ghana as in Nigeria, successive civilian and military regimes have pursued a variety of foreign policy objectives in an effort to promote the state as a key actor in West African affairs.

In the period from 1960-75, Nigeria's pan-Africanist and continental foreign policy objectives ranged from opposition to European colonialism to support for the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. According to one account, the civil war (1966-70) also informed the foreign policy of General Yakubu Gowon (1966-75) who strove to improve and strengthen relations with other West African states, promote political stability, and provide leadership for the establishment of a West African economic union. In furtherance of these objectives, Nigeria dispatched troops to Guinea in 1970 to repulse an invasion from Guinea-Bissau, and to Chad in 1970, 1979, and 1981-82 to quell a civil war. (6) Nigeria, with the support of Ghana, helped establish ECOWAS in 1975. From General Murtala Muhammed (1975-76) to Abacha (1993-98), foreign policy exhibited various manifestations of the continental and subregional policies of the past even though declining oil revenues, corruption, and the failure to democratize began to constrain Nigeria's foreign policy aspirations. Under the regimes of General Abdulsalami Abubakar (1998-99) and President Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-present), Nigeria began to retreat from outside military commitments in the subregion.

Ghana's foreign relations since independence in 1957 have also been characterized by diversity and decline. (7) At independence, Ghana, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah (1957-66), became the virtual leader of an emerging independent Africa. Nkrumaah pursued an "activist, outward oriented, and multifaceted" foreign policy as part of his domestic policy to reconstruct Ghana and attract foreign investments. (8) In addition to pan-Africanism, he lent support to African liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies (of Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau) and Rhodesia, created the short-lived Ghana-Guinea-Mall Union, helped organize the Casablanca bloc of radical or progressive African states, and played a crucial role in the establishment of the OAU in 1963. Ghana's alliance with radical states balanced out Nigeria's more moderate alliance with Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and the francophone states of Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. Whereas Ghana under Nkrumah subscribed to a radical foreign policy ideology of African unity, Nigeria, under Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and the moderate states believed in maintaining friendly relations with and noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states.

In order to seek Western economic aid for Ghana's economic development, Nkrumah's successors Kofi Busia (1969-72) and Hilla Limann (1979-81) retreated from the strident rhetoric of nonalignment and pan-Africanism. Out of concern for the economy and tired of foreign domination, Jerry Rawlings' Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC, 1979) and Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC, 1981) struck an anti-imperialist posture, and then reached out to the Soviet bloc and Cuba for support of its domestic agenda. (9)

Leadership rivalries between Ghana and Nigeria, both former British colonies, began in 1957 soon after Ghana gained its independence from Britain. As the putative leader of an emergent independent Africa, Ghana's decision in 1958 to form a union with fellow socialist states, the francophone or french-speaking states of Guinea and Mali, strained relations with Nigeria. (10) Although Busia sought a rapprochement with Nigeria, his government's decision to expel thousands of Nigerians and other West Africans, and Ghana's wavering support for the federal cause during the Nigerian civil war (1966-70) soured relations. (11) Among the francophone West African states, only Cote d'Ivoire (along with Gabon) sided with Biafra, while Cameroonian President, Ahmadu Ahidjo, succeeded in persuading the other francophone states not to recognize Biafra. (12)

Other factors contributing to the tense relations between Nigeria and Ghana were Nigeria's decision to cut petroleum shipments to Ghana following the coup d'etat that first brought Rawlings to power in 1979, Rawlings' second coup in December 1981 that overthrew Limann whose government President Shehu Shagari had supported because of its conservative pro-western orientation, and the Shagari government's expulsion of over one million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983 following the Kano riots of December 1980. (13)

It could be surmised from the preceding discussion that the anglophone-francophone divide only partly explains the fractured relations between and among West...

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