WANEP Reflections on Early Warning

From Emmanuel Bombande:

As you are aware, in West Africa, WANEP and ECOWAS have finally launched ECOWARN, the mechanism for conflict prevention in which WANEP is a Civil Society lead agency in mobilization CSO for data collection and analysis. Rather than talk about success as open ended, I prefer to be more concrete with one example on the ground that suggest to us in West Africa that EW is contributing significantly in shifting the mind-set on conflict handling with emphasis on prevention. The Early Warning Mechanism is integral to this.

In May 2007, rioting spread out in Guinea. Unlike like previous disturbances, the Early Warning mechanism was able to synthesize where exactly was the source of grievances. The President of Guinea had insisted that he could manage internal political revolt because the opposition fomented those disturbances. The analysis on the ground from data accumulated over a period pointed rather to growing social discontent around salaries, price increases etc. A cultural underpinning showed how workers particularly felt humiliated that their salaries could no longer pay for a bag of rice, the main stable food. It was not just about prices but also that within the social setting, the head of family who could not purchase a bag of rice at the end of the month lost social status. Guinean workers on to this count were more prepared to riot and ground the country into total paralysis. These analysis informed the operationalisation of the mechanism at the level of ECOWAS. Rather than convene a summit to discuss the Guinean crisis, ECOWAS sent the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security more at an informal level without any media focus. The Government of Guinea was engaged with the accumulated information over a period and the social dimension was understood from a new perspective. The Government of Guinea immediately understood why it was important for them to talk with the labour unions.

The Chair of ECOWAS or the President of the Commission engaging directly was interpreted by the Government of Guinea to mean that they were on the spotlight within the framework of the ECOWAS protocols. By giving them an option to choose who could help facilitate dialogue with the Unions, the Govt. of Guinea preferred General Babangida-Former Head of State of Nigeria. The process of dialogue went well. The Government was changed and a new Prime Minister appointed. The situation in Guinea in 2007 was well managed. However, I do not suggest that Guinea is entirely out of the woods. What is happening is that there is trust to work with the Government of Guinea and the engagement is continuous leading to elections later this year. The entry point was social even if the action for change somewhat was political and yet you could not discuss the politics including the resignation of the entire government as the way forward initially. The point is, the Early Warning Mechanism suggested what form of appropriate response based on where the real problem was. In the past, the response could have further exacerbated the problem. Should I describe this as an early warning success? I prefer to describe EW as providing opportunity for more systematic engagement that defines best practice for response.

Today throughout West Africa, every issue in each of the 15 countries finds space in the ECOWARN database. Summary highlights and bulletins are sent out from the ECOWAS Commission every day. It might be too early yet but it appears this is the best way to go. I dare say that the rot in Zimbabwe; so embarrassing cannot happen in West Africa today because of the new political will to engage in advance to prevent. Thanks to the Early Warning System, issues that could have escalated into full blown crisis such as in Guinea Bissau Bissau are now responded to differently.

I am sure the opportunity will come to be more elaborate on West African experiences. Let me say however that EW is very relevant today in West Africa to the prevention of violent conflicts. Benin and Togo are on the radar screen this week. Benin in the context of local elections where the Parliament has expressed strong disagreements with the President on his role. In Togo, it is around a clandestine group claiming they will stage a coup d’état by 27th April if their demands are not met. In each of these cases, there is ongoing mobilizing including at the level of Civil Society to respond. Next week in Togo, WANEP has convened a meeting of Parliamentarians, Government representatives and Civil Society.

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