Peacebuilding via security sector reform and governance?

The case of West Africa

Authored by: Niagalé Bagayoko , Eboe Hutchful

Routledge Handbook of African Peacebuilding

Print publication date:  May  2022
Online publication date:  May  2022

Print ISBN: 9780367181949
eBook ISBN: 9780429060038
Adobe ISBN:




While security sector reform (SSR) is now accepted as an indispensable component of the peacebuilding agenda, this chapter reflects on the effectiveness of this nexus in the case of West Africa. Despite some progress, West African states tend to demonstrate limited compliance with international, continental and regional frameworks on SSR. “Train and equip” approaches remain dominant despite the recognition by those frameworks and the larger definition of the security sector that came along the widening of the security concept. As a result, questions are emerging about the effectiveness of SSR and therefore its capacities to deliver for African peacebuilding. Much still needs to be done to improve state and human security by making more operational and accountable security provision, management and oversight by all state and non-state actors, in particular by operationalising international SSR policy frameworks and by bridging the divide between policy and practice. To fulfil its promises for peacebuilding, security sector reform and governance (SSRG) must be implemented as a cross-cutting instrument. To this effect, the chapter explores six ways to build a more comprehensive approach.

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Peacebuilding via security sector reform and governance?


Initially conceptualised by the former British Department for International Development (Short 1999; Ball 1998) in the late 1990s and then endorsed and championed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC; OECD 2007; Bryden 2007; OECD 2005), security sector reform (SSR) is now accepted as an indispensable component of the peacebuilding agenda (Olonisakin, Ebo and Kifle 2019), as underscored by Security Council Resolution 2151 (UN Security Council 2014).

According to the UN (General Assembly, UN Security Council 2008, 2013; UN Security Council 2014; UN 2017), 1 SSR

describes a process of assessment, review and implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation led by national authorities that has as its goal the enhancement of effective and accountable security for the State and its peoples without discrimination and with full respect for human rights and the rule of law.

(General Assembly, UN Security Council 2008) Further, as stated by the UN Security Council, SSR “should be a nationally owned process that is rooted in the particular needs and conditions of the country in question” (Security Council 2007; Ebo and Hänggi 2020).

The European Union (EU) has also developed its own approach to SSR (European Commission 2006; Council of the European Union 2006; Council of the European Union 2016), 2 whilst the African Union (AU) Assembly adopted in January 2013 the AU Policy Framework on SSR (African Union n.d.).

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also proved to be responsive to building a common SSR agenda, encapsulated in a number of policy documents and protocols. The most significant of them are the 1999 Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security; the 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance; the 2006 Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons; and the ECOWAS governance-based SSR policy framework, endorsed in Dakar in June 2016 by the region’s head of states and governments. An Action Plan to implement this framework was also adopted in 2018. The objective of the proposed framework is not to urge member states to engage in SSR per se but to support an enabling environment to take on SSR initiatives in each country as required.

In spite of setbacks, some progress (decrease in the number of attempts to seize power by military means, increased civilian control over the security forces, growing involvement of civil society actors to engage security establishments, international and regional protocols prohibiting unconstitutional changes of regimes) has been achieved in the West African region (Bryden and Chappui 2015). Yet, the reality is that West African states have tended to demonstrate limited compliance with international, continental and ECOWAS regional security protocols or their normative guidelines. Questions are emerging about the effectiveness of SSR and therefore its capacities to deliver for African peacebuilding. As it is presently configured and implemented, SSR faces contemporary challenges. There is a growing sentiment that SSR has failed to deliver on its promises, even as its accomplishments deserve to be preserved (Van Veen and Price 2014).

Security sector reform and governance (SSRG): a theoretical approach

Beyond the policy-oriented approach to SSR, it is useful to take a historical and theoretical perspective on the emergence of the concept.

From the Westphalian era to the end of the Cold War period, the concept of “security” was almost exclusively understood as national and state-centric whilst being narrowly defined in militarised terms. Consequently, the security sector was commonly and widely considered as based on two pillars: on the one hand, the defence and security forces themselves (including the military forces, the police/gendarmerie, the paramilitary forces, the intelligence services, border guards, penal and corrections institutions); and on the other hand, the relevant branches of the government (in particular the head of state, the defence and interior ministries within the executive institutions) with a legal mandate to ensure the safety, the sovereignty and the integrity of the state.

Yet, a substantive widening of this traditional vision of security has become widespread in both academic and policy circles. It is increasingly recognised that security is not only about force structure, defence plans, intelligence gathering systems or the level of expenditure on any of the security bodies. Rather, as very strongly stated by the concept of “human security” (Buzan 1991; UNDP 1994; Commission on Human Security 2003), security might also be endangered by threats other than military, which include political, economic, societal and environmental aspects. According to this human security approach, individuals and communities other than the state should also be the object of security. Moreover, individuals and the general population might be endangered by the inappropriate or abusive behaviour of the defence and security forces themselves, sometimes enforcing policies emanating from an authoritarian civilian rule. As a consequence, a larger definition of the security sector (Hendrickson and Karkoszka 2002) has emerged. It not only includes the aforementioned bodies legally authorised to use force and the executive authorities responsible for managing their intervention. It also puts the stress on the crucial oversight role to be played by the elected (parliaments) and duly appointed civilian authorities (e.g. human rights commissions, audit accounts, ombudsmans, the justice sector) as well as on the role of non-state actors. Among them, some are involved in private security delivery (e.g. self-defence organisations, private security companies); others (e.g. civil society, the media) exercise public control on security provision and the protection of citizens against acts of violence and coercion. All the aforementioned actors are contributing to the “governance” of the security sector.

The concept of governance aims to reflect the fragmentation of power and authority at multiple levels and refers to the structures and processes whereby a social organisation steers itself, ranging from centralised control to self-regulation. Considering security from the perspective of governance enables emphasising how a wide array of state and non-state actors exercise power and authority over security delivery, both formally and informally, at local, national, regional and international levels. The concept of security sector governance (SSG) per se envisions the responsibilities of the government in shaping and implementing decisions about security, but it also highlights how different kinds of state and non-state actors and institutions influence security provision, management and oversight. SSG is thus an analytical concept which provides a way to understand the exercise of power and authority over state and human security in a specific national security sector. Democratic SSG (Luckham 2003; Born, Caparini and Fluri 2003) is a normative concept aimed at improving state and human security by strengthening democratic civilian control within a framework of rule of law and respect for human rights by state and non-state security providers in a national setting. It does share with the concept of human security a special focus on the safety and welfare of individuals, communities and the population at large, including legal protection of citizens’ rights and personal safety as well as independence and fairness in judiciary procedures. Democratic SSG does not refer to a specific institutional model.

Promoting and establishing democratic SSG should be the goal of SSR, which is the political and technical process of improving state and human security by making security provision, management and oversight by all state and non-state actors more effective and accountable.

SSRG challenges in West Africa

While the aforementioned international and regional SSR frameworks (UN, EU, AU, ECOWAS) share common principles of a comprehensive approach to SSR in a context of democratic SSG (Wulf 2004), “train and equip” approaches remain dominant in practice. External SSR funding tends to be short-term in spite of the recognition that SSR can only produce results through long-term processes and inclusive national dialogue (Brzoska 2003). Additionally, SSR policy documents have generally been adopted after slow validation processes without being reviewed or adapted on an ongoing basis. Consequently, emerging threats and dramatic shifts in the security environment have not really been taken into account. For instance, developments in Mali raise serious doubts about the sustainability of even well-designed and massive supported SSR efforts (ISSAT 2019, 2017; Bagayoko 2018).

Political will remains a major issue, and competing political interests beyond the security sector have not sufficiently been integrated into SSR assessments. If bilateral and multilateral donors have become convinced of the importance of SSR, such a validation has not been shared by security and civilian elites in most African countries where security cultures remain closed and narrow, and more often than not linked to regime survival.

From an operational perspective, the approach has remained too state-focused, even in contexts where there is an explosion of community-based and private security (Abrahamsen and Williams 2007) and police/justice providers (Baker 2017). Additionally, SSR has mostly been seen as related to the armed forces and to a lesser extent police forces (Hills 2007), leaving out other crucial services like customs, corrections and intelligence (Afrika 2009).

More broadly, the claimed nexus between SSR and “conflict prevention”, “peacebuilding” and “development” has been less robust than hoped; all too often, countries emerging from SSR, such as Sierra Leone (Horn, Olonisakin and Peake 2006) and Liberia, continue to be trapped in low social and development indicators, even if, on a more positive note, they are enjoying some modicum of democratic stability. Moreover, the cross-cutting dimension of SSR has yet to be fully recognised. SSR has more often than not been isolated from other political and technical processes aimed to promote peace, including peace processes (Hutchful 2009), security and democracy.

Finally, and probably even more importantly, capacity-building programmes mostly focus on security providers and administrations but not on oversight institutions, such as parliaments (see below) and rule of law institutions. Dialogue and information sharing are all aspects of SSR which have been undervalued. Similarly, local ownership is widely presented as a crucial benchmark for success; however, local perspectives and national visions of security reforms have been given little weight. The principle of local ownership (Nathan 2008) has not been extended to the process of generating ideas or approaches to reform, or to the possibility for local actors to reject wholly or in part measures supported or favoured by donors and international actors. African-led research by African academia and think tanks on SSR-related matters has tended to be limited, resulting in dire lack of an African evidence base to underpin SSR efforts. South-south knowledge transfer and experience sharing are urgently needed because the realities and contexts are similar even if the political and historical trajectories are different.

New ways to make SSR more efficient?

Today, there is a dire need to identify creative ways to use SSR as a cross-cutting instrument to contribute to peacebuilding efforts and to the UN’s Sustaining Peace Agenda (UN Security Council 2016; UN General Assembly 2016). While the present and emerging context poses a range of challenges to SSR, it also offers a number of available SSR entry points. These include maturing civil-military dialogues, improving democratic security governance, supporting civil society, incorporating the issue of hybridity and justice networks, and addressing SSR challenges in violent environments as well as in non-conflict settings.

Maturing civil-military relations

For more than 30 years, the overall framework to explain security-related political matters was the civil-military relations (CMR) approach (Huntington 1957; Janowitz 1960; Finer 1962), which tried to understand the formal and (crucially) informal politics of the relationships between civilian and military authorities and was often motivated by the vexed question of how to prevent military seizure of power. This approach was centred on the military and not on the security sector as a whole. From the late 1990s, there occurred a shift from CMR to SSR and SSG, which moved the focus from the military exclusively to taking on board the other components of the security sector, as explained earlier. However, in contrast to CMR, SSR/SSG has been oriented much more toward norm development and formal institution-building, reflecting contemporary imperatives of democratisation. In the process, however, the SSR/SSG approach has tended to be overly prescriptive and misses the crucial element of power relations and realpolitik which had been core to the classical CMR scholarship, particularly in terms of better understanding the micro-politics of the security establishment itself.

It is now necessary to develop a better awareness of possible changes in the military ethos and institutional cultures as a result of new contexts and missions (in particular international and regional peace operations) and emerging/non-conventional threats (terrorism, transnational crime, corruption within the security sector itself). Indeed, differences in local and regime responses to these common challenges have stimulated a diversity of forms of civil-military relations across the African continent (Bathily and Hutchful 1998) that demand systematic analysis. Since independence, security forces in most West African countries have suffered because of poor governance. Often, political interference eroded their professionalism and led to ethnically or geographically biased recruitment. Other times, political leaders attempted to buy the loyalty of special forces at the expense of national militaries. Contrary to popular belief, military regimes tended to undermine the effectiveness of security forces, while single-party states demanded party loyalty over military professionalism. Frequently, military regimes paid relatively little attention to the role and mission of the security forces or their effective management. At times, security forces were used as an employer of the last resort, resulting in large but poorly educated and ill-trained military establishments. Given an almost complete disregard for civil security, the police usually fared even worse than the military. However, policemen and policewomen in many cases are one of the very few signs of state presence in the daily life of West Africans. These “street-level” bureaucrats, much more involved in daily governance than the military, are therefore much more visible. In most instances security, of both the state and the individual, suffered, and relations between security forces and society deteriorated.

Military academies in each West African country can also provide a relevant opportunity whilst defence reviews can also be a good tool to rethink CMR. Even if focused quite narrowly on defence-related matters, defence reviews can help developing a holistic, evidence-based and inclusive methodology, including integrating civil society into the process. If integrated into wider national security strategies based on a broader assessment of the security environment, such reviews can prove extremely significant in opening up public space and stimulating national dialogue on defence issues, as well as integrating defence budget processes into wider public policy frameworks.

Forging new civil-military relations could also mean to develop a new approach to the operationality of the defence and security forces themselves. The operational challenge does not have the same acuteness in the different West African countries. In countries such as Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria (even if in the latter massive human rights violations have historically been a matter of concern), security apparatuses appear historically as the most operational, but the commitment of armed forces in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in operations to fight terrorism (together with the Operation Barkhane French forces or within the G5 Sahel) might change such a situation. However, operationality of the defence and security forces should not be considered as a global concept but should rather be defined as a combination of these four elements: effectiveness of security providers, which considers operationality from a technical perspective (mission performance); efficiency of security sector institutions, which envision operationality under the lens of human and financial capacities to fulfil their missions sustainably; readiness, which is related to the state of preparedness of persons, systems, or organisations to meet a situation and carry out a planned sequence of actions; and professionalism, which refers to a normative perspective on operationality (unity, integrity, discipline, impartiality, equality). Furthermore, it is important to note that the different national security forces may not have the same record of performance from one sector or service to another; for instance, in a given country, the military can better perform than the police forces, or some forces (such as the gendarmerie in francophone countries) within the police themselves can show better results than other ones. A discriminating approach based on a distinction between different sectors or services enables to better capture the operational challenge.

The greatest challenge in West Africa remains how to move the security sector away from being a protector of regimes in the context of new and emerging forms of politicisation frequently suppressing internal discord and competitive politics, rather than true guardians of states and nations. Ethnic allegiance and promotion, and lack of professionalism, continue to harm CMR in the sub-region.

These challenges provide an opportunity to reinvigorate the CMR approach by unpacking civil-military relations and considering them through different perspectives, such as micropolitics and power relationships underlying civil-military relations; relationships between the military and the political authorities, both within the executive and the legislative branch; relations between the military and the security forces (each with their own perception of security policies and military strategies); relations between the military and civil society organisations (CSOs) and the media; relations between the military and the population at large; civil-military relationships in rural and remote areas (challenge of decentralising security beyond central elites and institutions); and civil-military relations in the context of the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Such a perspective would bring a political economy approach to SSR, which would enable a more sociological perspective. It would be possible to avoid a one-size-fits-all and too standardised approach to security governance.

Accountable and legitimate security through democratic governance and civilian oversight

Whilst 20 years ago there was almost no oversight of the security sector, which was the preserve of the president and of a limited number of surrounding decision makers, the institutional framework necessary to establish democratic SSG formally does exist today in most West African countries. In particular, the different security services have been created according to national legislation and regulations (e.g. laws, decrees, ministerial decrees, administrative decisions), whilst their missions and prerogatives are also legally defined; civilian control by democratically elected authorities over the defence and security forces has been theoretically instituted.

It is nevertheless important to stress the fact that SSR is well rooted in the history of democratisation in some West African countries. What can be conceptualised as “proto-SSR/G” practices were unfolding within the West African landscape, particularly manifest in the experiences of countries such as Nigeria, Ghana or Senegal in their respective processes of embracing multiparty democracy. There is a vast accumulated set of lessons to be learnt, in particular regarding the kind of balance to be struck between security and democratic governance in establishing relatively viable civil-security relationships and organs of democratic security governance.

Yet, the very existence of such control mechanisms actually has not prevented dysfunctions, gaps, deficits and failures, a large number of which still continue today. Even in contexts where democracy is relatively well rooted, West African parliaments have not played the role they are entitled or expected to play and have often served as an extension of the executive. In some countries, especially those emerging from conflict, legislative representatives may be unaware of their role. There is consequently a significant gap between the role assigned by national constitutions to legislative actors, on the one hand, and their actual role on the ground, on the other. A major challenge will be to build bridges between parliaments and CSOs. An innovative solution, for instance, might include providing CSOs with office space in parliaments to follow up the work of the Defence and Security Commission on a daily basis.

Democratic control, however, should not be reduced to parliamentary control but expanded to include other oversight institutions and actors. Judicial authorities and the justice system have key roles to play in security sector oversight by ensuring that security-related legislation does respect the constitutional order and that the defence and security forces do respect the law. Independent state authorities with focused mandates also need the willingness and capacity to include the security sector and its activities in their remit (e.g. human rights commissions, financial audit bodies, ombuds institutions, anti-corruption commissions). A final matter for consideration is what civilian democratic oversight means for local structures and people, far removed from the capitals and centres of power.

Legal reform might be a complementary entry point. Not only do laws need to be updated to ensure security sector activities respect democratic process and human rights, but people must also be aware of the rights and protections the law affords them. Thus, there is a need to make the law available to any citizen in relevant local languages and to improve awareness of the obligations of security providers. Supporting the development of more accountable standards for the classification of information under law, as well as freedom of information laws and better record keeping, can also help to raise awareness in a number of countries.

Even if all the international and regional SSR frameworks (AU, ECOWAS, UN, EU, etc.) share common principles of a comprehensive approach to SSR in a context of democratic security governance, little attention and resources have been devoted to support such a democratic SSG. Different actors of the security sector still need support to fulfil their supervisory and oversight role.

Enhancing the role of civil society and media

Another critical factor in democratisation processes in West Africa has been the active role played by well-organised civil society (compared, for example, to Central or East Africa), many of them having benefited from support from private foundations and international development partners.

However, traditionally civil society has tended to consider security issues as the preserve of the executive, also tending to view security forces mostly as “the enemy”. Consequently, CSOs have been slow to appreciate the legitimate concerns (and the genuine constraints and limitations) of the armed and security forces, even when those forces have seemed eager for greater recognition and cooperation. However, blame for the poor state of civil-security relations can be apportioned equally in most cases, and all too often the civilian political authorities have borne primary responsibility for obstructing more positive relationships between the security forces and civil society. A significant shift in prevailing culture and mindset is required on all sides to overcome the lack of dialogue and reluctance to cooperate.

Most CSOs also lack familiarity with security-related issues: CSOs as well as the population at large lack (or are often denied) access to security information, owing in large part to a lack of transparency in management of security affairs, but also to the difficulty the African media seems to experience in covering security matters (whether due to lack of expertise, self-censorship or alleged tendencies to sensationalism and indiscretion).

In a number of African countries, however (e.g. Senegal, Niger, Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone), civil society has developed original approaches to its oversight of the security sector, such as participation in public hearings mounted by legislators and investigative commissions set up by government, visits to police stations, meetings with police commanders and advocacy on behalf of the security services when required (e.g. by making the public aware that government had failed to invest in uniforms or hygiene facilities). In building the capacity of civil society to engage more effectively, exchange visits with other countries have proved of good value, while collaboration with international partners sometimes has given their voice added weight on the national scene. In Senegal, collaboration between the armed forces and CSOs produced positive results in fighting the proliferation of light weapons.

Organisations more often than not lack stable staff and access to resources, so they have time to build up their expertise and to engage on a long-term basis with state security providers. At the same time, external financing for civil society activities tends to skew civil society concerns towards external priorities and elite-driven projects. The concept of civil society itself can be problematic on the African continent. While Western partners may tend to idealise African CSOs, associating them with progressive thinking and civic values, the same organisations are sometimes perceived much more negatively in West Africa, where they may be viewed as politicised, partisan or even corrupt. Furthermore, far from systematically promoting human rights and democracy, CSOs advocate or defend norms and values incompatible with the principles of accountability, inclusiveness or equality.

CSOs, however, are not the only actors which suffer such weaknesses. In fact, there is a tendency to define civil society in narrow terms, based on expectations about the style and composition of ideal-type civil society actors, which misses out on contributions of other potential stakeholders. Expanding the definition of civil society beyond conventional CSOs to encompass any voluntary group that espouses a vision of the public interest can enable new SSRG entry points. Yet, the “civil society” label should not be applied so promiscuously as to encompass all and every active organisation. A clear distinction should be made between private organisations acting on the profit motive and private organisations articulating for the public interest to enable them to articulate a security agenda that serves local needs as well as those of society.

Security from the bottom up: hybrid security governance

Prevailing approaches to SSR – and the associated policy literature – have tended to stress the notions of the state characterised by legal-rational norms and institutions. Thus, SSRG processes have more often than not concentrated on the formal arrangements of the state and its security and justice institutions. Yet, such approaches are fundamentally at variance with the underlying realities of the West African context, where many political and social transactions (not least in the security sector) take place in the context of informal norms and systems, and where a wide array of institutions operate alongside or within nominally formal political institutions. Security provisioning in Africa is predominantly bottom up, not top down, delivered by an array of informal institutions and actors in concert as well as in competition with the state. Yet this large and heterogeneous sector is not captured in current security governance structures or strategies. Ignorance of the non-codified norms, non-state actors and non-formal networks active in the security realm – as well as, indeed, the extent to which state policies in Africa are themselves impregnated by informal norms and practices – leads inexorably to a core element in explaining the failure of orthodox, state-centric peacebuilding and security-related policies. Such socio-cultural realities do matter in understanding African environments and tailoring solutions suited to those environments, particularly beyond the domain of the state.

This may well account for many of the limitations of efforts to reform the security sector and its governance systems. In fact, the efficiency of SSR policies conducted on the African continent often turns out to be limited because they tend to focus mostly on state institutions, governmental established stakeholders, legal frameworks and codified standards. Although understanding and controlling the state dimension remains essential, the complexity of Africa’s socio-political and security dynamics calls inseparably for a deep understanding of societal realities, often informal, within which security governance in Africa is rooted. Furthermore, analysis of recent crises that have occurred in many African countries involving the security apparatus demonstrates the need to better understand the societal and cultural context within which SSR policies are implemented. Increasingly, references to the informal security and justice sector have crept into the SSR and “state-building” toolkits, although so far based upon insufficient empirical understanding of how this sector functions in the political and security marketplace, or of the complex interplay between formal and informal institutions, which determine how policies play out on the ground and impact (or not) the lives of citizens and communities. On the African continent, formal and informal systems tend to overlap, interrelate and interpenetrate at complex levels, and states and informal networks are not mutually exclusive but should rather be seen as embedded in each other.

There is consequently a need to identify this complex amalgam of formal and informal networks, actors and processes which, alongside legally established structures, influence decision-making as well as policy implementation in the security sector and which together constitute what can be seen as “hybrid security orders” (Boege, Brown and Clements 2009). The concept of hybridity (Bagayoko, Hutchful and Luckham 2016) can provide a powerful analytical tool to explain governance in West Africa, where most security networks and practices are embedded (to one degree or another) in informal institutions and beliefs. Analysis and policy have scarcely begun to touch upon the deep politics of reform or to draw in any systematic way upon the critical literatures on hybrid political orders and security.

By relying on the perspectives offered by sociology and anthropology in the daily functioning of security provision (both at the central and local levels), the analysis of hybrid security governance could provide new and refreshing insights on networks and alliances as well as on competition, tensions and conflicts within African defence and security services, which may help to explain the difficulties in implementing SSR processes. Such an approach is likely to offer decision makers a key input to understanding non-state stakeholders, non-official networks and non-codified standards, whose influences compete against or to the contrary complete the intervention perimeter of state institutions and legal frameworks. It may also serve to explain how hybrid security systems are experienced at the grassroots by supposed beneficiaries, and in particular how they impact the lives of vulnerable groups and shape citizen expectations of security and security entitlements.

In addition to contributing to strengthening the research and evidence base of SSR, this approach carries important policy implications for how we approach security governance in Africa. In this regard, the ultimate intent is going beyond the use of hybridity as an analytical tool to inquire as to the extent to which the concept can provide the underpinnings of an approach to building more effective security and security governance systems and inform the agendas of West African states and partners who wish to participate in programs aimed at reaching this objective.

SSRG and asymmetric threats in West Africa

The security environment in West Africa is presently characterised by “asymmetric” threats and conflicts which existing security institutions have not been trained to deal with, as proved by the situation in the Sahel and Lake Chad region. There is almost no doctrine or security policy in West African states to address such asymmetric challenges, resulting in ad hoc and reactive responses even to increasingly complex threat environments, be they vernacular, or international or cross-border in character (ISSAT n.d.; Van Veen 2017; Bagayoko 2020). The fight against terror and radicalisation processes is of course a major new challenge for SSRG in West Africa, and their impact must be evaluated. The logic of the fight against terrorism might squeeze out whatever fragile commitment exists to democratic security governance, whilst there is increasing blurring in mandates of the armed forces, the police and the intelligence in countries undergoing counterterrorism operations. The nature of counterterrorism operations will be key to the future of the democratic governance–based approach to security reform.

Furthermore, other security challenges (sometimes emerging but also more ancient) should be seen as important as the terrorist threat, such as conflicts around resource management (between herders, farmers and fishermen); water; gold washing; maritime insecurity (e.g. piracy, armed robbery, illegal fishing); transnational organised crime; and communal conflicts. These asymmetric threats are challenges not only to the operationality of the security sector but also to its accountability and ability to provide security to the people and the states. Those emerging security risks in West Africa may well mean that SSR will become even more focused on stabilisation imperatives and counterterrorism initiatives (Charbonneau 2019) rather than longer-term governance and institution-building. More and more SSR funding will be diverted to humanitarian and migration issues; and while violent extremism is arguably leading to increased security assistance, this assistance will be guided more by donors’ own security agendas rather than those of “recipient” states, along with a growing focus on capacitating security institutions (via “train-and-equip” and “robust SSR”) and less focus on security governance. There also could be greater willingness to tolerate serious human rights violations (particularly in the context of asymmetric operations) and growing restrictions on political freedoms by governments. This is an adverse and unfortunately all too real development that West African states and their international partners should be particularly vigilant about if SSR is not to be gutted.

Fostering SSRG in a non-conflict setting

The SSRG agenda essentially has been driven by a conflict and post-crisis perspective: most of the SSRG efforts have concentrated on the Sahel region (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in a lesser extent) as well as Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia. Yet, an increasingly essential challenge is to support the SSRG agenda in non-conflict settings with a much longer-term approach, particularly in post-authoritarian environments as well as stable countries. Such a perspective positions SSR as an essential component of the UN’s Sustaining Peace Agenda, of the prevention-based approach promoted by the UN secretary-general (Guterres 2017) and in the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS). However, distinct approaches must be developed to differentiate countries presently embracing genuine democracy from those under a more authoritarian rule.

Countries not involved in conflict face threats which transcend borders and pose unprecedented challenges, hamstrung by weak, corrupt or absent institutions. The threats posed by organised and cross border crimes; trafficking of drugs, arms, and people; money laundering; terrorism; document forgery; identity theft; online extortion/cybercriminality; and others demand not only more robust actions but also a more efficient regional and international cooperation.


Much still needs to be done to improve state and human security by making more operational and accountable security provision, management and oversight by all state and non-state actors, in particular by operationalising international SSR policy frameworks and by bridging the divide between policy and practice. Today, traditional security frameworks appear as no longer relevant or adequate in responding to current challenges in both security delivery and governance in West Africa: there is a need to rethink the whole conception of SSR in the region and to root it deeply in democratisation processes throughout the region as well in “vernacular security” (Lind and Luckham 2017). The issue at stake is to consider SSR/G not only as a post-conflict instrument but also as a preventive tool (Guterres 2017) so as to define an overarching framework to enhance security delivery and accountable security, both current areas of critical weakness in the sub-region. There is also a dire need to improve understanding of SSR (whether it is civil-military relations, non-state and informal security actors, etc.) as well as rethinking accountability of the security sector and how to make it happen.


These documents are at the core of the UN SSR doctrine.

It was endorsed by the EU Council on 14 November 2016.


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