What role have civil society organisations (CSOs) played in conflict prevention in West Africa? What challenges do they face in playing a more effective role? This article from Disarmament Forum examines the various contributions that CSOs have made to conflict prevention in West Africa. It argues that effective conflict prevention requires effective partnerships between CSOs and national governments.
Over 3,000 CSOs work at different levels within West Africa. Organisations work on various conflict prevention issues including human rights, education, promoting dialogue, security sector reform, conflict-sensitive development, election monitoring, gender equality and post-conflict reconstruction. While CSOs have been involved in formal conflict prevention initiatives, they remain underused by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and national governments. ECOWAS and national governments should incorporate CSOs working at community, national and regional levels as partners in formal conflict prevention frameworks and initiatives. At the same time, civil society itself needs to become more organised and professional.
Civil society in West Africa has played key roles in preventing violent conflict in a number of ways:
- CSOs have played a pivotal role in the regional early warning and response framework. For example, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding has been instrumental on the ground monitoring for the ECOWAS early warning system.
- The advocacy efforts of CSOs on small arms and light weapons (SALW) have raised awareness SALW proliferation issues. They have also yielded successful policy outcomes, such as the ECOWAS Convention on SALW.
- Many CSOs have involved themselves in peace talks. They have helped to create the right conditions for talks, build confidence, shape the conduct and content of negotiations and influence the sustainability of agreements.
- In post-conflict situations, CSOs have helped to promote reconciliation, enhance local ownership of peacebuilding initiatives and contribute towards democratisation processes.
- Grass-roots women’s groups have formed networks to spread information on attacks and safe routes, reducing the impact of violence. Women’s networks have brought about advances in women’s participation in peace processes.
- Civil society has worked closely with ECOWAS in implementing conflict prevention mechanisms. Civil society provides a credible bridge between policymakers and their constituencies.
- There has been a significant shift in recognition of the importance of CSO involvement in conflict prevention at ECOWAS level. However, most national governments view civil society conflict prevention initiatives with suspicion.
- There is a tendency to see NGOs as representing all of civil society. This narrow categorisation often sidelines the contributions of important actors such as community-based organisations and traditional leaders.
- Collaboration among CSOs is weak. Competition for donor funding among CSOs undermines cooperation, leading to duplication of efforts and initiatives.
- There is a shortage of personnel skilled in conflict prevention. CSOs can intervene in conflict situations without the requisite skills, worsening tensions.
- The extent to which CSOs’ conflict prevention initiatives inform or influence conflict prevention policy is intangible and in many cases not measured. Due to limited resources, most CSO activities are not strategically aimed at influencing policy.
- The contribution of civil society to conflict prevention remains largely unknown due to the absence of a documentation culture among CSOs.