West Africa is facing a new era of opportunity. What will be by 2050 a region comprised of 810 million people, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is booming with human capital, diverse natural resources, arable lands and burgeoning ‘blue economies’.
Brimming with such resources, the partner nations that comprise ECOWAS have every opportunity to unlock significant foreign direct investment (FDI) and drive autonomous growth for generations to come.
Yet despite such regional potential, the world has taken note of groups with links to al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Islamic State strengthening their foothold across the arid Sahel and Lake Chad. Bunkering and oil piracy has been widespread along the Gulf of Guinea. The region is also experiencing illegal, cross-border trafficking of people, drugs, false medicines and endangered wildlife.
Moreover, many of these cross-border crimes have been proven to finance organised terrorist activity, which is spreading fast across the region and continent at large, destabilising the authority of governments and their defence capabilities.
Make no mistake - The challenges of the ECOWAS will overwhelm its vast opportunities if not course-corrected and West Africa will be denied the future it so rightly deserves.
However, there are solutions to the modern challenges of preserving both West Africa’s territorial integrity and its future potential. They require a fundamental realignment of the region’s threat-assessment capabilities and a greater commitment throughout ECOWAS to implementing comprehensive and collaborative border security reform.
West African militaries, naval forces, air forces, border-patrol units, customs and immigration enforcement agencies must seek inroads to greater intranational collaboration while embracing technological innovations, such as the use of readily-available situational awareness, communication and reconnaissance technologies.
These are adoptable, surprisingly affordable solutions that are designed to help address what are today asymmetrical, transnational threats.
Brutal Boko Haram attacks carried out in markets in Abuja or in Maiduguri, for example, were not necessarily executed by Nigerian citizens; many have in fact emigrated from the Sahel region, at the conjunction of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. This is a today violent territory, where farmer-herder and ethnic conflicts have been exacerbated by land degradation, droughts and food shortages. These are conditions causing extreme poverty, which often, perhaps out of desperation, foster the indoctrination of individuals and whole communities into militant organisations.
Simply put, tackling the challenges of the day only within the country of immediate risk, will not necessarily affect lasting change. This requires a broader focus on the region at large, where such threats tend to propagate.
The establishment of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) should be a key consideration when developing strategies to deal with border security. FOBs ensure greater control over geographically-transnational pressure points, keeping soldiers deployed and well equipped in hot-spots while enhancing warfighting situational awareness far from major cities or developed infrastructures.
FOBs offer enhanced defence capability in theatres often within isolated, high-risk conditions. These bases will offer 24/7 wide-area surveillance technologies vital to mission success and personnel safety, addressing threats that are myriad, unexpected and emanating from all directions.
Leveraging these intelligence systems with cross-border-complimentary competencies would allow for shared resources and efficacy in joint missions between armies and border security units. The utilisation of FOBs would dramatically improve reaction time to border crises, on land or by coastline, while deterring attacks in major cities from being carried out in future.
Each country has its role to play in regional defence and national vigilance. Improvements in regional security such as the establishment of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) cannot be achieved unless they are bolstered by international partnerships; with threats stopped long before they can impact at home.
Technology has no doubt in recent history served a critical role in enhancing West African regional security. Take ‘Operation Stop’, for example, an Interpol-led border management initiative in West Africa showcasing the importance of strong security measures detecting individuals using fraudulent travel documents. Shared access to Interpol’s 24/7 secure police communication system was extended to militaries and law enforcement units outside the Interpol National Central Bureau (NCB), allowing direct access to criminal databases and encouraging cooperation regionally to positively impact border security across West Africa.
We’ve also seen similar technologies implemented at the regional level to help solve health crises, such as the Interagency Collaboration on Ebola, spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO). A myriad of humanitarian partners shared intelligence and leveraged cutting edge technologies to mitigate the Ebola crisis from what could have been a Pan-African epidemic. Their programme continues to monitor latest developments and manages response efforts in real-time.
Effective border security relies heavily on aerial surveillance and light strike capabilities to engage criminal forces on the ground and/or provide close air support to friendly ground forces. Traditionally, the high costs of acquiring and operating strike aircraft has made it impossible for many air forces on the continent to deploy this capability. Scrambling a fighter jet at a cost of $20,000 per hour to engage a small group of terrorists hiding in hard to reach locations isn’t sustainable over the long-term.
Defence and security forces facing budget constraints must be capacitated with effective aerial surveillance and strike capability that is affordable (to acquire and operate) and designed for remote missions, taking off and landing on rough airstrips with little ground support and a small logistical footprint. Air forces should be able to opt for aerial solutions that are indeed force multipliers.
What if you could use one aircraft, one airframe to conduct a range of missions that normally would take four aircraft to do so? Already we can start thinking about the opportunities that such an aircraft can present to regional air forces that are collaborating on border security. The sharing of resources in a way that saves money, enables more missions to be conducted by less aircraft, but ultimately having more aircraft in the skies that are specially designed for the type of threats and environments that west African forces are facing today.
There is now such a solution that is also an African designed and produced aircraft. MWARI (‘the all seeing, all knowing deity ’ in the Shona language) is such an aircraft. Equipped with cutting-edge intelligent sensors, the MWARI has been referred to rightly as an ‘intelligent command centre in the sky’, one that can communicate and direct land forces, border patrols and other aircraft in integrated and joint missions, and engage targets with precision and minimum collateral damage.
Ultimately, a collaborative, multi-agency approach, sharing resources, skills and affordable, next-generation technological innovations along the ECOWAS’ borders, conjunctions and coastlines can decisively check ongoing violent conflict. Moreover, such an approach would critically help deter future instances from occurring.
West Africa and the nations that comprise it must enact a renewed, collaborative commitment to cross-border security. Failure to do so may result in a lasting downturn for what would be a budding region, with only itself to blame.
Eric Ichikowitz is Senior Vice President of African-based global technology and aerospace business, Paramount Group (http://ParamountGroup.com). The views expressed are his own.