Exclusive: General Béhanzin on defence and security in West Africa and the Sahel

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In an exclusive interview, General Francis Béhanzin, the former Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), provided a comprehensive analysis of the security challenges faced by the Sahel region.

With his extensive experience in defence and security matters, particularly in preventing and combating terrorism, Béhanzin offered invaluable insights into the complex dynamics at play in this volatile region. As a respected authority on West Africa and the Sahel, his perspectives shed light on the multifaceted strategies required to address the ever-evolving threat of extremism and ensure lasting stability in the area.

Béhanzin was recently interviewed by defenceWeb contributor, White House Correspondent, Pearl Matibe. He was speaking from the United States Institute of Peace, in Washington, in the United States.

Here is an excerpt from some aspects of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Matibe: I’m going to dive right in. You have a vast experience, and you are attending the event [at] the United States Institute of Peace on the Sahel. Let me begin by asking this as the former Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security at ECOWAS, could you tell us a little bit about what is the Political Affairs, Peace, and Security department at ECOWAS? It oversees two directorates. Tell us a little bit about the background and context of your previous role there.

Béhanzin: Thank you so much. Also, I am the Chairman of the World Network of Security and Defence Professionals for prevention and combating terrorism. Thank you for your question. I was invited by the USIP in Washington to come and talk about what’s been happening in the Sahel. Former Minister of Interior and Public Safety [Benin], and I was the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security at ECOWAS, between 2018 and 2022. During my mandate at ECOWAS, I managed 14 presidential elections, two senatorial elections, and 4 sensitive parliamentary elections in the region. Working on democracy, peace, and security was my main goal, but it was not an easy task. We can all say, and agree, that things are really tense right now, especially with three states, being Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Those three countries wanting to leave ECOWAS…it’s very complicated and worrying given that they were all united for peace and democracy in the Sahel. So, it’s not an easy task to deal with, but we are working on it, and that’s why I was brought here to Washington to give my perspectives, given my expertise in the subject matter.

Matibe: On the event you’re attending at the USIP, my question to you is this: In your view, what are the key priorities for enhancing regional cooperation and coordination among ECOWAS member states to address the shared security challenges that can be overcome in a more sustainable, more long term way for West Africa and the Sahel? Because I think what the people of the region are looking for is a sustained end so that they can live out their aspirations, but many approaches have been taken, and some have not succeeded. Some, were initially, as you might appreciate General, more kinetic, and not always holistic.

Béhanzin: It comes to the support in the crisis after the war in Libya…Okay, I cannot tell you how many strategies were developed, and especially in Mali. There are more than 20 strategies. And as you said, there is no coordination; no national strategy coordination, political coordination, military operation cooperation, that coordinates, and things [were] worsening every day. You know that MINUSMA was there for about 10 years without good results. They did many things. There were about 13 000 soldiers from international countries who came into Mali. They developed many action [plans], for people, on health, but no combatting terrorism. And the international community who sent [representation] there―as I can say―USA, France, Japan, China, Russia, and many countries from West Africa, in general, they weren’t able to stop the terrorism. And from that the population and local military forces [were] completely disappointed. That disappointment resulted in them focusing on political governance and social governance. Then they carried out the coup d’état. I was there, as a Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security. I can tell you that the man who carried out the coup d’état was in the Special Forces. And one day, he was kidnapped by terrorists. Maybe by God’s will, he was released. Now, the situation is worsening every day.

You know ECOWAS did many good things to gather the effort, to coordinate the effort, and to do many good things in the Sahel. Bu you know, when the military coup d’état happened, ECOWAS with its resolution tried to convince them […] But, you know the military…You know how power―I don’t know―I don’t want to say that the power is sweet. But they were not departing. After them [Mali], came Burkina Faso. After Mali and Burkina Faso came Guinea (Conakry). After Guinea, Conakry, came Niger. It’s too much for ECOWAS―for 15 member states. And, about the regulation by ECOWAS countries, there was some sanction, to stop coup d’états in our region. Actually, three of them said that we will withdraw from ECOWAS, as a regional community. That is what we are facing. The US government, and the US Institute of Peace invited us as resources to talk about the situation and [our perspectives] on the strategy to coordinate in better [way] to prevent terrorism, to eradicate terrorism, and to give good health human security for all these people.

Matibe: Can I press you on that issue that you just mentioned? I am hearing a lot of ‘optimism’ from you. I’m hearing ‘engagement,’ during your time in Washington. And I did read over the report that was put out by the Bipartisan Senior Study Group for the Sahel. But here are my questions to you: In this same week, now let’s be realistic, because I did a close reading of the report, also given that […] the government in Guinea dissolved its government, recently. I have asked my colleagues in past US administrations and their engagement with the region. Many recommendations have been made in the past. Many experts and other knowledgeable people made recommendations about policy and advised on a particular approach that they should have. But it has not worked. Does it not prove that the armed groups are resilient against approaches that were adopted previously? What confidence do you have in the recommendations now in the report that has come out this week?

Béhanzin: I believe that the US government took a very good initiative, through the US Institute of Peace, to invite us to talk about the recommendations issued from that crisis group. You know in a family―we are [indeed] family in the world―and in a family, you must have a leader. And I believe, many countries and people believe that the US is the leader of our family; economically, militarily, democratically. But democracies also sometimes have problems. Democracy is permanently under construction. About the conclusion―the recommendations by the Group of the US Institute of Peace, we come here to develop what we know will work on the ground. On the ground, ECOWAS has built an action plan. For combatting terrorism. Because the first source of instability, in West Africa, is the problem of terrorism, after the war against Libya. We have to tell ourselves the truth. Okay. We come with that plan of action, to seek support from America’s citizens to help us to arrest the evolution of terrorism because it’s not only for Sahel. After Sahel, they will be coming to the coast, like Benin. Me, I’m from Benin. Like Togo. Like Ghana. Like Cote d’Ivoire, like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and so on. And, if we don’t arrest the progression, of terrorism, it’s the world’s security which is [at risk] and we have to be together. I believe that the US citizen through the US government will take into account the recommendations of the USIP’s study and also the action plan by ECOWAS because we can say that the political crisis―the coups d’état― happening, except for Guinea, because in Guinea there is no terrorism there. Because the government wanted a third mandate…today, the government of Guinea has been dismissed. What is happening there, I cannot tell you because I am here in Washington, in America.

Matibe: I understand. And so, General to close, do you have any closing remarks? Anything that you think may […] increase understanding or about your work? What you will be doing next when you leave Washington? Are you returning to Benin?

Béhanzin: I’m leading a network of security and defence professionals for preventing and combating terrorism, whose headquarters is in Abuja. I’m living in Abuja and from Abuja, I can go [travel] to the 50 member states to give advice to the members of the government, to the heads of state, and so on. From here, I will go back to Abuja. I have to also go to Benin, to see the social situation, the political situation. But I want to tell you and I want to tell the American citizen, that the problem of terrorism is not only the problem of one country. I remember the 9/11/2001 [terrorist attacks] here in America. The whole world was on the scene. And when you have the phenomena of terrorism, they don’t care about anything. Anywhere. That is why I believe that to combat terrorism, anywhere they come from.

Matibe: General, I do appreciate your remarks and your time.

Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent and media commentator with expertise on US foreign policy and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe