Moving from concept to practice: SSR in West Africa

by Ronja Harder · October 24, 2016.

Can SSR contribute to the transformative change needed in West African states? Looking at the track record of attempts to improve security sector governance so far leaves many sceptical. Undoubtedly challenging contexts – difficult framing conditions such as colonial legacies, entrenched divisions between strong political and security elites and weak civil society, or resource constraints of all kinds – demand that experts native to the region and from abroad start to think differently about SSR in West Africa. The gap between governance-driven policy objectives and SSR implementation is too big, with most programmes falling short of the objective of improving human security.

The Learning Lab on Security Sector Governance and Reform in Africa was convened in Dakar, Senegal, to explore new approaches and offer insights on SSR in the region. The workshop was co-organized by the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) at the request of The Open Society Foundations (OSF), bringing together a selection of regional and international experts to share their views.

Drawing on the recent study, Learning from West African Experiences in Security Sector Governance[1], the Lab underscored the importance for actors involved in SSR to identify levers of reform beyond the state, both above and below state-level. Regional and international support for local initiatives needs to be more effective and efficient, while on a community level, SSR processes need to open up to include non-state actors whether private, public or commercial. Interested readers can follow up on the entry-points and influences discussed at the two-day session in the accompanying Background Paper and Think Pieces This blog will highlight three critical cross-cutting themes that underpin many issues, which emerged from discussions at the Lab: the importance of building relationships at the centre of SSR processes; the continuing misunderstanding of local ownership; and the nature of hybrid security.

Relationships are at the center of good SSR, and even more so given the climate of suspicion between politico- and security elites and the rest of the population that pervades many West African societies. Yet current approaches to SSR tend to neglect the essential bridge-building processes necessary to create relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the principles of good governance. Mistrust on both sides can be mitigated by participative and inclusive national dialogue processes that bring traditional security actors into contact with a wide range of stakeholders, especially civil society. Such dialogues can reduce uncertainty, build confidence and ease the way for compromise solutions that are supported in wider society. Better relationships and effective bridge-building also help members of the security sector themselves to recognise how their own interests are served by SSR, and accordingly feel less threatened as reform processes affect their status, position and expertise.

Good relationships pave the way to improved local ownership. Even though long emphasized in SSR contexts, local ownership is often still misunderstood. Local ownership does not mean that projects initiated by external actors find local support. To the contrary, it means that SSR projects and programmes must be initiated and endorsed locally – and then supported by external actors. This means that local ownership requires locally driven research and analysis of the context-specific and highly political issues at the heart of SSR.[2] Commercial private security provision is a prime example: although widespread in many West African states, little is understood about the size, scope, or means of the private security providers that meet general everyday needs for security. Locally rooted expertise and experience not only empowers local civil society, it can be leveraged across the region by creating network effects that can foster incremental change across contexts.[3] Regional organisations, such as the African Union and its Regional Economic Communities, are well positioned to support the creation of such cross-national networks bringing together civil society actors and providing an opportunity for them to combine efforts and pool capacities in order to make more of a difference.

Making local ownership central to SSR also means incorporating the realities of local context into SSR approaches. In the West African context this means engaging with hybrid security. Many local and national security dynamics in the region are characterized by an amalgam of informal and formal norms, systems and institutions. Informal structures influence to a great extent how society and thus SSR work, something neglected when measures of SSR success focus only on the presence or quality of legal-rational norms and formal institutions. In order for SSR programmes to move forward, relevant stakeholders need to start by mapping out these informal actors and norms, their roles and responsibilities in order to grasp how they interrelate with their formal counterparts to form a hybrid security structure.

Evaluations of the success of SSR programmes and policies in West Africa have tended to focus on the outwardly visible aspects of institutional reform, but these changes are meaningless if they don’t affect the subjective experience of security. How individuals (women, men, boys and girls) and communities experience security and justice needs to become the ultimate benchmark for worthwhile reform. The needs and experiences of local populations are better addressed through a reform process of slow incremental change that makes relative improvements. In making small but meaningful steps forward based on deepening trust, greater local ownership and more realistic appreciation of the hybrid nature of security, SSR can begin to translate the secrecy and fear surrounding security issues into greater transparency and legitimacy. 

*Access all material related to the Learning from West African Experiences in Security Sector Governance in French and English.

[1] Bryden A. & Chappuis F. 2015. Learning from West African Experiences in Security Sector Governance. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI.

[2] See: Ornella Moderan, “Political Leadership and National Ownership of Security Sector Reform Processes”, in Ornella Moderan (ed.), Toolkit for Security Sector Reform and Governance in West Africa (Geneva: DCAF, 2015).

[3] See: Augustin Loada and Ornella Moderan, “Civil Society Involvement in Security Sector Reform and Governance” in Toolkit for Security Sector Reform and Governance in West Africa, ed., Ornella Moderan (Geneva: DCAF, 2015).