Militancy continues to grow across West Africa, Sahel, top official tells Security Council

Insecurity across West Africa and the Sahel has expanded into areas previously considered safe, with militants continuing to stage deadly attacks, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the region told the Security Council today, as delegates called for consolidating gains in democratic governance recently expressed by several countries in their successful conduct of elections.

“We need to confront the all-too-well-known root causes of exclusion, strengthen democratic governance and give a new and decisive push to fight insecurity,” said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS). Describing a year of multiple challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the outbreak plunged most countries into recession and led to the diversion of resources from productive investments and the fight against insecurity.

Nowhere has resilience been more sorely tested than in the Sahel, he emphasized, pointing out that massive floods have affected more than 1.7 million people. On the security front, he welcomed swift efforts to rescue 300 boys taken hostage on 11 December by militants allegedly affiliated with Boko Haram, in north-western Nigeria. He also saluted the Group of Five-Sahel Joint Force (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), working with France’s Barkhane operation and the European Union’s Takuba Task Force, as well as the Multinational Joint Task Force (Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria).

The national armies of Sahel and Lake Chad Basin countries have fought together against militants on several fronts, he continued, while noting that militants continue to foment instability, notably in Niger, where more than 100 people died in just one assault nine days ago. Militants in north-western Nigeria collude with criminal networks, he added. He went on to state that the International Maritime Bureau has reported that 90 per cent of global incidents of maritime piracy and hijackings occur in the Gulf of Guinea. As a result, 5 million people are now displaced, 1.4 million higher than in 2019.

On the political front, five presidential, three legislative and two local elections were held in West Africa since his last briefing, he continued. Despite COVID-19, electoral management bodies were able to maintain the electoral calendar and demonstrate impressive technical capacity to organize and conduct the polls. Noting that elections are increasingly being funded exclusively from national budgets, he said that despite contestation and violence in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, the polls overall “went well”.

Detailing events around the region, he said dialogue between political actors in Burkina Faso led to an outcome that was accepted by all. He commended the peaceful conduct of the 27 November general elections in Niger, which is set to usher in its first-ever democratic transition from one elected Head of State to another. In Ghana, which has a tradition of peaceful handovers, elections were peaceful, with lingering disagreements about the results being decided in the courts, he noted.

He went on to report that, to support elections, UNOWAS held forums for stakeholders in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger, adding that he undertook several good offices missions to Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire before, during and after elections. Throughout, the Office worked hand-in-hand with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the appointment of a Minister for National Reconciliation and the launch of a national dialogue after an electoral process “fraught with disagreements” were encouraging, he said, emphasizing that, two months ahead of the polls, scheduled for 6 March, national actors should make gestures of genuine reconciliation. He appealed to national authorities and all political leaders in Benin, where presidential elections are due in April, to find common ground.

Describing democracy more broadly as “a constant process of deliberation and consultation and dialogue”, he noted the outreach by Mauritania’s President to opposition and historically marginalized communities. He encouraged leaders in Guinea, where elections regrettably deepened rather than reconciled deep-seated grievances, to jointly set the country on a path to dialogue. Meanwhile, the closure of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) on 31 December, after 20 years, marked an auspicious moment for Bissau-Guineans to agree on a new constitution.

In addressing myriad challenges, UNOWAS collaborates with the G5-Sahel to support implementation of the programme d’investissements prioritaires, he said. The support plan for the United Nations Integrated Strategy in the Sahel is being carried out with greater outreach to donors and a focus on cross-border assistance, he added, noting significant progress on the women, peace and security agenda as well as the youth, peace and security agendas in West Africa and the Sahel.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates expressed condolences over the deaths of French soldiers involved in Operation Barkhane in Mali earlier this month, and over attacks against civilians in Niger’s Tillabéri region. Most speakers welcomed the successful conduct of presidential elections in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger.

The representative of Kenya, also speaking for Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — known collectively as the “A3+1” — said preventive diplomacy should continue to be the priority task.  Welcoming the conduct of elections in Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia and Niger, he emphasized:  “The region’s achievements in democratic governance ought to be consolidated.” Welcoming the addition of climate-induced security threats to the UNOWAS mandate as a “pragmatic acknowledgment” of the climate-security nexus in the region, he said the Council must now engage on the proposal to establish an office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Climate and Security.

Calling for a holistic approach to the region — entailing political, security and development interventions — he noted that intercommunal violence is becoming a “bedrock of recruitment” for terrorists and armed groups. Recent events in the tri-border area in the central Sahel, Nigeria or Chad recall the need for attention to that issue, he said, stressing that a holistic solution must be based on stronger partnership between the G5 Sahel, the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union through a joint project to tackle its root causes.  He urged UNOWAS, the Peacebuilding Commission and all partners to give greater support to the Integrated Territorial Development Project — between the municipalities of the Sahel (Burkina Faso), Timbuktu (Mali) and Tillabéri (Niger) regions, home to 5.5 million inhabitants — for a one-year period and financed by the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) to the tune of $1.8 million.

“The pervasive insecurity and political instability in the region call for the structured and focused implementation of the UNOWAS mandate,” he continued stressing the need for better cooperation among UNOWAS, the African Union and other subregional organizations, in coordination with key regional players, neighbouring regions, and both regional and international organizations. He called upon UNOWAS to resume its support for the G5 Sahel’s Sahelian Centre for Threat Analysis and Early Warning and to focus broadly on women and young people for development and peace. “The most sustainable solution to the situation in West Africa and the Sahel lies in comprehensive strategies that address the root causes of insecurity and instability,” he said.

The representative of Ireland called upon all actors to support humanitarian action in West Africa and to facilitate the delivery of aid, while condemning attacks on humanitarian workers in the strongest terms. The impacts of COVID-19 are clearly exacerbating the already challenging situation in the region, she said, urging international partners to ensure that Africa receives fair and equitable access to vaccines. Emphasizing the crucial role of national human rights institutions as well as the need to take a holistic and integrated approach to security, she declared:  “There is little doubt that the adverse impacts of climate change are having a negative impact on security in West Africa and the Sahel.” She went on to echo the Secretary-General’s call for all actors to integrate current and projected climate-related threats into all conflict prevention efforts. Expressing regret over election-related violence in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, she warned against the “chilling effect” on democratic engagement and called upon UNOWAS to continue its good offices functions.

The representative of Mexico, stressing that all acts of violence against civilians must be investigated and prosecuted, called for efforts to transform the socioeconomic conditions that lead to inequality and exclusion. The climate of tensions enveloping electoral processes, as well as several important electoral successes, demonstrate the need to continue to support upcoming elections in West Africa and the Sahel, he said, adding that the success of Niger’s recent election, and the subsequent peaceful transfer of power, demonstrate what can be achieved when national Governments and international partners work together. Calling for strengthened support for the region’s humanitarian fund — as well as improved access to vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 — he said international actors must unite against a second wave of the pandemic. Echoing calls to incorporate the impacts of climate change into security plans and for the broader inclusion of women in decision-making, he went on to express concern about the presence of mobile terrorist groups throughout the region.

The representative of the Russian Federation, echoing the Special Representative’s concerns about terrorism and organized crime in West Africa, said COVID-19 also poses serious threats to social services and health systems. Whereas the region’s countries have been able to avoid a major outbreak, it is clear that the pandemic will nevertheless have deep and lasting impacts, she said. Warning against interference in the region’s elections by outside actors, she said UNOWAS should continue working to help strengthen State institutions, coordinate the broader work of the United Nations in the region and cooperate closely with regional organizations. She went on to emphasize that following the closure of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), the Council’s sanctions on Guinea-Bissau are absurd in the absence of any threat to international peace and security and should be promptly lifted.

The representative of Norway emphasized that civilians in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin area require stronger protection, noting that across the region, COVID‑19 is compounding both conflict and displacement, increasingly putting women and girls at risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Urging UNOWAS to further prioritize those issues, she said local, regional and international efforts — including by MINUSMA and the G-5 Sahel Joint Force — must also be well-coordinated.  Strongly condemning violations and abuses committed against children, she stressed the need to ensure victims’ rights and to hold perpetrators accountable. She went on to spotlight the important cooperation between UNOWAS and the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA) on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.

The representative of India said that presidential elections in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger have further consolidated democracy in West Africa, despite being mired in political tensions, violence and electoral disputes. Acknowledging the role of ECOWAS in facilitating the swift civilian-led transition in Mali, he called for full implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, as well as political and administrative reforms, including the decentralization of powers for adequate political participation of marginalized populations, as well as swift disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. He underscored the need for intensified efforts to combat terrorism, describing recent terror attacks by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) as “more brutal than those carried out by Boko Haram”. ISWAP, supported by elements in West Asia and North Africa, is emerging as a radicalized and brutal terrorist entity, he noted. An integrated approach and closer counter-terrorism cooperation are needed, he said, stressing that the coordinating role of UNOWAS, its support to Governments and partnership with G5 Sahel and ECOWAS will be critical. The Gulf of Guinea remains a piracy hotspot, he added, pointing out that India is combating piracy in those waters, ensuring maritime security and safe navigation, and more broadly, has provided $3.279 billion in soft loans for agriculture, irrigation, water supply and energy projects, among other areas.

The representative of Estonia said that negative security trends continue to characterize developments in West Africa and the Sahel, stressing that “every step needs to be taken to tackle the threat of terrorism”. Estonia will continue to contribute through the Barkhane operation and the Takuba Task Force, he pledged. He expressed concern over the loss of life through election-related violence, while congratulating Togo on electing its first female Prime Minister. Estonia encourages the region’s countries to fully and equally include women and young people at all stages of political processes, he said, stressing the crucial need to address the causes of conflicts and to design an approach that considers their security, development and the humanitarian needs, notably the adverse effects of climate change. Reconciliation and restoration of the State’s presence is also important, as is ensuring accountability for human rights violations, he said.

The representative of France said that whereas the elections in West African countries signal the consolidation of democratic institutions, they took place amid high tensions and obstacles to public freedoms. He encouraged all stakeholders in Guinea to demonstrate responsibility and restraint, pressing the authorities to show openness towards the opposition. Welcoming the announcement by the President of Côte d’Ivoire that he will appoint a Minister for National Reconciliation and reform the Independent Electoral Commission, he said other measures can be taken to reduce tensions ahead of legislative elections. He went on to note that elections in Ghana were held in exemplary conditions. Elections in Burkina Faso, meanwhile, and the first presidential electoral round in Niger took place without major security incidents, he added, adding that the decision by Niger’s President not to run again helped to reduce tensions. France will monitor the conditions for a second round. Security remains the major issue in the Sahel, and joint counter-terrorism operations by France and its partners will continue, he emphasized. He called for combining support for security, governance, human rights and development, pressing the Sahel countries to strengthen the State presence in all areas of their respective territories. At the international level, the G5 Sahel Joint Force needs more support from the Organization, he said, stressing the for the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel to be implemented in a more pragmatic manner.

The representative of China said the situation in West Africa and the Sahel is stable and many of the region’s countries have effectively fought COVID-19. However, they still face many challenges, including combating the spread of the virus. China continues to deploy medical experts as well as medical supplies and equipment to Burkina Faso, Guinea and others, he said, pledging it will strive to make vaccines accessible to all. Urging global partners to help the region’s countries consolidate peace and stability, he welcomed the successful outcomes of several recent elections. With the Gambia, Benin, Chad and Cabo Verde due to hold elections in 2021, the international community must fully respect their sovereignty, he emphasized. It should also help West African countries address security challenges, including those caused by maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, he said, urging international partners to help the region’s countries improve governance, reduce poverty, sustain critical supply chains and enhance regional economic integration.

The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the largely peaceful elections in Burkina Faso, Niger and Ghana, but expressed concern about the violence and tensions that marked polls in other countries in the region. On Mali, he said the transition period is an opportunity to prepare for fair and free elections and pursue progress on such key issues as the peace process and corruption. Noting that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate across much of the region, he said and London provided an additional $21 million in humanitarian funding to the Sahel in 2020, pointing out that its financing topped $200 million since 2019. He went on to urge Governments in the region to lead efforts to halt the vicious cycle of violence and instability, supported by the coordinated efforts of the United Nations as well as regional and international partners. That should include enhanced cooperation among military and civil authorities as well as humanitarian actors in order to reach those most in need.

The representative of Viet Nam called upon all stakeholders in Benin, Cabo Verde and the Gambia to seek consensus on areas of disagreement so that the upcoming elections can take place in an inclusive, transparent, credible and peaceful manner. Emphasizing the important role that women play in peacebuilding and political arenas, she noted that Togo’s Cabinet is headed by a woman Prime Minister for the first time and one third of its members are also female. In Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania and Nigeria, women have been nominated for strategic positions while in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger, they participated more actively in the elections, she added. Calling for accelerated cooperation in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism across West Africa and the Sahel, she said UNOWAS, MINUSMA, ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel Joint Force should meet regularly and conduct joint trend assessments of the regional dimension of the crisis and related cross-border dynamics, in addition to sharing intelligence information.

The representative of the United States praised the integral role of UNOWAS in supporting free and fair elections in five West African nations in late 2020. “Though much remains to be done, we are seeing progress,” he said, welcoming the calm environment that prevailed in each of those votes. Describing the closure of UNIOGBIS on 31 December as another important sign of progress, he nevertheless emphasized that the citizens of Guinea-Bissau deserve the global community’s continued support to maintain the important gains they have made. Expressing deep concern about continued instability — including cowardly and heinous terrorist attacks against innocent people — he called upon Governments to combat such threats and respect international law. Indeed, Governments undermine their own institutions when State officials violate human rights or fail to uphold their international legal obligations, he pointed out.  Turning to Mali, he urged the country’s partners to provide continued support to the crucial peace process there.

The representative of Niger thanked the Council for its solidarity with his country, which was hit by terrorist attacks on 2 January, noting that the assault was different from previous ones in the area on the border with Mali, which had military objectives. In the most recent attack, the terrorists targeted civilians to prevent them from cooperating with the authorities, he said, noting that the 2 January attack resulted in 110 lives lost in one village and 30 in another.  In the aftermath, he added, Niger made two decisions, first to strengthen its military presence along the border with Mali, and second, to organize a peace forum in the coming days to ensure that such attacks do not lead to intercommunal violence. Promoting good governance through the Special Representative’s good offices is critical to fostering peace and security in the Sahel. He went on to underscore Niger’s commitment to organize its first peaceful transfer of power following the second round of presidential elections in February, saying his country anticipates the Special Representative’s visit to Niamey in that regard.

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