Threats to Peace and Security in West Africa and the Sahel Region
Expected Council Action
In February the Council is expected to hold a high-level debate on the impact of transnational organised crime on peace, security and stability in West Africa and the Sahel region. The focus of the debate will include concerns arising from the situation in Libya, including illicit trafficking networks and arms flows in particular, an upsurge in terrorist attacks and other forms of destabilisation in the Sahel and the growing piracy problems in West Africa.
Togo’s President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé is likely to preside over the high-level debate. The Secretary-General and representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) are expected to brief.
At press time it appeared that the Council would issue a presidential statement following the debate.
Key Recent Developments
On 18 January, the Secretary-General submitted the Gulf of Guinea piracy assessment mission report, a report relating to some of the countries in the region. The mission, which was dispatched from 7 to 24 November following the adoption of resolution 2018 on 31 October 2011, visited Benin, Nigeria, Gabon and Angola. Its report details the deleterious effects of piracy on the maritime economies of the region, in particular Benin. The report estimates that piracy has resulted in a current annual loss of revenue of $2 billion to the West African economies and that the number of ships docking at Cotonou, Benin has declined by 70 percent as a result of the attacks. The report also looks into the wider issue of trafficking and transnational organised crime, including drug trafficking. It notes a number of drug seizures in the region, as well as seizures of heroin and cocaine in Pakistan and Colombia on their way to Benin. It notes that transnational organised crime networks “are especially active in the areas of oil bunkering and trafficking in cocaine, children, counterfeit medicine and cigarettes.”
A day before, on 17 January, the Secretary-General submitted to the Council a report by a UN inter-agency assessment mission dispatched to the Sahel from 7 to 23 December 2011. Though led by UN officials—the mission was under the overall guidance of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), Said Djinnit—it included Ambassador Ki-Doulaye Corentin, the AU representative in N’Djamena, Chad. The report details a number of disturbing developments in the region as the countries neighbouring Libya “bore the brunt of the challenges that emerged as a result of the crisis” in Libya. Some of these are longstanding problems that have now been further complicated and exacerbated in recent months, the report notes.
A number of these developments have already been described in various reports, including the Secretary-General’s report on UNOWA, issued on 20 June 2011, which noted that large caches of combat weapons might have been transferred from Libya and fallen into the hands of terrorists or anti-government forces in the Sahel. That anxiety led, on 31 October, to the adoption of resolution 2017, which drew attention to “the risk of destabilisation posed by the dissemination in the Sahel region of illicit small arms and light weapons.”
The Sahel assessment report amplifies those anxieties. Soon after the conflict in Libya erupted, the report notes, countries in the Sahel region had to “contend with the influx of hundreds of thousands of traumatised and impoverished returnees as well as the inflow of unspecified and unquantifiable numbers of arms and ammunition from the Libyan arsenal.”
The report cites estimates of the number of returnees to Niger, Mali, Chad and Mauritania at approximately 420,000, adding to populations already facing food shortages and in some cases even famine due to drought and other natural causes. This has created a humanitarian crisis that has “negatively impacted the capacity” of governments and the UN. In some areas, “the humanitarian vacuum is being filled by AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and/or criminal elements who are reportedly providing services and humanitarian assistance in remote areas.” This situation has in turn enabled the terrorist group to “develop recruitment and local support networks for gathering information, supplying arms and ammunition, and other logistics”.
The report gives considerable space to wider security concerns relating to the proliferation of arms, including advanced weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles and Man-Portable Air Defence Systems, that were previously safeguarded in the Libyan government arsenal but have now been transferred to the Sahel region and possibly are in the hands of terrorist groups. Already, the report notes, there has been an increase in the arms trade, noting that terrorist groups may well be at the centre of the trade.
The report notes “an increase in terrorist and criminal activities” in the region since the situation in Libya erupted, suggesting that the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram—which has been behind a spate of bomb attacks that have killed hundreds, including UN employees in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital—has established links with AQIM and that some of its members have even received training in AQIM camps in Mali. The report states that seven of Boko Haram’s members were arrested while crossing Niger on their way to Mali “in possession of documentation on manufacturing of explosives, propaganda leaflets as well as names and contact details of AQIM members.” On 20 January, members of Boko Haram killed more than 170 people in shootings and bombings in Nigeria’s northern commercial capital of Kano.
The report reveals the establishment of at least two new terrorist groups in the region partly as a consequence of the situation in Libya and the near-meltdown of some of the states in the region—the Ansar Eddin and the Mouvement Unicité et Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), both Jihadist groups that already claim to have captured European aid workers.
As a result of these developments, there is an ongoing militarisation of most of the countries as public spending for basic services is short-changed by increased military spending. According to the report, Niger, for example, has increased its defence budget by 65 percent.
A key recommendation of the report is for the UN to “strengthen its security capacity and presence on the ground” in the region, as well as to encourage the exchange of “relevant information and analysis between the UN and the AU”. The report also recommends that the UN and the AU “should pursue efforts for resource mobilization for the socio-economic integration of the African migrant workers in their communities.” Another key recommendation of the report is “an overarching mechanism or framework” that would bring together all the affected countries in the Sahel region “in a coordinated manner to discuss and proffer solutions” to the spreading problems.
The report recommends that the UN should assist national authorities to develop integrated programmes to fight drug trafficking and organised crime, including piracy (which is discussed in the report as a transnational organised crime). More immediately, the report recommends that the UN should take into account provisions of resolution 2018 to work with ECOWAS, ECCAS and the Gulf of Guinea Commission (GCC) “to facilitate the earliest possible convening” of a joint regional summit of presidents and heads of the three regional organisations “to develop a comprehensive anti-piracy strategy.”
The key issue for the Council is how to devise a strategy to deal comprehensively with the range of related threats and criminality in the Sahel and elsewhere in the region.
An effective coordination with the AU and other regional players such as ECOWAS and ECCAS is a related issue.
A further related issue is ensuring improved information exchange and coordination of efforts among regional countries, regional bodies and other key international players in the anti-piracy efforts in the region.
Also, since West African countries are the most adversely affected, another related issue is the role of UNOWA in monitoring the situation and in providing support to regional governments and ECOWAS.
The most likely option for the Council would be to adopt a presidential statement in which it:
- highlights its concern about the problems;
- requests the Secretary-General to facilitate a regional summit, including the AU, ECOWAS, ECCAS and other relevant partners, to discuss the problems and map possible solutions;
- recommends possibly strengthening the interoperability of the various UN presences in the region as none has an overarching mandate that covers the vast region of the Sahel; or
- the Council could support the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum Sahel Working Group and recall pending obligations to incorporate into domestic law the provisions of the relevant counter-terrorism instruments.
The Council appears to be unanimous on the need to tackle the problems in a concerted and effective manner, but there seem to be important differences in emphasis among Council members. It appears that France, the UK and the US are keen to stress the longstanding nature of the threats in the Sahel region, long predating the Libya crisis, while acknowledging the need to tackle these threats and expressing support for the affected countries. South Africa, on the other hand, seems to want a proper acknowledgement of the direct impact of the NATO intervention in Libya on the Sahel, as well as an appreciation by the Council of the role of the AU in bringing the problems to the Council’s attention. Morocco also appears to support full discussion of the fallout from Libya on the Sahel, and seems to support Togo, which has replaced Nigeria as the lead on these issues.
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