West Africa and the Sahel
Expected Council Action
In December, the Security Council is expected to hold a briefing on intercommunal violence and terrorism in West Africa. Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Mohammed Ibn Chambas is expected to brief.
During the month, the Council is also expected to renew UNOWAS’ mandate for an additional three years. This is likely to be done through an exchange of letters between the President of the Security Council and the Secretary-General. UNOWAS’ current mandate expires on 31 December 2019.
Key Recent Developments
West Africa and the Sahel have seen a rise in violent intercommunal conflict between herders and farmers, a trend Chambas has flagged during his biannual briefings to the Council, calling it “increasingly a major security threat in the region”.
A UNOWAS study from August 2018 entitled “Pastoralism and Security in West Africa and the Sahel: Towards Peaceful Coexistence” says the region is experiencing “a surge” in conflicts between herders and farmers, which have claimed thousands of lives in recent years. The movement of herders and their livestock—known as transhumance—has increasingly encroached on farming communities. According to the UNOWAS study, the conflicts are primarily driven by competition for land, water and forage, but there are also political and socio-economic factors involved. Demographic and climatic pressures, arms proliferation, and the presence of violent extremist groups are among the causes and drivers of this violence, the nature of which varies across the region. Mali and Nigeria have been the most severely affected countries in the region, according to the study.
In Mali, intercommunal conflict has been exacerbated by terrorist groups drawing many of their recruits from the ethnic Fulani (or Peuhl, as they are known in Mali), the largest pastoralist group spread across West Africa and the Sahel. Violence by terrorist groups has led to retaliatory attacks against Fulani communities, in turn helping to attract more Fulani recruits to terrorist groups and causing intercommunal conflict to spiral. The situation in central Mali has deteriorated in recent years, with one of the deadliest examples of intercommunal violence occurring on 23 March when at least 160 Fulani civilians were killed in the village of Ogossagou by armed elements of the Dogon ethnic group. In another incident, at least 95 people were killed in a Fulani raid on a Dogon village on 9 June. Similar intercommunal violence fuelled by terrorist groups appears to have spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso, as extremist groups have escalated attacks across much of the country this year.
Nigeria has experienced the greatest herder-farmer violence. While there have long been such clashes, they have intensified as herders migrate further south, including into Nigeria’s more humid zones. The UNOWAS study points out that fatalities from farmer-herder conflicts in Nigeria have totalled more than the rest of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries combined. An International Crisis Group report last year said that casualties from inter-communal violence between herders and farmers, centred around Nigeria’s Middle Belt, killed over 1,300 people from January to June 2018—roughly six times the number of civilians killed by Boko Haram over the same period—and displaced more than 300,000 people.
The Lomé Declaration from the 30 July 2018 joint heads of state summit between ECOWAS and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) on terrorism and violent extremism expressed deep concern at the escalating number and extent of violent conflicts between herders and farmers, a phenomenon that has also been prevalent in Central African states. The two regional blocs also committed to holding regular meetings among ministers for agriculture, livestock and security to identify measures for the prevention and peaceful management of herder-farmer conflicts.
A Security Council presidential statement in August 2018 on West Africa and the Sahel and UNOWAS marked the first time that the Council addressed the herder-farmer conflicts in the region. The Council statement expressed “concern for increased tensions between pastoralists and farmers in the region, driven by competition for natural resources, rapid population growth, weak governance, pressures related to climate and ecological factors, and the circulation of small arms and light weapons”. It encouraged ECOWAS and its member states to address these challenges holistically, with UNOWAS support. The Council’s latest presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel on 7 August welcomed the recent UNOWAS study on the issue and again encouraged UNOWAS to support ECOWAS in addressing this problem.
Regarding UNOWAS’ mandate renewal, on 15 November the Secretary-General submitted the report of an independent strategic review of the special political mission, along with his own observations and recommendations. The review, conducted from 10 September to 17 October, was led by the former head of the UN Office for Central Africa, Abdoulaye Bathily.
The review found that UNOWAS constitutes a vital platform for conflict prevention and sustaining peace and has carried out its mandate effectively. In particular, the good offices activities of Special Representative Chambas to defuse tensions, often in the context of high-stakes elections and in coordination with ECOWAS and the AU, were found to be the most visible and effective component of UNOWAS’ work. The review highlighted the increased expectations that have been placed on the mission, such as to support post-conflict countries after the closure of UN missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone and the possible conclusion of the UN mission in Guinea-Bissau by the end of 2020; a stepped-up role in The Gambia and Burkina Faso; and to address evolving transnational threats, in particular from terrorism but also issues such as herder-farmer conflicts. The demands require increased human and financial resources, according to the report and the Secretary-General’s observations.
Key Issues and Options
Next month’s session would seem to be the Council’s first stand-alone meeting on intercommunal violence in West Africa and the Sahel. As observed by the UNOWAS study, the problem is multidimensional, involving peace and security, peacebuilding, human rights and humanitarian issues, thus requiring a cross-pillar approach. What more the Council and the UN can do to support responses to the problem, including in light of UNOWAS’ upcoming mandate renewal, is a key issue. The Council may adopt a presidential statement on the subject, which could further identify sources of the problem and best practices in addressing herder-farmer conflicts.
For the UNOWAS mandate renewal, the Council may agree to the recommendations of the strategic review. This could include supporting the Secretary-General’s recommendations from his summary of the review:
- Strengthening UNOWAS’s mandate to acquire the agility and capacity needed to allow the mission to be more proactive in the face of existing and emerging threats, and to scale-up cross-pillar coordination and cooperation for greater coherence in UN interaction with national and sub-regional entities.
- Reconfiguring UNOWAS to promote better collaboration among UN entities in the region for greater collective UN impact, while maintaining a clear division of labour, and to enhance UNOWAS’ collaboration with regional and sub-regional bodies, such as ECOWAS, the Mano River Union, Lake Chad Basin Commission and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel).
The Council could support other recommendations from the report, such as establishing a UNOWAS presence in Abuja to enhance cooperation with ECOWAS, strengthening the UNOWAS liaison office to the G5 Sahel in Nouakchott, enhancing UNOWAS collaboration with governments of the Lake Chad Basin in addressing the Boko Haram crisis, and supporting the Secretary-General’s proposal from September to create a clearer division of labour around the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel.
Côte d’Ivoire has been interested in having the Council consider the issue of herder-farmer violence in more depth, and proposed the meeting which it is organising with the US, the Council’s December president.
Consistent with findings of the strategic review, members view UNOWAS as playing a significant conflict-prevention role, and have valued the good offices activities undertaken by Special Representative Chambas in addressing political crises and electoral tensions. At press time, members were expected to exchange views on the recommendations of the UNOWAS strategic review during an informal interactive dialogue to be held on the report on 27 November with Bathily, a representative of the Secretariat, and possibly Peacebuilding Commission Chair Guillermo Fernández de Soto Valderrama (Colombia). Some members could be hesitant to support recommendations that would require increased financial resources. The West African Council member traditionally serves as penholder on UNOWAS. During 2019, Côte d’Ivoire and Belgium have served as co-penholders on UNOWAS. Starting in January, incoming member Niger is expected to succeed Côte d’Ivoire.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WEST AFRICA AND THE SAHEL
|Security Council Presidential Statements|
|7 August 2019S/PRST/2019/7||This was on West Africa and the Sahel, which included welcoming a planned strategic review of UNOWAS and inviting the Secretary-General to present to the Council its recommendations, and his observations by 15 November.|
|14 May 2018S/PRST/2018/10||This was a presidential statement on peacekeeping operations.|
|Security Council Letters|
|15 November 2019S/2019/890||This was a letter from the Secretary-General to the President of the Security Council transmitting the strategic review of UNOWAS.|
|29 December 2016S/2016/1129||This was a letter from the Security Council to the Secretary-General regarding the UNOWAS mandate renewal until 31 December 2019.|
|27 December 2016S/2016/1128||This was a letter from the Secretary-General to the Security Council regarding the UNOWAS mandate renewal until 31 December 2019.|
Additional Useful Documents
“Pastoralism and Security in West Africa and the Sahel: Towards Peaceful Coexistence“, UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel. August 2018.