January 2020 Monthly Forecast

Posted 23 December 2019
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West Africa and the Sahel

Expected Council Action

In January, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), will brief the Council to present the semi-annual UNOWAS report, which the Council should receive by the end of December 2019.

Key Recent Developments

The security situation in the Sahel has deteriorated as terrorist groups continue to destabilise much of Mali and Burkina Faso, fuel intercommunal violence, and increasingly threaten coastal West African states. The terrorist group Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), also remain a threat to north-east Nigeria and to other countries in the Lake Chad Basin.

Mali’s military has endured heavy casualties in recent months while implementation of a 2015 peace agreement stalled (for more about Mali, see our brief in this month’s Forecast). Violence in Burkina Faso has internally displaced at least 560,000 people by early December 2019 (compared with 87,000 people at the end of January 2019), according to OCHA, and has created an “unprecedented humanitarian emergency” in that country, with 1.5 million people requiring assistance. Among recent developments, on 18 November, gunmen killed at least 37 people in an attack on a convoy carrying employees of a Canadian mining company. A 1 December attack by gunmen during a church service in Hantoukoura in eastern Burkina Faso resulted in 14 deaths. On 10 December, an attack claimed by the Islamic State on a base in Inates, western Niger, killed 71 soldiers—reportedly the deadliest incident in the history of Niger’s military.

Efforts continued to stand up the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (FC-G5S, made up of units from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), but as discussed during a 20 November 2019 Council briefing, the force faces persistent challenges that prevent it from becoming fully operational. Its inability to stem the violence in the region prompted the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to increase its engagement in addressing the terrorism threat. During a 14 September 2019 extraordinary summit in Ouagadougou on terrorism, ECOWAS member states committed to increased security cooperation and to mobilising $1 billion for counter-terrorism efforts in the 2020–2024 period. In the margins of the Group of Seven (G7) summit in August, France and Germany announced the launch of a new partnership for security and stability in the Sahel. The initiative calls for extended military cooperation, enhanced efforts to strengthen governance, in particular rule of law institutions, and economic development, and encompasses a broader focus on the ECOWAS region. On 15 December, leaders of G5 Sahel countries met in Niamey, following the deadly attack in Inates, calling for closer cooperation and international support in fighting terrorism.

On 19 November 2019, Security Council members received the report of an independent strategic review of UNOWAS and the Secretary-General’s observations and recommendations, which were aligned with the report. Abdoulaye Bathily, the former head of the UN Office for Central Africa, led the review, which was quite positive. The report observed that UNOWAS plays a critical role in conflict prevention and sustaining peace and that it has carried out its mandate effectively. The review highlighted the increased demands and expectations facing UNOWAS, however. These include more calls for its good offices in the context of political or electoral tensions. UNOWAS has also been expected to provide support to post-transition countries after the closure of UN missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone and, looking ahead, is likely to play the same role in Guinea-Bissau after the possible conclusion of the UN mission there at the end of 2020. It has also taken on a stepped-up role in The Gambia and Burkina Faso. The review also said that UNOWAS should give more attention to structural prevention amidst the deteriorating security situation and invest more in its rule of law and good governance mandate.

Among its recommendations, the review said that UNOWAS should enhance collaboration with ECOWAS and other sub-regional organisations by, among other things, establishing a liaison office with ECOWAS in Abuja. It flagged the need for UNOWAS to promote greater synergies between the UN system and entities in the region in the context of the UN development system reforms. Meeting these demands would require increased human and financial resources for UNOWAS, according to the report and the Secretary-General’s observations.

On 27 November 2019, Council members held an informal interactive dialogue on the review with Bathily, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Bintou Keita, and Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) Chair Guillermo Fernández de Soto Valderrama (Colombia). At press time, the Council was considering these recommendations for the mandate renewal of UNOWAS, set to expire on 31 December 2019. It was expected that the Council would renew the mandate for a three-year period through an exchange of letters between its president and the Secretary-General.

Chambas last briefed the Council (via videoteleconference) on 16 December 2019, along with AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smaїl Chergui, during a meeting on intercommunal violence and terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel.

Key Issues and Options

The worsening security situation in the Sahel and the growing risk of spillover into non-Sahel countries are key issues, as are Chambas’ good offices activities around election-related and political tensions. In 2020 alone, there are high-stakes presidential elections in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Togo.

Illicit trafficking of drugs, intercommunal violence, and piracy are key issues, which at times are linked with terrorist groups. The FC-G5S, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, and ECOWAS’ new commitments make up important security initiatives. Also important are efforts to address structural causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, poor governance and climate change, through initiatives such the UN’s Sahel Strategy, the G5 Priority Investment Programme and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy. Implementation of the Mali Peace Agreement is also considered critical for stabilising the Sahel.

One option for the Council would be to continue to organise periodic meetings on transnational problems in West Africa and the Sahel, the better to understand their root causes and linkages, for more informed Council decisions on specific conflict situations, as was the purpose of the 16 December 2019 meeting on intercommunal violence.

Council Dynamics

Members share concerns about the worsening security situation in the region, but it is not clear what immediate concrete measures the Council can take. Most members do not consider UN peacekeeping to be appropriate for conducting counter-terrorism activities and thus seek to support regional forces such as the FC-G5S and the MNJTF. Further debate on the divisive issue of authorising UN assessed contributions for the FC-G5S has been put off to see whether the force can become effective with the current funding it has received.

Consistent with the findings of the strategic review, members view UNOWAS as playing a significant conflict-prevention role and have valued Chambas’ good offices activities. As part of such efforts, Chambas frequently seeks coordination with ECOWAS and the AU in UNOWAS’ messaging and actions. Overall, most members appeared to support the review’s proposals. This includes the recommendation that UNOWAS enhance its coordination with sub-regional organisations and UN entities and country teams in the region. At the informal interactive dialogue, several members also expressed their support for increasing the mission’s resources. At press time, however, recommendations that would significantly increase UNOWAS’ budget, such as establishing an ECOWAS liaison office, appeared unlikely to receive support from the US, which has been seeking to reduce UN peace operations’ costs.

The West African Council member traditionally serves as penholder on UNOWAS. During 2019, Côte d’Ivoire and Belgium served as co-penholders. Starting in January, incoming member Niger will succeed Côte d’Ivoire.

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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.
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.
Security Council Meeting Records
16 December 2019S/PV.8685 This was a briefing on intercommunal violence and terrorism in West Africa.
20 November 2019S/PV.8670 This was a briefing on the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel.

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