January 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 December 2020
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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 Secretary-General’s semi-annual report on West Africa and the Sahel.

Key Recent Developments

Terrorist groups continue to destabilise the Sahel and fuel intercommunal violence. Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, remain a threat to north-eastern Nigeria and to other countries in the Lake Chad Basin. In recent months, presidential elections triggered political violence in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, where incumbents ran for controversial third terms.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the killing of 78 rice farmers on 28 November 2020 in Zabarmari village, about an hour from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. (Some reports estimate that 110 people were killed.) A Security Council press statement on 30 November condemned the attacks “in the strongest terms”. In a 4 September 2020 white paper to Security Council members, the UN raised new warnings about food insecurity and the risk of famine in north-eastern Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Council members discussed the food security crises at a 17 September videoconference (VTC) on conflict-induced hunger.

Nigeria faces other security challenges. Worsening banditry violence in the north killed over 1,100 people in the first half of 2020, according to Amnesty International. On 11 December 2020, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from their secondary school in north-western Katsina State. A statement by Secretary-General António Guterres condemning the incident attributed the abduction to “suspected armed bandits”. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility, which, if true, would reflect an expansion in its area of operations; on 17 December, it was reported that many of the boys had been released. Earlier, nationwide protests against police brutality turned violent on 20 October 2020 when soldiers fired at demonstrators in Lagos, killing at least a dozen people; this triggered looting and the burning of police stations and government buildings across Nigeria.

In the Sahel, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered the establishment of a transitional government in Mali for an 18-month period following the 18 August 2020 coup d’état, which ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. (For more, see Security Council Report’s January Forecast on Mali). Violent extremist groups continue an insurgency in Burkina Faso marked by human rights violations by terrorist groups as well as by security forces and self-defence militias that has resulted in the internal displacement of over one million people. UN officials have also raised alarms about crisis levels of food insecurity, which now affects 3.3 million, with pockets of famine in the country’s north; the situation was discussed at the 17 September Council VTC on conflict-induced hunger. Niger continues to be destabilised by spill-over violence from Mali and Burkina Faso, and by Boko Haram in its Diffa region. On 12 December 2020, gunmen killed at least 27 people and burned 800 to 1,000 homes in Toumour village in Diffa.

In Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, Presidents Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara, respectively, ran for controversial third terms. (Condé pushed through a constitutional change in March to the two-term limit, while Ouattara argued that Côte d’Ivoire’s revised 2016 constitution reset his terms.)

Guinea’s election was held on 18 October 2020, with Condé winning 59.5 percent of the vote. Post-electoral violence caused 12 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch, amid a crackdown on opposition protests.

In Côte d’Ivoire, Ouattara decided to run for a third term after the death in July 2020 of his designated successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly. The opposition boycotted the 31 October poll, which Ouattara won with over 94 percent of the vote. On 2 November, opposition candidates announced that they were creating a transitional government to prepare new elections. Political violence with ethnic undertones escalated, and at least 12 opposition members were arrested. To de-escalate the situation, Ouattara met for talks on 11 November with Henri Konan Bédié, the 86-year-old former president and candidate in the race who had been named head of the opposition’s transitional government. According to government figures released that day, 85 people had been killed in election-related violence since 10 August: 34 deaths occurred before the election, 20 on election day, and 31 afterwards. Almost 22,000 people had fled to neighbouring countries amid the political tensions, according to the UN Refugee Agency, of which more than 20,000 went to Liberia. By 2 December, three opposition members remained in detention, including former prime minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan, and nine others had been released on conditional bail, according to Human Rights Watch.

Burkina Faso held its presidential election on 22 November 2020 although some areas were unable to conduct polls because of the insecurity. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was re-elected with 57.87 percent of the vote. Niger is scheduled to hold legislative and president elections on 27 December.

The UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) is due to conclude by the end of December 2020 after 21 years in the country. On 11 December, Chambas and Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Bintou Keita attended a closing ceremony at UNIOGBIS headquarters in anticipation of its conclusion. The mission’s departure—decided in February 2019 by the Council—follows interference by the military in February 2020 when it occupied government buildings to help install Umaro Sissoco Embaló as president while the Supreme Court was still considering challenges by his opponent to the results of the December 2019 election.

At a 10 August 2020 Council meeting, Special Representative and head of UNIOGBIS Rosine Sori-Coulibaly said that there had been “arbitrary arrests, intimidation and detention” of opponents of the new administration, creating a “hostile environment” and leaving Guinea-Bissau in a “fragile situation”. Sori-Coulibaly warned that UNIOGBIS was unlikely to fulfil its mandate, with urgent reforms, such as the constitutional review, still incomplete. UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Ghada Fathi Waly expressed concern about the “resurgence of drug trafficking and the re-emerging influence of criminal operations in the country”. Reporting earlier in 2020 by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which supports the ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, had flagged Guinea-Bissau as a destination for Central Asian nationals who had travelled from Syria to several African countries, where the monitoring team assessed that they “intend to lie low”.

On 7 September 2020, the Supreme Court confirmed Sissoco Embaló’s victory, concluding the legal challenges to the December 2019 election. The ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau, deployed to the country in 2012, withdrew in September.

Key Issues and Options

The threat of terrorism remains a key issue, as are Chambas’ good offices activities around electoral and political tensions. UNOWAS support to post-conflict countries where peace operations have withdrawn is also important. UNIOGBIS in Guinea-Bissau will be the most recent operation to depart from the region and where UNOWAS is expected to increase its good offices role. Drug trafficking, intercommunal violence and piracy are other regional threats that are linked at times with terrorist groups.

In addition to security initiatives, addressing structural causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, poor governance and climate change, remain a priority, including through the UN’s Sahel Strategy, the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Priority Investment Programme, and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy. UNOWAS is responsible for supporting, through political advocacy and convening, the UN’s Sahel Strategy, enhancing UN system collaboration and promoting coherent international responses to address such challenges in the region. The UN has been seeking to further enhance the mission’s collaboration with regional organisations and has proposed establishing a UNOWAS liaison office in Abuja where ECOWAS is headquartered. Implementation of Mali’s 2015 peace agreement is also frequently cited as key for the Sahel’s stabilisation.

The Council may adopt a presidential statement, a common practice following UNOWAS briefings. Such a statement could address the closure of UNIOGBIS, recalling the importance of maintaining international support for Guinea-Bissau, including through the Peacebuilding Commission, and reiterating calls for UNODC to increase its presence. It could further note the Council’s intention to review the Guinea-Bissau sanctions regime. Separately, members may consider the Secretary-General’s long-standing proposal to establish a Guinea-Bissau Panel of Experts—even for an initial period of just some months—to provide objective information to the Council, including assisting it in delisting decisions or ending the sanctions regime.

Council Dynamics

Members value the good offices activities of Chambas and of UNOWAS’s conflict prevention role. They share concerns about the worsening security situation in the region, but it is not clear what concrete measures the Council is prepared to take. UN peacekeeping is not seen as appropriate for conducting counter-terrorism activities, so members seek to support regional forces, including bilaterally, such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) and the Multinational Joint Task Force, while encouraging the UN system and other actors to tackle structural problems that contribute to instability. Members have had diverging views on how the UN and Council should support the FC-G5S. However, substantive discussion of support, such as providing UN funding or the role of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, tends to occur during Council meetings on Mali and the FC-G5S.

The West African member traditionally serves as penholder on UNOWAS. Since 2018, there have been co-penholders, with Belgium and Niger as co-penholders during 2020. It is unclear which incoming member may replace Belgium in this role.


Security Council Presidential Statement
28 July 2020S/PRST/2020/7 This presidential statement expressed concern about the potential of the COVID-19 pandemic to exacerbate existing fragilities in West Africa and the Sahel. It further urged Malian stakeholders to prioritise dialogue to resolve the current political crisis.
Security Council Letters
21 September 2020S/2020/930 This contained the record of the briefings and statements made during the 17 September videoconference on conflict-induced food insecurity and the risk of famine.
31 January 2020S/2020/85 This letter renewed the mandate of UNOWAS from 1 February 2020 to 31 January 2023.
Security Council Press Statement
30 November 2020SC/14367 This press statement condemned the killing of civilians during the 28 November terrorist attack in north-east Nigeria


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