West Africa and the Sahel
Expected Council Action
In July, the Security Council will hold its biannual briefing on West Africa and the Sahel. The Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mahamat Saleh Annadif, is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
The security situation in the Sahel continues to deteriorate, with terrorist groups operating in the Sahel expanding their presence southward, increasingly threatening coastal West African states. Recent months also witnessed political instability in Chad following the death of President Idriss Déby while fighting rebels invading from Libya and in Mali when the perpetrators of last year’s coup d’état carried out a second coup against Mali’s transitional authorities.
President Déby was killed on 19 April about 300 kilometres north of the capital N’Djamena, fighting the Chadian rebel group FACT. The army, which plays a leading role among Sahel countries in combatting terrorist groups in the region, announced the creation of a transitional military council led by Déby’s 37-year-old son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, that will govern for 18 months until elections can be held. Opposition parties denounced the council’s creation as a “coup d’état” since it did not follow constitutional rules for succession, under which the speaker of the National Assembly becomes interim president. During demonstrations against the military council on 27 April, at least six people were killed by security forces and 700 arrested. While Déby appointed a transitional government led by civilian Albert Pahimi Padacké as prime minister on 2 May, the military council retains control.
The political transition in Mali, established following last August’s coup d’état, was interrupted by a second coup d’état on 24 May. The crisis was precipitated by a government reshuffle earlier that day in which two officers involved in the August 2020 coup were replaced. Mali’s transitional president and prime minister resigned while under detention after their arrest by the military. Colonel Assimi Goïta, leader of last year’s coup and the transitional vice-president, took control. He was sworn in as president on 7 June. Goïta has promised to keep to the original 18-month transition timeline by holding legislative and presidential elections as scheduled next February.
In response to the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU suspended Mali from their organisations. France, which is Mali’s main military partner, also suspended joint operations with Mali’s military. One week after that decision, France said on 10 June that it would draw down Operation Barkhane, its regional counter-terrorism force. In making the announcement, President Emmanuel Macron said that France would still maintain forces in the Sahel but suggested that Paris aims to see other countries increase their support for regional counter-terrorism efforts.
Terrorist violence continues across the Sahel. On the night of 4-5 June, assailants killed at least 132 civilians—160 according to local authorities—when they attacked the town of Solhan in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso. It was the deadliest attack in Burkina Faso since the start of an insurgency by violent extremist groups in 2016. Niger has experienced several similar deadly attacks this year—at least 137 civilians were killed in a 21 March attack in the western Tahoua region. Despite the insecurity, Niger conducted its first peaceful transfer of power between civilian leaders following the election in February of ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum. Days before Bazoum’s swearing-in ceremony, presidential guards thwarted an attempted coup when a military unit assaulted the presidential palace on the night of 30-31 March.
There have been several attacks in recent months in Côte d’Ivoire along the border with Burkina Faso that, according to the Institute for Security Studies, have claimed the lives of six Ivorian soldiers and injured five others. On 29 March, three security personnel were killed in twin attacks on military forces in Kafolo and a gendarmerie post in Kolobougou. Improvised explosive devices were used for the first time in Côte d’Ivoire in two incidents in April, and on 7 June, assailants attacked the town of Tougbo, killing one soldier. Also in Côte d’Ivoire, former president Laurent Gbagbo returned to the country on 17 June, following his acquittal by the ICC of crimes against humanity during post-electoral violence in 2010 that killed 3,000 people.
In northeast Nigeria, the long-time leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, killed himself, detonating a suicide vest during fighting around 18 May with the splinter group the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Since then, ISWAP, which was formed in 2016 by Boko Haram members who opposed Shekau’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians, has sought to integrate surviving members of Shekau’s group.
In addition to Boko Haram/ISWAP, Nigeria faces several other security crises. These include worsening violence in northwestern Nigeria from criminal gangs. The violence in Nigeria’s northwest during 2020 resulted in more deaths (1,527) than the number of people killed in the northeast due to the Boko Haram insurgency (1,508), according to the civil society organisation Global Rights. There are also concerns that ISWAP and violent extremist groups in the Sahel are seeking or may attempt to cooperate with these criminal groups.
On 26 March, the Secretary-General announced Annadif’s appointment as the new head of UNOWAS. Annadif had served as head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) since December 2015. He officially started his new position on 26 April, succeeding Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who had led UNOWAS since September 2014.
Key Issues and Options
Terrorism threats remain a key issue, as do the good offices activities of UNOWAS around electoral and political tensions. Annadif’s counterpart, Special Representative François Louncény Fall of the UN Office on Central Africa, has led UN efforts in responding to the recent crisis in Chad. Chad plays a critical role in contributing to the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), which comprises Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger; to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) fighting Boko Haram; and to MINUSMA. Drug trafficking, inter-communal violence and piracy are other regional threats that are linked at times with terrorist groups.
In addition to regional security initiatives, addressing structural causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, governance and climate change, remains a key issue, including through the UN’s Sahel Strategy, the Group of Five for the Sahel Priority Investment Programme, and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy. UNOWAS is responsible for supporting—through political advocacy and convening of stakeholders in the region—the UN’s Sahel Strategy, enhancing UN system collaboration, and promoting coherent international responses to address these challenges. Implementation of Mali’s 2015 peace agreement is also frequently cited as key for the stabilisation of the Sahel region.
Another important issue is the humanitarian situation. This includes the UN’s continued warnings since September 2020 about the risk of famine in parts of Burkina Faso and Nigeria from the ongoing violence.
The Council may adopt a presidential statement, as it often does following its biannual briefings on UNOWAS. The statement could reflect on recent developments and reiterate calls for comprehensive approaches that address security, peacebuilding and development challenges in the region.
Members value the good offices activities of UNOWAS and its conflict prevention role. While they share concerns about the worsening security situation, they do not always agree on concrete measures that the Council should take in this regard. France and the “A3 plus 1” (Kenya, Niger, Tunisia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) have expressed their intention to push forward the Secretary-General’s long-standing proposal to establish a UN support office that could provide a logistical support package and more predictable financing for the FC-G5S. The US and UK object to using UN assessed contributions for non-UN missions and are not convinced that a support office would be more effective than bilateral military support for the FC-G5S.
At the time of this writing, members had just finished negotiating the mandate renewal of MINUSMA. France, the penholder on Mali, proposed an approximate 2,000-person increase in the mission’s troop ceiling, which currently stands at 13,289 military and 1,920 police personnel, to improve its ability to protect civilians from terrorist groups and inter-communal violence in Mali’s central region. While the proposal was not accepted, Council members may take up the this issue again in July as the new MINUSMA resolution requests the Secretary-General to produce a report by 15 July with recommendations on the mission’s force level.
Ireland and Niger are the co-penholders on UNOWAS.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WEST AFRICA AND THE SAHEL
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|3 February 2021S/PRST/2021/3||This presidential statement requested the Secretary-General to explore the feasibility of a civilian joint project between UNOWAS and regional organizations, such as the G5, ECOWAS and the African Union, with the aim of stemming and preventing intercommunal violence.|
|Security Council Letter|
|5 May 2021S/2021/434||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 2526.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|8 June 2021SC/14545||This press statement condemned the attacks on 4 and 5 June in the administrative region of the Sahel in Burkina Faso that killed over 100 civilians.|