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. Also expected to brief is the chair of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) Ambassador Rabab Fatima (Bangladesh), who will be leaving this role later in the month to be UN High Representative for Least Developed, Landlocked Countries, and Small Island Developing States.
Key Recent Developments
In January, Burkina Faso became the region’s most recent country to experience a coup d’état. Amid rising public anger over insecurity caused by Al-Qaida and Islamic State-affiliated groups, soldiers from the previously unknown Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration (MPSR) deposed Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré on 24 January. On 8 February, Security Council members held closed consultations on the situation with Annadif. In a 9 February press statement, Council members expressed serious concern about the unconstitutional change of government in Burkina Faso and their support for regional mediation efforts.
The coup leader, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, was sworn in as transition president on 16 February. On 1 March, Damiba signed a charter outlining a 36-month transition. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) rejected a three-year transition period, demanding that Burkina Faso develop an acceptable transition timetable, and on 25 March threatened to impose sanctions. At an ECOWAS summit in Accra on 4 June, ECOWAS appointed the former president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, as ECOWAS mediator for Burkina Faso.
Violence has intensified in Burkina Faso, despite the military’s ouster of Kaboré. On 11 June, Burkina Faso suffered one of its worst massacres during the seven-year jihadist insurgency when militants killed at least 79 people in the northern town of Seytenga. Previously, on 25 May, about 50 people were killed in Madjoari, eastern Burkina Faso, reportedly by extremist groups.
ECOWAS also continues to lead international efforts to promote the restoration of constitutional order in Mali since the coups d’état in August 2020 and May 2021 and in Guinea after a coup d’état in September 2021. ECOWAS has maintained the economic and financial sanctions it imposed on Mali on 9 January after the transitional authorities failed to comply with the initial 18-month calendar for organising elections that they had agreed with ECOWAS. On 25 March, ECOWAS rejected Mali’s proposal for a two-year extension of the transition, but transitional president Assimi Goïta signed a decree on 6 June extending the transition by this period, with effect from 26 March. While expressing regret over this decision, ECOWAS said its mediator would engage with the Malian authorities to “find a mutually agreed timeline”.
Tensions between Mali’s transitional authorities and France, partly over the authorities’ alleged partnership with the Wagner Group, the Russian private security company, came to a head in February when France and other European countries decided that over the following six months they would withdraw their counter-terrorism operations in Mali, Operation Barkhane and Takuba Task Force. In a 17 February joint statement on the planned departure, France, Canada and 23 other European and African countries said that they would “continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region”, focusing on Niger and West African coastal countries, and that they had begun consultations to determine the form of this cooperation.
On 15 May, Mali announced it was ending its participation in the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) that Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger (G5 Sahel) formed in 2017 to combat terrorist groups in the region. According to transition authorities, Mali was withdrawing from the FC-G5S because, since February, some G5 countries had blocked its assumption of the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel. At the time of writing, Council members were negotiating the mandate renewal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
The military junta in Guinea, whose members have been subject to ECOWAS financial and travel ban sanctions since last year, said it would not enforce the new ECOWAS sanctions on Mali. Guinea’s National Transitional Council, established on 22 January as an interim legislative body, approved a 36-month transition period on 11 May. At its 4 June summit, ECOWAS expressed “serious concern” about tensions between the military junta on the one hand and civil society and the political opposition on the other over the management of the transition. It also said it was concerned about the three-year transition period and demanded the finalisation of an acceptable timetable.
Nigeria is facing multiple security crises. Around 2.2 million Nigerians are internally displaced because of the protracted conflict in the Lake Chad basin with the terrorist group Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State, in the West Africa Province. Banditry and intercommunal violence have driven an emerging food crisis in northwest Nigeria. There has also been heightened concern about terrorist groups increasing their presence and recruitment in northwest Nigeria amid this insecurity.
Concerns continue to grow about the increasing threat that Sahel-based terrorist groups pose to coastal West African states. In an 11 May attack, the Al-Qaida-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims killed eight Togolese soldiers and wounded 13 in an attack on an army post in the town of Kpekankandi in Togo near the border with Burkina Faso. It was the first deadly attack by jihadist groups in Togo.
Overall, violence and rising global food prices are driving a deteriorating humanitarian situation in much of the region. As at 20 May, up to 18 million people in the Sahel are expected to face severe food insecurity over the next three months, according to OCHA, which warned of alarming levels of food insecurity in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, during the lean season between June and August.
The UN, the AU, ECOWAS, and the G5 Sahel have launched a joint strategic assessment of security and governance in the Sahel. Former President Issoufou of Niger is leading the assessment team, which held its inaugural meeting in Niamey on 21 June. On 31 May, the Council adopted resolution 2634 on piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea, which Council members had been negotiating since January. The resolution requests a Secretary-General’s report on Gulf of Guinea piracy within five months, including analysis on any possible and potential linkages with terrorism in West and Central Africa and the Sahel.
Key Issues and Options
Political developments and trends in West Africa and the Sahel region, including concerns about democratic backsliding, are key issues during Council meetings on UNOWAS. ECOWAS is expected to hold its regular ordinary summit on 3 July, during which it will further consider the situations in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.
The threat of terrorism facing the region is another key issue. Intercommunal and herder-farmer conflicts, often aggravated by terrorist groups, and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are other security concerns. There are several regional initiatives to counter terrorism, which include the FC-G5S; the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) fighting the Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin; the Accra Initiative, launched in 2017 by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo to prevent the spillover of terrorism from the Sahel; and the still-developing plans to reconfigure Operation Barkhane and increase cooperation between France, other European countries, Niger and littoral states.
In addition to security responses, a key issue is addressing the structural causes of instability, such as underdevelopment, poor governance, and climate change, through the implementation of the UN’s Sahel Strategy, the G5 Sahel Priority Investment Programme, and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy.
The Security Council may adopt a presidential statement—usually proposed by the UNOWAS penholders following these biannual meetings—that addresses recent developments in the region and reiterates calls for a comprehensive approach to tackle the security, peacebuilding and development challenges of the region.
Council members support UNOWAS’ good offices role. They also recognise the importance of a holistic approach to addressing insecurity in the region, often stressing the need for greater coherence in the activities of the UN system and other regional stakeholders. Despite this, members were not able to agree earlier this year on the traditional presidential statement that the Council usually adopts following its biannual briefings because of disagreement over language related to climate change.
Ghana, as the West African Council member, often champions ECOWAS positions. In the past, the Council has tended to follow ECOWAS’ lead and endorse its positions on political crises in the region, but Council discussion on Mali and the Sahel has become more polarised since the end of last year. Russia and China have not been willing to back some of ECOWAS’ positions on the transition timeline and sanctions on Mali. Russia also apparently softened language in the initial press statement drafted by the A3 (Gabon, Ghana and Kenya) on the coup d’état in Burkina Faso, which kept it from more closely echoing ECOWAS and AU positions on the crisis.
Ghana and Ireland are co-penholders on UNOWAS.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WEST AFRICA AND THE SAHEL
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|17 August 2021S/PRST/2021/16||This presidential statement addressed security trends in the region and expressed concern about deteriorating situations in some countries.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|10 January 2022S/PV.8944||This was a briefing on West Africa and the Sahel and the activities of UNOWAS.|
|Security Council Press Statement|
|9 February 2022SC/14790||This press statement expressed serious concern about the unconstitutional change of government, took note of the decision of ECOWAS and the AU to suspend Burkina Faso, and expressed support for regional mediation efforts.|