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), Leonardo Santos Simão, is expected to brief.
Key Recent Developments
The security situation in much of the subregion remains dire, especially in large parts of the Sahel, which endures continued attacks by al-Qaida and Islamic State-affiliated groups and inter-communal fighting. Terrorism from the Sahel increasingly threatens coastal West African countries, notably Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo.
Addressing the Security Council on 16 June, Mali’s Transitional Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye Diop called for the withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) “without delay”. His demand came shortly after the Council had begun negotiations to renew the mission’s mandate and amid tensions between the UN peacekeeping operation and Malian authorities, who have restricted MINUSMA’s movement and objected to its human rights reporting. At the time of writing, Council members were still negotiating how to proceed with MINUSMA’s mandate, which was set to expire on 30 June.
In Burkina Faso, which is facing widespread terrorist violence that has spilled over from Mali, authorities said on 30 May that the government aimed to double the number of volunteers for the civil defence militia (known as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland) to 100,000 as part of transitional President Ibrahim Traoré’s pledge to recapture the territory that terrorist groups have seized since 2015, amounting to 40 percent of the country. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have committed to holding elections next year to restore constitutional order following military coups in 2020 and 2021 in Mali and in 2022 in Burkina, after years of worsening terrorist violence.
The scale of the crisis facing Burkina Faso was depicted in an 8 June OCHA white note to the Council about Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti, which was submitted in accordance with resolution 2417 from May 2018. The resolution requested the Secretary-General to report swiftly to the Council when the “risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity” occurs. According to the white note, nearly 2.2 million people in Burkina Faso, or 10 percent of the population, are acutely food insecure, including 22,500 people facing the risk of starvation. Because of the lean season, these numbers could reach 3.35 million people and 42,700 people, respectively, by August. The white note said that nearly 940,000 people in Burkina are estimated to live in 27 population centres that are either besieged or partially besieged by armed groups, including Dijibo, the capital city of Soum Province, which had 61,000 residents in 2019 and now hosts nearly 270,000 displaced persons.
Nigeria held presidential and legislative elections on 25 February. The Independent National Electoral Commission declared the candidate of the ruling All Progressive Congress party, Bola Tinubu, the winner with 36 percent of the vote but the post-election period was marred by legal challenges to the results. Tinubu took office on 29 May, identifying security as his administration’s “top priority” during his inauguration ceremony. Nigeria faces multiple security crises—the insurgency by remnant groups of Boko Haram, including the Islamic State West Africa Province; banditry in the northwest and north-central regions; herder-farmer conflict; and separatist and other violence in its southeast.
Senegal has seen rising tensions over the potential run by President Macky Sall for a third term and his perceived intolerance towards challengers. On 1 June, a court found opposition leader Ousmane Sonko guilty of “corrupting youth”, though it acquitted him of the charge of rape. Sonko was sentenced to two years in prison, barring him from running in the 2024 presidential election. Protests led to 16 reported deaths during clashes between Sonko’s supporters and the police.
Earlier this year, the Council renewed the mandate of UNOWAS for three years until 31 January 2026 through an exchange of letters with the Secretary-General. UNOWAS’ mandate remains organised around four objectives: monitoring political developments and good offices; enhancing regional and subregional partnerships to address cross-border and cross-cutting threats; supporting, through political advocacy and convening, implementation of the UN’s Sahel Strategy; and promoting good governance, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and the integration of gender in conflict prevention, management and resolution.
On 2 May, Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Leonardo Santos Simão of Mozambique as his new Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel and head of UNOWAS, and Chairman of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission. Santos replaces Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh, who ended his assignment on 19 October 2022 after being named foreign minister in the transitional government of Chad.
Peacebuilding Commission-Related Developments
Ahead of the Council’s 10 January briefing on West Africa and the Sahel, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) submitted written advice to the Council. The PBC recalled, among other issues, the need to strengthen institutions of democracy and good governance in countries undergoing transitions; underscored the importance of inclusive political dialogue in the lead-up to elections that will be held across the region in 2023; and reiterated the need to address the adverse effects of climate change. The PBC also submitted written advice to the Council for its 16 May briefing on the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Joint Force, created to combat terrorist groups in the Sahel.
From 14 to 16 February, the Chair of the PBC’s Guinea-Bissau country configuration, Ambassador Ronaldo Costa Filho (Brazil), visited Guinea-Bissau, accompanied by the Officer-in-Charge, Head of Mission and Deputy Special Representative of UNOWAS, Giovanie Biha, and Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support Elizabeth Spehar. Costa debriefed members of the country configuration on 13 March about his visit, which largely focused on the forthcoming legislative elections in June for the National Assembly after its dissolution by President Umaro Sissoco Embaló in May 2022. On 25 April, the PBC’s Liberia country configuration held a meeting focused on ensuring peaceful and inclusive legislative and presidential elections in Liberia, which are scheduled for 10 October 2023. On 28 April, the PBC discussed The Gambia at a session about transitional justice, which also considered situations in Colombia and Timor-Leste. On 23 June, the PBC convened for a meeting on the Sahel.
Key Issues and Options
The expanding terrorism threat and the evolving security landscape in West Africa and the Sahel is a key issue. The pending departure of MINUSMA risks hastening the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali to the region. The efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with UN support, to restore constitutional order to Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali following the coups d’état in these countries over the past three years are another key issue. An ECOWAS summit to be held in early July is likely to focus on these issues, which may guide Council members’ positions.
With MINUSMA’s likely withdrawal, an emerging issue may be an enhanced role for UNOWAS to support the implementation of Mali’s 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and political transition. Members may consider and make sure that UNOWAS has the resources and capacities for the new demands placed on it over recent years.
Another prominent issue for Council members is how to address the region’s structural conflict drivers, namely weak governance, under-development, and climate change. Such efforts are guided by, for example, the UN’s Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS), the G5 Sahel Priority Investment Programme, and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy.
A future issue for the Council will be how to respond to the strategic assessment of the Sahel being conducted by the Independent High-Level Panel on Security and Development, led by former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou on behalf of the UN, the AU, ECOWAS, and the G5 Sahel. (The G5 Sahel comprises Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger; Mali withdrew from the group in May 2022). The Panel’s report is expected to take stock of the situation and efforts to address the security crisis and to include recommendations such as supporting the Secretary-General’s call for the deployment of an African peace support operation with an enforcement mandate to fight terrorism in the Sahel.
The Security Council may adopt a presidential statement, as is usually proposed by the UNOWAS penholders following these biannual meetings. Such a statement could underscore the importance of restoring constitutional order in regional countries under transition; welcome and encourage further cooperation between states of the region to address security challenges; and reaffirm the need for counter-terrorism efforts to respect international humanitarian and human rights law. A presidential statement could also reiterate calls for a comprehensive approach to tackle the region’s security, peacebuilding, and development challenges.
Council members have long valued the good offices role of UNOWAS. Despite their support for the mission, however, members have not been able to agree for the past year and a half on what had been a customary presidential statement following UNOWAS briefings. Last year, elected member India blocked agreement on the text over its proposed climate security language. It seems that China and Russia have raised similar concerns during the first half of this year after negotiations resumed in January.
More broadly, Council discussion on the region has become increasingly polarised since the deployment of the Wagner Group, a Russian private security company, to Mali in late 2021, which the US and European countries strongly criticise. Ghana is a member of ECOWAS and the Accra Initiative, which was established in 2017 by several coastal West African countries and Burkina Faso to prevent the spillover of terrorism from the Sahel and to address transnational organised crime by strengthening security cooperation. In addition to its concerns about the expanding terrorism threat, Ghana has championed renewed Council engagement on maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea.
Ghana and Switzerland are the penholders on UNOWAS.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WEST AFRICA AND THE SAHEL
|Security Council Letters|
|27 January 2023S/2023/71||This letter took note of the Secretary-General’s recommendations for the mandate renewal of UNOWAS in his 20 January 2023 letter (S/2023/70).|
|20 January 2023S/2023/70||This letter contained the Secretary-General’s proposal for the mandate renewal of UNOWAS.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|10 January 2023S/PV.9238||This was a briefing on West Africa and the Sahel with Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel and Officer-in-Charge of the UN Office of West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Giovanie Biha, and the President of the ECOWAS Commission, Omar Alieu Touray.|