West Africa and the Sahel
Expected Council Action
In January 2024, 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
On 26 July 2023, soldiers from Niger’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum, conducting the fourth coup d’état among member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) since 2020. Niger’s coup perpetrators formed the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Homeland (CNSP) and declared that they overthrew Bazoum because of the “continuing degradation of the security situation and poor economic and social governance”. General Abdourahmane Tchiani of the presidential guard was soon named leader of the CNSP. Unlike neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which saw years of worsening terrorist violence before their recent coups, the situation in Niger had appeared to be improving as fatalities from violence had been declining since 2021. Some reports suggested that Bazoum had been planning to dismiss Tchiani ahead of the coup.
ECOWAS and the West African Monetary and Economic Union imposed sanctions on Niger, and ECOWAS threatened the use of force if Bazoum were not restored to office. At a 10 August 2023 summit, ECOWAS announced that it was immediately activating the ECOWAS Standby Force to restore constitutional order in Niger.
On 16 September 2023, the military juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger signed the Liptako-Gourma Charter, creating the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) as an architecture of collective defence and mutual assistance. The three countries committed to combatting all forms of terrorism and organised crime in their common area, as well as armed rebellion or other threats to their territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to the charter, any violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one AES member will be considered an act of aggression against all members, who are obligated to assist one another.
On 2 December 2023, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal from the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel). Mali had already withdrawn from the bloc, which was established in 2014 and in 2017 created the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) to combat terrorist groups and organised crime. Chad and Mauritania, the remaining G5 Sahel countries, suggested on 6 December that they were prepared to dissolve the alliance, which according to its founding convention can be terminated at the request of at least three of its member states.
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been withdrawing from Mali, with the objective of completing the process by 31 December 2023 in accordance with resolution 2690 of 30 June 2023, which terminated MINUSMA’s mandate. The Council decided to end MINUSMA after Mali requested the mission’s immediate departure on 16 June 2023. As at 11 December, MINUSMA had withdrawn 10,754 peacekeeping personnel out of 13,871. An 18-month liquidation period to repatriate remaining equipment is projected, according to an 18 August 2023 Secretary-General’s letter.
The withdrawal has occurred amid the outbreak of hostilities between Malian forces, backed by the Russian security company the Wagner Group, and former separatist groups in the north. Host country restrictions on MINUSMA, which have included preventing the mission’s use of surveillance and reconnaissance flights, have also complicated the withdrawal. Forty-five peacekeepers were injured by improvised explosive devices and, in one instance, small arms fire and shelling, while traveling in convoys after vacating bases in northern Mali. On 14 November, Mali and Wagner Group forces captured Kidal city, the stronghold of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which is one of the signatory movements of Mali’s 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.
On 26 November 2023, Sierra Leone repelled an attempted coup d’état after assailants broke into an armoury at a military base near the home of President Julius Maada Bio and then freed 1,890 inmates from a prison in Freetown. At least 19 people, including 13 soldiers, died in the violence. The coup attempt followed Bio’s re-election in June 2023 after a disputed vote about which international observers and the US raised concerns because of a lack of transparency in the counting process. On 1 August 2023, authorities in Sierra Leone announced the arrest of several senior military officers for allegedly planning to use protests “to undermine peace”.
On 1 December 2023, fighting broke out in the capital of Guinea-Bissau between members of the Presidential Palace Battalion and the National Guard. The National Guard, which is under the Ministry of the Interior, freed two government ministers who had been arrested for corruption, prompting the gun battle. President Umaro Sissoco Embaló described the shootout as an attempted coup d’état and dissolved the opposition-dominated parliament on 4 December.
At a 10 December 2023 summit of ECOWAS heads of state and government in Abuja, Nigeria, West African leaders announced the formation of a heads of state committee to engage with the CNSP of Niger to agree on a short-term transition roadmap for restoring constitutional order. ECOWAS said it would progressively ease its sanctions, contingent on the CNSP’s engagement with the committee. West African leaders also directed the ECOWAS Commission to facilitate the deployment of an ECOWAS security mission to Sierra Leone to help stabilise the country. They deplored the unilateral decisions taken by authorities in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali on the implementation of political transitions agreed with ECOWAS and requested the “Troika” (the presidents of Benin, Guinea-Bissau, and Nigeria) to re-engage the three countries on their transition programmes. West African leaders further “reject[ed] all forms of alliances that seek to divide the region and promote foreign interest in the region,” according to the summit communiqué.
Liberia’s incumbent president George Weah conceded defeat to challenger Joseph Boakai in a second round run-off election held on 14 November 2023. Senegal is preparing to hold presidential elections in February 2024. Popular opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko—who has faced multiple charges of libel and rape—was sentenced to a two-year jail term in June, which triggered deadly violence. Since his imprisonment, Sonko has been hospitalised due to a hunger strike. On 14 December, a court ordered that he be reinstated on the electoral register for the February election, from which he had been barred after his conviction.
Key Issues and Options
The threat posed by terrorism to West Africa and the Sahel region remains a key issue. This includes the risk of Sahel-based terrorist groups expanding into coastal West African states, and the impact of the security vacuum being created by the withdrawal of MINUSMA. At its 10 December 2023 summit, the ECOWAS heads of state instructed the ECOWAS Commission urgently to resume efforts to activate the ECOWAS Standby Force to carry out counter-terrorism operations and for the Commission to intensify collaboration with sub-regional counter-terrorism initiatives, such as the Accra Initiative and the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad basin.
Another key issue is how to support ECOWAS’ efforts in restoring constitutional order in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger. The surge in attempted coups in the region is a further issue of concern. A related key issue is the promotion of good governance, both to staunch the rise in coups and to address underlying drivers of conflict in the region.
Another key issue for Council members is how the Council can continue its engagement with the Sahel after MINUSMA’s withdrawal, the termination in August of the Mali sanctions regime, and the end of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The Secretary-General recommended in a 10 November 2023 letter ending the UN’s reporting obligations on the FC-G5S, given that MINUSMA had stopped providing operational and logistical support for the joint force, which had been the basis for these biannual reports. There also continue to be questions about residual responsibilities, particularly the role of good offices, that UNOWAS could assume in Mali following MINUSMA’s departure. Malian authorities apparently have rejected any role for UNOWAS related to the now seriously undermined 2015 peace and reconciliation agreement.
One option that Council members have been considering is to request UNOWAS to provide two additional annual reports focused on developments in the Sahel and different security mechanisms. Another potential avenue to stay informed on the situation in Mali is through the request in resolution 2594 on UN transitions (September 2021) for the Secretary-General to “provide updates on the status of transitions across relevant United Nations peace operations, including those that have transitioned within the previous twenty four months”. The resolution adds that such updates should include information “from relevant Resident Coordinators and United Nations Country Teams as well as the view of the Peacebuilding Commission in his comprehensive annual briefing mandated by the Security Council under its resolution 2378”.
Council members could also resume negotiations on a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel, which the Council traditionally adopted following UNOWAS briefings starting in July 2016 but which members have been unable to agree to in the past two years. Such a statement could underscore the importance of restoring constitutional order in regional countries under transition, encourage cooperation among 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, as well as express support for Simão, who was appointed head of UNOWAS in May 2023.
One option for breaking the impasse on the draft presidential statement, blocked because of disagreement over climate security language, is to convert the text to a draft resolution, which does not require consensus for adoption. Another option is to remove the reference to the impact of climate change on “security”, and only note the impact on “stability” in the region.
Council discussion on the region has become increasingly polarised since the deployment of the Wagner Group to Mali in late 2021 and Russia’s growing bilateral military cooperation with AES states. Most recently, Russia and Niger agreed to strengthen their military cooperation during the visit of a Russian delegation to Niamey on 4 December 2023, the same day that Niger decided to terminate cooperation agreements with the EU. In August, Russia vetoed a draft resolution to renew the Mali sanctions regime.
Council members have long valued the good offices role of UNOWAS, especially in responding to electoral tensions and other political crises. Despite their support for the special political mission, members have not been able to agree for the past two years on what had been a customary presidential statement following UNOWAS briefings. The main source of disagreement has been over the text’s climate security language. The Council’s August 2021 presidential statement contained a reference to the impact of climate change on the region’s security and stability, but since then, several Council members, including China and Russia, have opposed maintaining the “security” reference.
Members have also been considering how the Council can remain engaged on developments in the Sahel, given the end of its reporting cycles on Mali and the FC-G5S. While it seems that most members supported a French proposal in November 2023 for UNOWAS to provide two additional annual reports focused on the Sahel, Russia has contended that it is not a good idea to separate reporting on the Sahel from the broader West African context, given the interrelated challenges, and has further suggested that the Council can still meet on the Sahel should circumstances in the region warrant its attention.
Sierra Leone, which replaces elected member Ghana on 1 January 2024, will serve as co-penholder with Switzerland on UNOWAS. For press statements on coups d’état in Burkina Faso and Niger since 2022, the Council’s three African members, known as the A3, were the penholders. Algeria also joins the Council on 1 January. It has led international mediation on the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in Mali.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WEST AFRICA AND THE SAHEL
|Security Council Meeting Record
|25 July 2023S/PV.9384
|This was a briefing on West Africa and the Sahel.
|Security Council Press Statement
|28 July 2023SC/15372
|This press statement strongly condemned the efforts to unconstitutionally change the legitimate Government of Niger on 26 July, and expressed support for the efforts of the ECOWAS and the AU, as well as the UN.