July 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 30 June 2024
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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 remains dire in parts of the Sahel, particularly the Liptako-Gourma tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The three countries, led by military juntas that came to power through coups d’état, created the Alliance of Sahel States or l’Alliance des États du Sahel (AES) in September 2023. In November 2023, Burkina Faso and Niger quit the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), which they had formed in 2017 with Chad, Mali, and Mauritania to combat terrorism and organised crime; Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel in June 2022. The three AES countries later announced on 7 March that they were creating a new joint force to fight terrorist groups.

AES countries announced on 28 January that they were withdrawing from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the decision reflected deteriorating relations between the three countries and ECOWAS in recent years as the regional bloc sought to pressure military authorities to restore constitutional order. At a 24 February ECOWAS summit, West African leaders lifted economic sanctions that the regional bloc had imposed on Niger after its July 2023 coup d’état and eased sanctions on Mali, saying that it would seek to convince the three countries to remain in the organisation.

At the same time, Russia has continued to increase its military cooperation with AES states. About 100 personnel of Africa Corps—the successor entity to the private Russian security firm the Wagner Group—deployed to Burkina Faso on 24 January. After Niger requested that US forces leave the country on 16 March, Russian forces arrived in Niamey on 10 April.

Burkina Faso is the epicentre of jihadist violence afflicting the region. Roughly half of its territory is outside the authorities’ control, and over two million people are displaced. Last year, more than 8,000 people were killed in the fighting, double the number of people killed in 2022, according to the US-based crisis-monitoring group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. On 11 June, militants attacked an army base in the town of Mansila, killing over 100 soldiers and capturing others. An Al-Qaida affiliate, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), claimed responsibility. A day after the attack, rumours surfaced of an attempted mutiny following reports of a rocket hitting the parking area of state TV Radiotélévision Burkinabé in the capital, Ouagadougou. Subsequently, 80 to 120 Malian and Russian soldiers arrived in Burkina Faso from Gao, Mali. Reports suggest that they may have been deployed to protect transition president Captain Ibrahim Traoré from a possible coup attempt. Earlier on 25 May, participants in a national forum—which most political parties boycotted—signed a charter extending Burkina Faso’s transition by an additional five years, starting on 2 July 2024.

On 25 January,  Malian authorities announced the “immediate termination” of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. In its place, they established an “inter-Malian dialogue for peace and national reconciliation”. The dialogue, boycotted by much of the country’s opposition, concluded on 10 May. It recommended that Mali’s transition be extended by another three years, until 2027. On the security front, it advised the authorities to consider talks with Islamist armed groups and to engage with all Malian armed movements. Meanwhile, authorities have cracked down further on domestic criticism. This includes the banning in April of political parties and activities, followed by a ban on media coverage of political activities.

Benin and Niger have been in a dispute ever since ECOWAS lifted sanctions on Niger. In retaliation for supporting closed borders, Niger refused to open its borders with Benin, depriving the country of transit revenue. Benin is one of several coastal countries—along with Togo and Côte d’Ivoire—that have come under attack from Sahel-based jihadist groups in their northern border region with Burkina Faso. On 4 June, militants killed seven Beninese soldiers in Pendjari National Park. In response to the terrorism threat to coastal countries, ECOWAS heads of state at the 24 February summit expressed their aspiration to make the Accra Initiative and its multinational joint task force fully operational and reiterated their intention to deploy the ECOWAS Standby Force.

In other developments, Senegal held its presidential election on 24 March. Controversy marred the run-up to the election amid concerns that outgoing President Macky Sall would seek a third term or try to prolong his stay in office. After a backlash against the government’s postponing the race from February until December, authorities moved up the date of the election, which saw Bassirou Diomaye Faye defeat Sall’s ruling party candidate. Faye named Ousmane Sonko prime minister; Sonko’s disqualification from the race had been another source of tension.

On 24 May, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel. It was the Council’s first presidential statement on the region since August 2021, as negotiations stalled for more than two years over language on the link between climate change and security. The presidential statement highlighted the importance of addressing the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism; reaffirmed that states must ensure that counter-terrorism measures comply with all their obligations under international law; and underscored the importance of timely, nationally owned transition processes and the restoration of constitutional order in concerned countries. (For more information on the statement, see our 23 May What’s in Blue story.)

On 19 June, Sierra Leone convened an Arria-formula meeting on “Combating the Rise of Terrorism and Violent Extremism in West Africa and the Sahel”, which sought to spotlight the terrorism threat in the Sahel and the increasing risks to coastal West African states. Discussion included focusing on how to intensify efforts to address the root causes that make the region vulnerable to terrorism, such as poverty, the marginalisation of different groups, and poor governance.

Key Issues and Options

The terrorism threat to West Africa and the Sahel region remains a key issue. This includes the risk that Sahel-based terrorist groups will expand into coastal West African states. How the Council might support other counter-terrorism security mechanisms—such as the AES, the Accra Initiative, and the Multinational Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad basin—to counter this threat are key issues.

The political transitions and restoration of constitutional order in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger is another key issue, as is the region’s surge in attempted coups.

Addressing structural conflict drivers in the Sahel, such as poor governance, under-development, and climate change, through the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) or other avenues remains a key issue. The humanitarian situation in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin and violations against civilians by Sahel countries’ militaries also remain significant concerns.

An ongoing issue for the Council is how it can maintain sufficient attention on the region following the ending last year of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Mali sanctions regime, and the Secretary-General’s November 2023 recommendation to end the Secretariat’s reporting requirement on the FC-G5S. Despite the volatile security situation, the biannual UNOWAS reports are now the Council’s main opportunity to consider regional developments. Council members could send a letter to the Secretary-General taking note of his recommendation to end his reporting obligation on the FC-G5S and request that UNOWAS provide an additional third annual report with a focus on the Sahel. Another option is for members to request ad hoc briefings when developments in the Sahel warrant Council attention.

Council Dynamics

Council discussion on West Africa and the Sahel has grown polarised in recent years. The US and European members are concerned about Russia’s growing influence in the region and ties with the military juntas, while Russia supports the views of the AES states in the Council. This has made it difficult for the Council to support ECOWAS positions, of which Sierra Leone is a proponent. As a West African country, Sierra Leone is also among those Council members that believe it is important for the Council to maintain attention to the region, including how it might support regional efforts to prevent terrorist violence from expanding into coastal countries. Elected member Algeria, which brokered the 2015 Mali Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, also known as the Algiers Accord, was seen as a potential bridge between the UN and Mali amid the tensions last year that led Mali’s transitional authorities to demand the end of MINUSMA. Algeria’s relations with Mali have soured, however. Niger’s military authorities also rebuffed Algerian efforts last year to mediate a political transition agreement in that country.

Sierra Leone and Switzerland are co-penholders on UNOWAS.

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Security Council Presidential Statement
24 May 2024S/PRST/2024/3 This presidential statement welcomed the appointment in May 2023 of Special Representative Leonardo Santos Simão; highlighted the importance of addressing the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism; and underscored the importance of the timely, nationally owned transition processes and restoration of constitutional order in concerned regional countries.
Security Council Meeting Record
11 January 2024S/PV.9529 This was a briefing on UNOWAS with Special Representative Leonardo Santos Simão, and Regional Director of the Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin of the Institute for Security Studies, Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni.

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