What's In Blue

Posted Fri 8 Jul 2016

Briefing and Consultations on West Africa and the Sahel

On Monday (11 July), the Security Council will receive a briefing from Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS). This will be the first Council briefing on West Africa and the Sahel since the decision earlier this year to merge the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA) and the Office of the Special Envoy for the Sahel (OSES), establishing UNOWAS. Chambas’ briefing will be followed by consultations.

The increasing terrorism threat to West Africa and the Sahel is expected to figure prominently in the briefing. As highlighted in the Secretary-General’s latest report (S/2016/566), the “unprecedented terrorist attacks” earlier this year in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, countries that had not previously experienced terrorism, have heightened concerns about this threat to the region. The spread of terrorism in West Africa was already a key concern of members when they visited UNOWAS in March during a Council mission to the region. Less than a week after the Council mission, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for attacks in Grand Bassam, Cote d’Ivoire. In addition, members remain concerned about Boko Haram and the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad Basin, which according to the Secretary-General’s report has displaced more than 2.6 million. They are likely to want to hear Chambas’ latest assessment of efforts to combat the group.

Members will be interested in discussing the good offices activities of the regional office, which they view as having been effective in situations including Burkina Faso, Guinea and Nigeria, as well as in addressing election-related tensions elsewhere in West Africa. Presidential elections will be held later this year in Ghana and The Gambia, countries that Chambas has recently visited because of election-related concerns. In particular, there has been growing concern over the situation in The Gambia, with Chambas participating in a joint mission with ECOWAS, the AU and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights from 4 to 5 May, following the government’s suppression of opposition protests and allegations that several people arrested were later beaten or killed.

Chambas’ briefing and the discussion in the ensuing consultations are expected to cover progress in the merger of the two offices. Following a strategic review of OSES, the Secretary-General presented three options to the Council in January on future institutional arrangements for the office: retaining OSES in its current set-up; relocating it to Nouakchott; or merging it with UNOWA. The Secretary-General recommended a “light” merger with UNOWA (S/2016/88), whereby existing capacity of OSES to support the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) would be largely retained, though all reporting would go through his Special Representative and head of the regional office.

In response, the Council requested the Secretary-General to proceed with a merger, “with the view to maximizing synergies by ensuring a unified management and structure of the UNOWAS” (S/2016/489). This language, proposed by the US, signalled the Council’s preference for a full merger, which could eliminate redundancies between the two offices and enable streamlining of good offices efforts and costs. Following the decision, Chambas assumed the role of Special Representative and head of UNOWAS and former Special Envoy for the Sahel Hiroute Guebre Sellassie became Deputy Special Representative. In accordance with the Secretary-General’s recommendations in the strategic review of OSES, a UNOWAS liaison cell has been established in Nouakchott to coordinate implementation of the UNISS with the Group of Five for the Sahel, comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The decision to merge the offices has been sensitive as these countries preferred relocating OSES to Nouakchott, and have concerns that merger would reduce the Council’s focus on the Sahel.

The Department of Political Affairs is now commissioning an independent evaluation of the UNISS, which is envisioned to start in mid-July. The UNISS aims to ensure coordination, and provide strategic guidance and advocacy to the work of the UN system and external partners in addressing structural underlying causes of instability in the Sahel. The evaluation is being undertaken in response to the Council’s call when it requested the merger for further progress toward implementing the UNISS, and based on concerns raised by Sahel countries and UN entities regarding gaps in the strategy. The elements to be reviewed include the continued relevance of the design, scope and focus of the strategy in light of new developments, and the evaluation is expected to recommend areas of support that should be prioritised. Members are likely to want to know how the merger is progressing, and if there have been any difficulties. They may be interested in preparations for the UNISS evaluation and stress that it be completed with time to inform the revised mandate of UNOWAS, which must be renewed by the end of the year.

Among other cross-border and transnational threats that members may raise are recurring issues such as organised crime, drug trafficking and piracy, as well as newer trends such as migration/human trafficking and violent extremism. Some members may be interested in Chambas’ perspective on security and political developments in Mali, which is seen along with Libya as a key source of instability in the region, especially in light of the terrorism trend.

Update: Presidential Statement on West Africa and the Sahel

The day after the meeting (12 July), Senegal circulated a draft press statement, which covered the range of issues discussed during the briefing and consultations (S/PV.7735). Due to the length of the draft, several members suggested that Senegal elevate the text to a presidential statement, which Senegal agreed to. After receiving comments from members, the draft presidential statement was placed under a silence procedure until 15 July. Several silence periods on the draft were broken until a revised version passed silence on 27 July. The statement was adopted on 28 July (S/PRST/2016/11)

The main issue was over language on The Gambia. Russia broke the initial silence procedure, expressing concerns over the level of detail in the draft regarding The Gambia, in particular the references to the human rights situation. Russia felt that such country-specific detail in a document with a regional focus was not appropriate, especially since The Gambia was not on the Council agenda. Russia also noted that as a presidential statement, this was a decision of the Council and should not simply be a reflection of the Council’s discussions. It seems that China and Egypt expressed similar concerns. The P3 and other members, however, argued that The Gambia falls within the mandate of UNOWAS, especially in light of its upcoming elections, and had comprised an important part of Chambas’ briefing and recent engagement. It was further argued that since UNOWAS has a conflict prevention mandate, it was appropriate that the statement reflect concerns over this situation.

A revised presidential statement was placed under silence procedure on 18 July. It removed an explicit reference to the human rights situation in The Gambia, noting instead the communiqué issued at ECOWAS’ June 2016 summit, which commended an agreement among The Gambia’s political stakeholders to initiate reforms to ensure free elections and urged security forces to refrain from excessive force against citizens. However, the US broke silence, still seeking a more explicit reference to human rights. Discussions continued. This led to the final version of the text in which language was added that has the Council also take note of the statements by relevant AU organs and the UN on the events of 14 and 16 April 2016 in The Gambia. [The events of 14 and 16 April are described in the What’s in Blue story above.]

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