What's In Blue

Posted Fri 13 Dec 2019

West Africa and the Sahel: Briefing on Intercommunal Violence and Terrorism

On Monday (16 December), the Security Council will hold a briefing on intercommunal violence and terrorism in West Africa. Briefings are expected by Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Mohamed Ibn Chambas; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission President Jean-Claude Kassi Brau; and AU Peace and Security Commission Commissioner Smaїl Chergui.

The US, this month’s Council president, has organised the meeting with Côte d’Ivoire. A concept note prepared by the presidency says that the purpose of the meeting is to highlight the underlying factors that contribute to intercommunal conflict and violent extremism throughout West Africa, and identify ways the Council can address the root causes. It notes that the Council has so far only discussed extremism and intercommunal conflict separately, or in the context of specific situations in West Africa such as the Sahel. It suggests the Council should discuss the “shared drivers of intercommunal violence and violent extremism” such as escalating conflicts between farmers and nomadic herders; limited access to land resources and resulting economic migration; damaged state legitimacy and large ungoverned spaces; gender inequality; and human rights violations and abuses by security forces.

In addition to the deteriorating security situation in the Sahel and concerns about the risks of terrorism in West Africa more broadly, there has been rising intercommunal violence in the region. In Mali and Burkina Faso, extremist groups have exploited socio-economic and political grievances to recruit from the ethnic Fulani population. Violence by terrorist groups has led to retaliatory attacks against communities associated with the groups, while the withdrawal of the state has led to the formation of self-defence militias, often along ethnic lines. The concept note flags such dynamics, and highlights the linkage to poor governance, among the inter-related factors driving these problems. Nigeria, as another example, has seen an increase in herder-farmer conflicts as pastoralists migrate further south, including into Nigeria’s more humid zones. According to the International Crisis Group, intercommunal herder-farmer violence centred around Nigeria’s Middle Belt killed 1,200 people in the first six months of 2018—roughly six times the number of civilians killed by Boko Haram in the same period—while displacing 300,000 people.

Chambas has described herder-farmer conflicts as “increasingly a major security threat in the region”. An August 2018 Security Council presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel expressed “concern for increased tensions between pastoralists and farmers in the region, driven by competition for natural resources, rapid population growth, weak governance, pressures related to climate and ecological factors, and the circulation of small arms and light weapons”.

In addition, the concept note suggests, “It is time for the Security Council to take a holistic and inclusive approach to addressing the drivers of conflict in the region and develop solutions to prevent conflict”. It encourages Council members to consider the following questions:

  • How has the lack of development, governmental services, limited access to resources, and political representation contributed to instability and triggered conflict? How can we create a broader agenda of prevention to avoid conflict in the first place?
  • What are the underlying causes that contribute to intercommunal violence and violent extremism? (These include, for example, the role of security forces, the spread of small arms and weapons, corruption, and the influence of drug money). How can the UN and the Security Council develop sustainable responses to terrorism that do not exacerbate existing tensions?
  • How can the UN structure its post-conflict work, particularly when it comes to peacekeeping missions or assistance to state institutions, to mitigate violent extremism? What best practices can states share for promoting intercommunal dialogue and cooperation in states affected by conflict, and for ensuring civil society, including youth and women, are meaningfully included in such efforts?

In the concept note, members are likely to identify root causes, including demographic pressures and climate change, as well as the proliferation of weapons, including those emanating from the Libya conflict. They may also identify UN agency programmes and government policies that could be replicated more widely across the region.

Members may refer to regional security initiatives, while noting that fighting terrorism and addressing violence also require promoting intercommunal dialogue, improving national and local governance, and economic and social development. An August 2018 UNOWAS study on pastoral-related violence highlighted the need for a cross-pillar approach, and International Crisis Group recommended reducing herder-farmer violence in Nigeria through more responsive policing but also through measures such as national planning and government regulatory legislation.

The Council meeting may build on recent discussions in other UN forums. On 3 December, a joint meeting of the Economic and Social Council and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) was held on transhumance in West Africa and the Sahel. The next day the PBC had its annual session, which focused on West Africa and the Sahel.

Monday’s session could contribute to Council members’ consideration of recommendations from the recent independent strategic review on UNOWAS and on the mandate renewal of the mission. The Council is expected to renew the mission’s mandate by the end of the year for three years, through an exchange of letters with the Secretary-General, as is the practice.

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