What's In Blue

Posted Fri 8 Jan 2021

West Africa and the Sahel: Briefing and Consultations via VTC

On Monday (11 January), the Security Council will receive a videoconference (VTC) briefing, followed by VTC consultations, by Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who will present the Secretary-General’s 24 December 2020 report on West Africa and the Sahel. As has become a regular practice with the semi-annual UNOWAS briefings, a presidential statement is being prepared and will be proposed for adoption later this month by co-penholders Ireland and Niger.

At tomorrow’s briefing, Chambas may underscore the increasing complexity of the security situation in West Africa and the Sahel. Activities of terrorist groups have “increasingly become intertwined with intercommunity and farmer-herder conflict, compounding a precarious security situation and acute humanitarian needs in large parts of the Sahel”, according to the Secretary-General’s report. Chambas is likely to mention the attacks on 2 January in which militants killed over 100 civilians in southwestern Niger, near the border with Mali. News reports have characterised these as “revenge attacks”, following the killing of three militants in the area in December.

The report also underlines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region in exacerbating existing conflict drivers and fuelling extremist groups’ narratives that blame governments for the negative effects of the health crisis—a point that the Secretary-General has previously highlighted about the region. Though cases and fatalities in the region have proven relatively low, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a severe economic slowdown that, along with climatic conditions, has also worsened the humanitarian situation. According to the report, the region appears to be “plunging into a recession” that risks undermining progress in the sustainable development goals, with Nigeria, Cape Verde and Liberia most affected by negative GDP projections. Chambas could note how economic pressures are affecting regional efforts to tackle insecurity.

Regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the sub-region, 31 million people require life-saving assistance—an increase of seven million compared with the beginning of 2020—due to escalating conflict, extreme weather patterns and the pandemic. This includes the crisis in north-east Nigeria, where 10.6 million people need assistance (up from 7.7 million at the start of 2020), two million people are internally displaced, and 256,000 Nigerian refugees have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as a result of the more than decade-long insurgency by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

During his briefing, Chambas is likely to talk about recent presidential elections that were held in the sub-region, including in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, where Presidents Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara, respectively, ran for controversial third terms. Tensions in the aftermath of the 18 October 2020 election in Guinea, which Condé won, triggered clashes across the country, resulting in the deaths of at least 27 civilians, according to the Secretary-General’s report. In Côte d’Ivoire, electoral violence resulted in at least 85 fatalities and 484 injured in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 31 October poll, which Ouattara won. Chambas has worked with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU to promote dialogue in both countries between the government and opposition.

Presidential elections were also held in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger. The 22 November 2020 presidential and legislative elections in Burkina Faso, resulting in President Marc Christian Kaboré’s re-election, were organised amid an insurgency by terrorist groups, which has displaced over a million people. While held in a “largely calm environment”, according to the Secretary-General’s report, insecurity prevented about seven per cent of the electorate from voting. Niger, also facing insecurity fueled by terrorist groups, held its presidential election on 27 December 2020. A run-off election is now scheduled for 21 February between the ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum and former president Mahamane Ousmane. Chambas could note that in 2021 presidential elections are to be held in Benin, Cape Verde and the Gambia.

Chambas is also likely to refer to the closure on 31 December 2020 of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) that, along with its predecessor mission, had been present in Guinea-Bissau since 1999. As mentioned in the Secretary-General’s report, the political situation remains tense, in particular over the two parallel and competing constitutional review processes established by the parliament and the president. Chambas may note that UNOWAS will take over the UNIOGBIS good office functions, and maintain collaboration with ECOWAS and the UN country team.

Members view positively the good offices activities of Chambas and of UNOWAS’ conflict prevention role. They are likely to commend the mission’s role during recent electoral crises, and reiterate calls for dialogue and reconciliation, especially in light of upcoming legislative elections in Côte d’Ivoire. Members are likely to take note of the end of UNIOGBIS, and the good offices role that UNOWAS will take on in Guinea-Bissau, and could ask to be kept updated on developments. The consultations may provide members an opportunity to ask for more details about his mediation and ongoing engagements across the sub-region.

Members are likely to express condolences about the recent deadly attack in Niger, amid the ongoing violence afflicting Sahelian countries and the Lake Chad basin region. Some members may also underscore their concerns about attacks against schools, particularly in light of the 11 December 2020 kidnapping of over 300 schoolboys in the north-western Katsina State, Nigeria. The boys were subsequently released, though details about the perpetrators of the attack remain unclear. The Secretary-General’s report mentions that cooperation between bandits and Boko Haram has been observed across several northern states.

On the humanitarian situation, Council members could emphasise the need to provide the region with support to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including for access to vaccines. More broadly, Council members are likely to reiterate the importance of complementing security initiatives with efforts that address root causes of instability—such as underdevelopment, poor governance and climate change—through the UN’s Sahel Strategy (UNISS), the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) Priority Investment Programme, and the Lake Chad Basin regional stabilisation strategy.

Some members may recall UNOWAS’ valuable role in support of institution and capacity building. The mission is also responsible for supporting, through political advocacy and convening, the UNISS, enhancing UN system collaboration and promoting coherent international responses to address structural fragilities. Chambas may mention the Secretary-General’s appointment, announced yesterday, of Abdoulaye Mar Dieye of Senegal as Special Coordinator for development in the Sahel, who will “lead collective efforts, including financing, to implement the UNISS and its Support Plan for a scaled-up United Nations development response for the Sahel, drawing on all the United Nations’ assets in the region, engaging and supporting efforts of the G5 Sahel, the Sahel-Alliance, the Ministerial Coordination Platform, the ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank”.

Next week, the Council is scheduled to hold its quarterly briefing and consultations on the situation in Mali and the activities of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Much of the discussion will focus on the political transition arrangements that have been established to prepare for elections in 2022, following the coup d’état this past August.