West Africa and the Sahel: Presidential Statement*
Tomorrow (3 February), the Security Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel. Ireland and Niger, the co-penholders for West Africa and the Sahel, proposed the statement following Council members’ 11 January briefing with Special Representative and head of the UN Office of West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Mohamed Ibn Chambas on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the region and the activities of UNOWAS. They shared a first draft of the text on 19 January, and, following members’ comments, circulated a revised text on 25 January. The draft was put under silence on Wednesday evening (27 January). The silence procedure, which was extended several times, was broken yesterday morning (1 February) by Russia. Agreement on the statement was reached later in the day.
The draft presidential statement covers the range of security issues facing the region, in line with the Council’s previous presidential statements on UNOWAS. On the COVID-19 pandemic, the draft statement says that the pandemic, including its second wave, has further exacerbated existing conflict drivers, caused severe socioeconomic, political and security repercussions, and worsened the humanitarian situation in the region. Calling for continued support and enhanced cooperation to respond to the pandemic, the draft statement says this should include “equal and affordable access to the vaccine as well as essential health services”. The draft statement also calls for action to prevent the pandemic’s harmful effects on the right of every child to education, including through the use of “accessible and inclusive distance-learning solutions to close the digital gap”.
A new stand-alone paragraph on education has also been added, which reaffirms the need to ensure access to education and its contribution to the achievement of peace and security in the region. It condemns attacks against schools and reiterates concerns at the closure of schools in situations of armed conflict—the Secretary-General’s 24 December 2020 report highlighted, in particular, that violence in Burkina Faso continues to keep 2,200 schools closed, depriving nearly 350,000 children of access to education. The draft presidential statement condemns the 11 December 2020 kidnapping of over 300 children in Katsina State, Nigeria, whose release was secured a week later.
In addition, the draft condemns two of the region’s deadlier terrorist attacks in recent months: the 2 January attacks on several villages in southwestern Niger that reportedly killed over a hundred civilians, and the 28 November 2020 attacks in Borno State, Nigeria, where Boko Haram reportedly killed 78 rice farmers.
In the draft statement, the Security Council welcomes presidential and legislative elections held in 2020 in West Africa and the Sahel. The draft statement notes that most of these elections were peaceful; however, it condemns incidents of election-related violence. In this latter context, the Council “calls on all political stakeholders to further advance national political dialogue and to take concrete steps to allow sustainable reconciliation”. There were differences among members over how to characterise the elections, with some preferring more positive language, and others believing that the Council should acknowledge the violence that marred the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. The final text reflects an effort to balance these positions.
Russia broke silence over two changes that had been made to the paragraph on climate change. The draft statement first placed under silence recognised the adverse effects of climate change, ecological changes and natural disasters on the stability and security of the region. Russia wanted to maintain previously-used language, deleting what was a new reference to “security”. It also requested maintaining agreed language calling for long-term strategies, based on comprehensive risk assessments, to support stabilisation and building resilience, by deleting the phrase, “to address these effects”. The updated text accommodates these requests. In a small change to this paragraph from the February and July 2020 presidential statements, a reference to “energy poverty” has been dropped: this was language that the US introduced last year, and often proposed in other Council products referencing climate change.
During the statement’s preparation, apparently there were also differences over how to address gender-related issues. A new paragraph emphasises the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in peacebuilding and in post-conflict situations; similar language was included in a paragraph in last July’s UNOWAS presidential statement about addressing underlying causes of the terrorism threat and inter-communal violence. The statement commends West African countries’ efforts to advance women’s political participation, and flags the recent appointment of Togo’s female prime minister. Elsewhere, there is new language on providing “comprehensive healthcare and services” for survivors of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations; this replaced last year’s text that called for “holistic care”, in order to more explicitly convey the idea of including women’s reproductive health services.
The draft presidential statement addresses the closure of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) at the end of last year, welcoming UNOWAS’ assumption of the good offices functions of UNIOGBIS and requesting that the next Secretary-General’s report cover progress in implementing Guinea-Bissau’s reform agenda and progress in the UN transition.
A reference to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been added, after not being mentioned in the last two UNOWAS presidential statements. During last month’s briefing, Chambas observed that 90 percent of all international incidents of maritime piracy and hijackings occur in the Gulf of Guinea, which the Secretary-General’s report said “remained a piracy hotspot”. The draft statement expresses concern that piracy and armed robbery in the Gulf of Guinea threaten international navigation, security and development in the region, and welcomes the work of UNOWAS on regional cooperation in response.
On the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force that have AU mandates to fight terrorist groups in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, the draft statement welcomes the leadership of regional countries, the AU and the Economic Community of West African States in spearheading such initiatives. It also welcomes and “looks forward to” the plan to deploy an AU-led force in the Sahel. The language on looking forward to this initiative was apparently added at the suggestion of the US, as there does not seem to have been much progress in the force’s establishment since the AU announced the plan a year ago.
Another new element is a request for the Secretary-General to explore the feasibility of a joint project between UNOWAS and relevant regional organisations to stem intercommunal violence, with possible support from development partners such as the World Bank. The upcoming Secretary-General’s report should present concrete options for such a project, according to the draft statement. The draft statement also calls for more detailed reporting on the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and the UN Support Plan for the Sahel, while welcoming last month’s appointment of Abdoulaye Mar Dieye as the UN Special Coordinator for development in the Sahel, which should “boost” their implementation, according to the statement.
Finally, negotiations also involved efforts to streamline early versions of text, as some members observed that the proposed statement, which has been a regular product of the Council following most briefings on UNOWAS since July 2016, was too long. This resulted in the consolidation of some paragraphs and slight shortening of the text compared to earlier iterations.
*Post-script: On 3 February, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement (S/PRST/2021/3), requesting the Secretary-General to explore the feasibility of a civilian joint project between UNOWAS and regional organizations, such as the G5, ECOWAS and the African Union, with the aim of stemming and preventing intercommunal violence.