What's In Blue

Posted Mon 24 Jul 2023

West Africa and the Sahel: Briefing and Consultations

On Tuesday (25 July), the Security Council will hold a briefing on West Africa and the Sahel, followed by closed consultations. Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Leonardo Santos Simão, is expected to brief the Council for the first time since his appointment in May as head of the regional office. The President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Omar Alieu Touray, is also expected to brief.

Santos Simão will present the Secretary-General’s report, dated 30 June, on West Africa and the Sahel. This bi-annual report provides an update on political developments, including the political transitions in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, which are expected to hold elections next year to restore constitutional order based on timetables agreed with ECOWAS. The security situation in much of the subregion remains dire, especially in the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso and Mali, which endure insurgencies by al-Qaida and Islamic State-affiliated groups and inter-communal fighting. The violence, coupled with rising food prices, had led to further deterioration in the humanitarian situation, resulting in 37.7 million people in the Sahel requiring humanitarian assistance or protection and forcing the closure of approximately 10,000 schools across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. The terrorism threat continues to expand southward to coastal West African countries, especially Benin and Togo, and has increased the number of refugees in coastal countries.

The planned withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is expected to feature prominently in tomorrow’s meeting. On 30 June, the Council adopted resolution 2690, deciding to end MINUSMA’s mandate and to begin immediately the drawdown and withdrawal of the mission, with the objective of completing this process by 31 December. The Council decision came after Malian transitional authorities requested MINUSMA’s “withdrawal without delay” at a 16 June Council briefing. Despite their concerns that MINUSMA’s departure will create a security vacuum, hastening the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali to the region, Council members understood that the mission could not continue without the host country’s consent.

Tomorrow members are likely to reiterate the importance of a safe and orderly drawdown of MINUSMA and the need for Malian authorities to respect the Status of Forces Agreement; completing the withdrawal in six months will be a challenge, given MINUSMA’s size and the dangerous operating environment. They may discuss with Santos Simão possible ways that UNOWAS could increase its engagement in Mali, particularly through its good offices role. The UN is developing a plan for the transfer of MINUSMA’s tasks that, according to resolution 2690, should consider the possible contribution of the UN Country Team, the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), and other stakeholders, including support for the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. This plan is to be presented to the Council by 15 August. Members may be interested in the Special Representative’s perspective on the resources UNOWAS would require for more in-depth engagement, Mali’s views on a role for the regional office, and what are realistic expectations for UNOWAS, which seemingly cannot replace the on-the-ground monitoring capabilities of the peace agreement that MINUSMA has provided.

Council members are also likely to be interested in the region’s positions on a number of issues. Touray is expected to present the decisions of the ECOWAS Authority taken at a 9 July summit in Bissau. The summit established a presidential commission—consisting of Benin, Guinea-Bissau, and Nigeria—“to propose, within 90 days, a comprehensive response mechanism to the dual developments of the MINUSMA withdrawal and the presence of foreign private armies in the region”, according to its communiqué. On the broader terrorism threat, West African leaders expressed their commitment to provide the necessary financial and technical means for the ECOWAS Action Plan for the Eradication of Terrorism, in particular to activate the ECOWAS Standby Force. They appointed a “High-Level Official”, former Ghanian Ambassador Baba Kamara, to monitor the implementation of counter-terrorism efforts, and agreed to hold an extraordinary summit next month on regional security.

In addition to ECOWAS, coastal states, as described in the Secretary-General’s report, have been seeking to increase security cooperation bilaterally and through the Accra Initiative—established in 2017 to prevent the spillover of the terrorism threat and combat organised crime. While the Multinational Joint Task Force of the Accra Initiative (MNJTF-AI), announced in November 2022, is not yet operational, it has established its headquarters in Tamale, Ghana. The ECOWAS Commission and the secretariat of the Accra Initiative have agreed that actions under the Accra Initiative and the ECOWAS strategy for addressing terrorism and transnational organised crime “should be carried out in synergy”, according to the Secretary-General’s report. An AU Peace and Security Council visiting mission, meanwhile, is currently in Burkina Faso.

Council members may express tomorrow their support for the efforts of regional organisations and initiatives. Some may underscore the need to provide regional mechanisms with operational, logistical, and financial support. They may recall the anticipated strategic assessment report of the Sahel that a high-level panel, led by former Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, is preparing, which is expected to include recommendations for supporting African peace support operations with an enforcement mandate to fight terrorism in the Sahel. Some members may further reaffirm the need for security forces in the region to adhere to international human rights law and humanitarian law during counter-terrorism operations, and call on all concerned countries to thoroughly investigate alleged violations.

ECOWAS, meanwhile, has led international engagement to restore constitutional order in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali. According to the ECOWAS communiqué from this month’s summit, regional leaders regretted “the minimal cooperation” that mediators have received from these countries’ transitional authorities and urged them to remain committed to the agreed 2024 timelines. Council members may similarly underscore that countries in transition adhere to their electoral timetables, with the three African members (A3)—Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique—possibly highlighting their obligations under the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.

More broadly, members may encourage progress towards strengthening democracy in the region. They may refer to recent elections, such as in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, while encouraging the peaceful conduct of other upcoming elections this year.

During the session, members may welcome the Peacebuilding Commission’s letter of advice submitted on 20 July. The advisory letter highlighted the urgent need to address the region’s root causes of conflict and drivers of instability by ensuring democratic consolidation and good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights, gender equality, sustainable development, and the inclusion of civil society. It also reiterated the need to address the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, drought, desertification, and land degradation, and to tackle challenges related to access to energy and food insecurity.

Council members recently resumed discussions on a draft presidential statement, which would welcome Santos Simão’s appointment and express support for him to carry out his mandate. Between 2016 and 2021, the Council has usually adopted presidential statements following UNOWAS’ briefings. However, members have not been able to agree to this draft text over the past year and a half, primarily because of differences in referring to the link between climate change and security in the region. An August 2021 presidential statement observed this link, but last year elected member India blocked agreement on the text over its proposed climate security language. It seems that China, with support from Russia and Brazil, has continued to raise similar concerns this year. The UNOWAS penholders, Ghana and Switzerland, may renew efforts to reach agreement among Council members on the draft text following tomorrow’s session.

This Friday (28 July), Security Council members will hold an informal interactive dialogue to discuss a white note on food security risks, which focuses on the situation in Burkina Faso, along with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti. According to OCHA, which submitted the white note last month in accordance with resolution 2417 on conflict and hunger, conflict and violence are driving rapid deterioration of food security and the threat of famine in these countries. In this context, members could raise concerns at tomorrow’s briefing that Burkina Faso still does not have a new resident and humanitarian coordinator, following the transitional authorities’ expulsion of the previous head of the UN country team in December last year.

For additional background, see Security Council Report’s brief on West Africa and the Sahel in the July Monthly Forecast.

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