posted on Tue 23 Jul 2019 8:21 PM
West Africa and the Sahel: Briefing and Consultations

On Wednesday afternoon (24 July), the Security Council will hold its semi-annual briefing on West Africa and the Sahel. Mohammad Ibn Chambas, Special Representative and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), is expected to brief, presenting the Secretary-General’s 5 July report on West Africa and the Sahel (S/2019/549). Closed consultations are scheduled to follow the public session. Côte d’Ivoire plans to circulate a draft presidential statement after the meeting that it has prepared with Belgium, as co-penholders on West Africa and the Sahel.

Insecurity in much of the Sahel has continued to deepen, increasing concerns about the risk of spillover effects into coastal West African countries. In central Mali and Burkina Faso, attacks by extremist groups have fueled worsening intercommunal violence. The marked deterioration in security in Burkina Faso has displaced over 170,000 people, a three-fold increase since the start of the year. Chambas may provide an update on UN plans to reinforce the UN country team to address Burkina Faso’s unprecedented humanitarian crisis, enhance support for security sector reform and strengthen peacebuilding activities such as promoting inter-community dialogue.

The ten-year old Boko Haram insurgency continues in the Lake Chad Basin. According to the Secretary-General’s report, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction of Boko Haram has expanded its area of operations and increased attacks on national security forces and the Multinational Joint Task Force, which includes troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria to combat Boko Haram. The conflict has displaced 2.5 million people, including 1.7 million people in northeast Nigeria. Niger is battling armed groups in its western border region with Mali and Burkina Faso, and Boko Haram in its southeast. The Secretary-General’s report also covers increased herder-farmer conflict, an issue that the Council encouraged UNOWAS to support the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in addressing in an August 2018 presidential statement.

During his briefing, Chambas is likely to highlight the importance of addressing root causes of regional instability, such as poor governance, underdevelopment, and climate change. He may thus refer to the UN’s Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) and the UN Support Plan for the Sahel, the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) priority investment programme and the regional stabilisation strategy for Lake Chad Basin countries.

He is further likely to mention upcoming high-stakes elections. These include Guinea-Bissau’s presidential election scheduled for November, and presidential elections in 2020 in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Togo. Council members have highly valued Chambas’ good offices activities in addressing political tensions. In recent months, this has included supporting Nigeria’s presidential and legislative elections in February, and working with ECOWAS in connection with political tensions and violence in Benin. The Secretary-General’s report encourages authorities and national stakeholders to work together to ensure a level playing field for elections in the region; urges respect for freedoms of assembly, expression and the press; and notes that it is crucial to address the apparent instrumentalisation of rule of law institutions for political ends that can erode confidence in state institutions.

Council members are likely to express concern over the situation in Burkina Faso. Earlier this year, during a Council visiting mission to Mali and Burkina Faso, members met on 24 March in Ouagadougou with Chambas and the UN resident coordinator in Burkina Faso, Metsi Makhetha, who along with representatives of the UN Country Team shared their assessment of the fragility of the situation. Members may encourage the government to address root causes of the crisis, as it seeks to address the deteriorating security situation.

Members are likely to reiterate their support for regional security initiatives such as the G5 Sahel joint force and the MNJTF. The Secretary-General’s report notes that security forces in the region have been accused of extrajudicial killings, brutality and forced disappearances of civilians, so members may underscore the importance of counter-terrorism efforts complying with international humanitarian law. At the adoption of the mandate renewal for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) on 28 June, the US called for a new agenda item on terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel, to replace the current discussion that the Council holds on the G5 Sahel joint force, to give greater attention to the Boko Haram insurgency and the growing terrorism threat to coastal West African states. It may reiterate this call at tomorrow’s session. Some members could mention the need to stabilise the situation in Libya, due to the impact of that conflict on instability in the Sahel, notably through the proliferation of arms and presence of terrorist groups.

A strategic review of UNOWAS is expected to be completed later this year before the mission’s mandate expires on 31 December. The mandate is traditionally renewed for three years through an exchange of letters between the Secretary-General and the Security Council. Some members could underline tomorrow the importance of reinforcing UNOWAS and making sure it has adequate resources to fulfill its mandate. The Council has progressively asked UNOWAS to take on new responsibilities: to promote the implementation of the Sahel strategy, increase its good offices activities for Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire with the recent completion of peacekeeping missions in those countries, incorporate risk assessments on the impact of climate change in its activities, and help address the rise in herder-farmer tensions. At the same time, members could caution that as UNOWAS gains new tasks, it must be able to preserve its primary preventative diplomacy role.