As Armed Groups, Coups d’État Destabilize West Africa, Sahel, Role of United Nations Regional Office Key in Consolidating Democracy, Speakers Tell Security Council
Armed groups and violent extremists are increasing their influence in West Africa and the Sahel while repeated coups d’état are destabilizing Governments, political experts from the region informed the Council today.
Giovanie Biha, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2022/1019), drew attention to millions of children in the region who have no access to education because ten thousand schools were shut down due to instability. “Non-State groups are fighting among themselves for supremacy, pushing States to the margin and causing untold misery to millions of people who had to leave their communities to seek safety,” she said.
Despite the many challenges facing the region, she added, it remains a land of immense opportunities. Noting various upcoming elections, she said UNOWAS is working with national stakeholders to ensure a level playing field for democratic processes. In Nigeria, it witnessed the signing of a landmark peace accord among political parties, while in Benin peaceful parliamentary elections were held just two days ago. In Burkina Faso and Guinea, agreements have been reached on the lengths of the transitions. Further, she added, UNOWAS has been working with the Office of the Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The Council was also briefed by Omar Alieu Touray, President of the ECOWAS Commission, who highlighted the recent spate of military coups d’etat in the region, including in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments is committed to ensuring that all three member States can restore full constitutional order by 2024, he said.
Noting that the Lake Chad Basin and Central Sahel have emerged as the epicentres and incubators of terrorism and violent extremism, he called on partners to stay engaged in the region as a whole, and the Sahel in particular. The United Nations should enhance efforts to counter misinformation, promote intercommunal dialogue and engage actively in deradicalization and reintegration, he said.
When the floor opened to Council members, many speakers expressed concern about the democratic backsliding in the region and praised the contributions of UNOWAS. The representative of Ghana, also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, highlighted UNOWAS’ role in consolidating democracy and stressed that its mandate, which is up for renewal, remains relevant. He condemned all attempted coups and urged restoration of constitutional order in the countries concerned. Expressing worries over the widespread insecurity in the Sahel, he underscored the need for adequate, predictable and sustainable funding for regional security initiatives. He also pointed to the link between insecurity and climate change, which has resulted in increasing inter-community clashes.
The United Arab Emirates’ delegate also called on the Council to place the issue of climate change at the front and centre of its approach to the region. Fifteen per cent of the region’s population suffers from food insecurity resulting from the impacts of climate change and droughts, she said, encouraging UNOWAS to continue to enhance youth participation in providing innovative solutions to adapt to climate change. It is vital to find inclusive solutions to prevent the region from drifting deeper into fragmentation and instability, she said.
“Instability in the Sahel is a security problem with democratic governance solutions,” the representative of the United States said, also expressing concern about the criminal Wagner Group’s interference in African countries’ internal affairs. He also noted that violent extremism is now spreading into coastal Africa. Applauding UNOWAS’s efforts to support democratic processes and advise transitional Governments, he expressed support for the renewal of UNOWAS’ mandate.
China’s delegate pointed to the inseparable connection between security and development, calling on developed countries to increase their financial contributions. Some have adopted irresponsible trade policies that have negatively affected the regional economies, he said, also underscoring the need to build a collective security shield and calling on the international community to ensure financial, intelligence and logistical support for frontline countries.
The Russian Federation, that country’s delegate said, is providing Mali with assistance in the wake of the withdrawal of the counter-terrorist operation from that country. Rejecting declarations that Moscow is pillaging the resources of Africa, she said the continent’s leaders have the right to make the choice as to who they wish to cooperate with. Expressing concern over the increasing terrorist threats, organized crime and drug trafficking, she welcomed the efforts of ECOWAS in political mediation.
Also speaking today were Switzerland, Albania, France, Ecuador, Malta, Brazil, United Kingdom and Japan.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 11:39 a.m.
GIOVANIE BIHA, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, presented the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in West Africa and the Sahel and the activities of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) (document S/2022/1019), covering the period from 23 June 2022 to 30 December 2022. She said despite efforts by national security forces and international partners, security has again deteriorated in large parts of the region, causing over 10,000 schools across the Sahel to close, leaving millions of children without access to education, and forcing nearly 7,000 health centres to shut down due to the activities of armed groups and violent extremists. “These non-State groups are fighting among themselves for supremacy, pushing States to the margin and causing untold misery to millions of people who had to leave their communities to seek safety,” she said. Unprecedented levels of security and humanitarian challenges and socio-political instability have been further compounded by the impact of climate change and food insecurity, which was exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine.
Against this backdrop, she said her Office supports the Independent High-Level Panel on Security and Development in the Sahel led by former President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou. Further, UNOWAS is working with national stakeholders to ensure a level playing field ahead of elections scheduled for this year in the subregion. In Nigeria, UNOWAS has liaised with presidential candidates and witnessed the signing of a landmark peace accord among political parties. In Kaduna State, in December 2022, the Office supported the first of six State-level stakeholders fora to promote peaceful elections. In Benin, peaceful parliamentary elections were held two days ago.
UNOWAS has also been working with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Office of the Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel to contribute to conflict resolution both at regional and local levels, she said. Agreements have been reached on the lengths of the transitions in Burkina Faso and Guinea, she recalled, noting that UNOWAS remains committed to the follow-up mechanism agreed between Burkina Faso and ECOWAS. Amid persisting challenges, combating insecurity and stepping up the provision of humanitarian assistance to adequately meet the fundamental needs of communities remains crucial, she said, sounding alarm over endless attacks targeting millions of innocent civilians, notably in Mali and Burkina Faso. Despite the many challenges facing the region, it remains a land of immense opportunities. “The United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel has leveraged these opportunities through its three pillars on building resilience, promoting good governance, and strengthening peace and security,” she said, adding: “I urge you to continue supporting this strategy.”
OMAR ALIEU TOURAY, President of the Commission of the ECOWAS, said that since assuming office in July 2022, the Commission has identified several important strategic objectives, related to peace and security, good governance and inclusive and sustainable development. The socio-political and security situation in West African has been characterized by worsening violence, particularly in the Sahelo-Saharan region, he said. Noting that since 2009 and particularly after 2012, the Lake Chad Basin and Central Sahel have emerged as the epicentres and incubators of terrorism and violent extremism, he said that while it was initially homegrown, as in the case of Boko Haram in Nigeria, it has been steadily incorporated into the two global terrorist franchises, namely Al-Qaida and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh). The incident count of these terrorist attacks rose from approximately 1,271 in 2019 to 3,519 in 2022, he noted.
Turning to the recent spate of coups in the region, he said that since August 2020, West Africa has experienced three successful military coups, including in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali, with repeat coups in the latter two countries. Also noting at least three documented foiled coup attempts in Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia, he added that the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Governments is committed to ensuring that all three member States can restore full constitutional order by 2024. The Authority also decided to establish a regional force that will support ECOWAS member States to address challenges to constitutional order. Transition processes are under way in the three countries, he said, adding that beyond these, ECOWAS also supports its member States in the conduct of elections by engaging with key institutions in their countries.
Turning to partnerships, he added that partners must stay engaged in the region as a whole and Sahel in particular. Stressing the need for humanitarian support and efforts to strengthen capacities, he highlighted ECOWAS’s excellent relationship with UNOWAS. Together, they have undertaken joint initiatives, including assessment missions and are also working with critical stakeholders in Nigeria to ensure the transparency of general elections in February. The United Nations should enhance support to combat terrorism and violent extremism in the region, he underscored, calling on the Organization to counter misinformation, promote intercommunal dialogue and engage actively in deradicalization and reintegration.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, welcomed UNOWAS’ continued contributions to the peace and stability of West Africa and the Sahel region, highlighting progress in the consolidation of democracy, the continuing efficacy of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission and the reduction of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. However, he expressed concern over insecurity in some parts of the region, stagnating democratic practices in some countries and the challenging humanitarian situation in several societies. UNOWAS’ mandate, which is up for renewal, remains relevant, he stressed. Spotlighting several political situations in the region, he condemned all attempted coups and expressed continuing concern over countries in transition. On that point, he urged restoration of constitutional order in the countries concerned, adherence to agreed electoral timetables for a definite return to constitutional rule and the need for sustained engagement for inclusivity and tolerance of political pluralism.
He went on to express concern over widespread insecurity in the Sahel — along with its potential spread to littoral countries — reiterating that the question of adequate, predictable and sustainable funding for regional security initiatives is a pressing matter on which the Council must have a unified position. He also urged continuing engagement on the spill-over effects of the lingering crisis in Libya and on the threat that the return of foreign terrorist fighters and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons pose to regional stability. Continuing attention must also be paid to maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Turning to the humanitarian situation, he noted the link between insecurity and climate change, which has resulted in increasing inter-community clashes. Urging support for humanitarian assistance and livelihood-empowerment pipelines that leverage home-grown and regional initiatives, he also emphasized the need to prioritize investment in addressing the root causes of instability in the region — including governance and development deficits.
PASCALE CHRISTINE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) voiced concern over multiple challenges faced by the people of West Africa and the Sahel, including the cumulative burden of climate change, armed conflict, food insecurity and energy prices. While this burden is heavy, the vulnerable feel it particularly, she said, pointing to an alarming 40 million children that are not in school in the Sahel. The future of these children — especially girls — is at stake, she warned. Addressing the root causes of violent extremism in a holistic manner is essential to overcoming the persisting insecurity in the region, including the terrorist threat in Central Sahel and the risk of spilling over to coastal countries. In this context, she stressed that counter-terrorism must comply with international law, including human rights and international humanitarian law. Further, she emphasized the importance of respect for human rights in the prevention of violent extremism. Highlighting progress in the region, including the peaceful elections in Senegal, the progress towards social cohesion and reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire and the transitional justice in the Gambia, she voiced regret over limited progress on women’s participation and decision-making processes.
RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States), expressing support for the renewal of the UNOWAS mandate, voiced concern about the security, humanitarian and political crises in the Sahel. Also noting the dramatic increase in violent extremism that is now spreading into coastal Africa, he said that this is due to the absence of State authorities, lack of accessible justice and economic exclusion. “Instability in the Sahel is a security problem with a democratic governance solution,” he said, expressing concern about the criminal Wagner Group’s interference in African countries’ internal affairs. Applauding UNOWAS’s efforts to support democratic processes and advise transitional Governments, he condemned the killing of 28 people in northern Burkina Faso and expressed concern about the departure of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in that country. In Mali, the Government must eliminate all restrictions against the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) so that that it can effectively carry out its mandate, he said, calling for a reinvigoration of collective action to support African partners.
ALBANA DAUTLLARI (Albania) said that, as the region prepares for several important elections, actors should pursue inclusive dialogue and build consensus on outstanding disagreements to ensure peaceful elections. Stressing the need for women and youth to participate in political and decision-making processes, she urged Governments — with support from UNOWAS — to promote the same. She went on to express concern over the deteriorating security situation and terrorist threat expanding from the Sahel towards coastal West African countries. Further, the presence of the Wagner Group poses significant threats to human rights and international humanitarian law, and she urged Governments in the region to consider long-term risks in this regard. The dire humanitarian situation also requires the international community’s attention, especially when instability, violence, forced displacement, climate shocks and food insecurity are at worrying levels. United Nations support remains critical to addressing the complex crises in the region, and Albania looks forward to providing UNOWAS with a fit-for-purpose mandate by the end of January. She also expressed hope that a presidential statement can be negotiated to demonstrate Council unity on this matter.
ISIS MARIE DORIANE JARAUD-DARNAULT (France), lamenting that three countries in the region — Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali — have not yet restored their constitutional order, highlighted the crucial role of the United Nations in carrying out transparent elections in the relevant countries. France is in favour of the Council’s recommendation to renew the mandate of UNOWAS for three years. On security, she highlighted the dramatic impact of the model proposed by the Wagner Group that has proven totally ineffective in combating terrorism. This mercenary group is responsible for numerous violations of human rights, she said, adding that security is a major challenge to the region.
HERNÁN PÉREZ LOOSE (Ecuador), stressing that UNOWAS’s work to address the root causes of violence is critical to building sustainable peace, said that improving living conditions is a key task. Expressing support for all measures for consolidating democracy, he welcomed the elections held in Senegal last July and Benin last Sunday. Pointing to progress in improving civil coexistence in various countries, he noted the destabilizing efforts of unconstitutional Government changes, and said that Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea must return to democracy. Noting preparations for elections in various countries, he hoped that the difficulties that led to the postponement of elections in Guinea-Bissau will be overcome. Worried by the deteriorating security situation in Mali and Burkina Faso and the danger of terrorist violence spreading to the Atlantic coast countries, he said that countries in the region must step up cooperation to coordinate their fight against terrorism while respecting human rights and international law.
FRANCESCA MARIA GATT (Malta) welcomed peaceful democratic efforts in the region, such as legislative elections in Senegal and Benin and progress towards national reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire. However, she expressed concern over successive coups d’état and called on authorities to respect democratic processes. On the security front, she noted that continued fighting between armed groups and the spread of terrorist activity is jeopardizing long-term stability in the region. Local, regional and international efforts are needed to reverse this increasing trend of violence and address the underlying conditions leading to the spread of terrorist activity. She went on to underscore that her country is committed to solutions that bridge the climate-security nexus, as well as actions that ensure the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in political processes in the region. It is also important to protect children’s right to education pursuant to resolution 2601 (2021), as the links between education, peace and security are clear. She added that supporting authorities in improving local governance, addressing social grievances, ensuring education and promoting gender equality within the scope of all peacebuilding efforts “must remain an integral part of our approach”.
ANNA M. EVSTIGNEEVA (Russian Federation), expressing concern over an increasing number of terrorist threats, organized crime and drug trafficking faced by the region, said during the second half of 2022, fighters killed a large number of civilians. The withdrawal of the counter-terrorist operation from Mali was not agreed upon, she said, noting its negative impact on the security situation. As a result, the Malian army had to shoulder full responsibility for counter-terrorism. Recalling that the Russian Federation is providing the country with appropriate assistance, she rejected any baseless declarations that Moscow is pillaging the resources of Africa and facilitating the growth of a terrorist threat. Due to their desire to loot resources in Libya, Western countries destabilized the area, she recalled, describing accusations against the Russian Federation as “astonishing”. African leaders have the right to make the choice as to who they wish to cooperate with, she asserted. She welcomed the efforts of ECOWAS in the area of political mediation in the region.
DAI BING (China), stressing the importance of tackling root causes and providing support for regional peace and sustainable development, highlighted the importance of building a collective security shield. Expressing concern about the expansion of terrorist forces in the region and the problem of drugs and arms trafficking, he said such challenges can hardly be tackled by one country alone. China supports regional countries in strengthening security and maintaining stability. Calling on the international community to stay engaged and ensure financial and intelligence and logistical support for front-line countries, he noted that a number of them are moving towards elections. Protests and demonstrations have added to political security risks in some countries, he said lauding ECOWAS’s constructive role in advancing democratic transitions. Noting that development assistance to the region has decreased, he added that security and development are inseparable. Developed countries must increase their financial contributions, he said, noting that some have adopted irresponsible trade policies that have negatively affected the regional economies.
JOÃO GENÉSIO DE ALMEIDA FILHO (Brazil) said that the region of West Africa and the Sahel presents challenges as varied as the countries that compose it. A common thread, however, runs through conflicts in the region, as difficult humanitarian situations provide fertile ground for political instability — often expressed in violent means. Violence and insecurity, in turn, increase economic hardship and aggravate the humanitarian situation. Stressing that the proper functioning of democratic institutions is essential to breaking or preventing this cycle, he highlighted peaceful July 2022 elections in Senegal and preparations for upcoming elections in Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. “It is in the Sahel that the link between political instability and security and humanitarian crisis is most clear,” he went on to say, urging the transitional Government in Burkina Faso to abide by the transition timeline. He also expressed concern over the expansion of terrorist activity from the central Sahel to coastal countries, but welcomed increased regional efforts to fight this scourge and improve maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. He added that tackling the humanitarian situation in the region requires the combined efforts of regional countries and the international community, welcoming UNOWAS’ efforts in this context.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom) expressed concern over the democratic backsliding and the shrinking of civic space that the region experienced in 2022. Urging progress towards the restoration of constitutional Governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea within agreed timeframes, he commended efforts by ECOWAS and the African Union to make this happen. UNOWAS has an important role to play — including through its good offices — in presidential elections in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia, he said, underscoring the importance of boosting women’s participation in these processes. On the deteriorating security situation in the region — notably in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin — he pointed to the destabilizing role of the Wagner Group in the area. “They are part of the problem, not the solution,” he asserted. The humanitarian situation in the Sahel remains dire, compounded by floods and rising prices, he continued, noting that UNOWAS’ mandate renewal will support regional efforts towards peace.
GHASAQ YOUSIF ABDALLA SHAHEEN (United Arab Emirates), stressing the need to find inclusive solutions to prevent the region from drifting deeper into fragmentation and instability, said the international community must build upon the current diplomatic efforts among the countries of the region. Progress must be made in the implementation of the “United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel” and the “United Nations support plan for the Sahel”, she said, expressing concern about the expansion of terrorist activities along the Gulf of Guinea and the coast of West Africa. Also noting that the issue of climate change must be at the front and centre of the Council’s approach to the region, she encouraged UNOWAS to continue to enhance youth participation in providing innovative solutions to adapt to climate change. Pointing out that 15 per cent of the region’s population suffers from food insecurity, resulting from the impacts of climate change and droughts, she reaffirmed support for the mandate of UNOWAS.
ISHIKANE KIMIHIRO (Japan), Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity to welcome UNOWAS’ pivotal role in the region, as the Office’s efforts to build and sustain peace and stability in coordination with regional organizations are crucial amidst deteriorating security and political situations. Noting that the recent attempted coup d’état in the Gambia is a reminder that political stability in the region must be reinforced, he called for the timely preparation of free, fair elections in several West African countries to ensure their return to constitutional rule. He went on to stress that the protection, empowerment, inclusion of and solidarity with vulnerable populations — including women, youth and minorities — must remain at the centre of efforts to bring peace and stability to the region. In this context, Japan welcomes efforts by the United Nations and regional organizations — particularly ECOWAS and the African Union — to integrate human security concerns into activities such as peacebuilding, security-sector reform and climate action. Reiterating support for UNOWAS’ work and the extension of its mandate, he said that this will enable the Office to continue engaging and aligning the work of various actors to promote peace and security in the complex region.