Greater Support Urgently Needed to Tackle Sahel Region’s Growing Insecurity, Aid Fight against Terrorism, Extremism, Senior Official Tells Security Council
Insecurity in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger continues to grow, a senior United Nations peace operations official told the Security Council today, highlighting the urgent need to strengthen support and advance the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region, as members discussed the appropriate scope of that response.
Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, briefing the 15-nation organ on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in the Sahel (document S/2023/328), said that the security situation in the region remains worrying, with non-State armed groups continuing to carry out large-scale attacks against civilian and military targets, among other things. However, progress has been made in the operationalization of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) joint force in coordination of operations, following Mali’s withdrawal.
Still, insecurity in the tri-border area continues to deteriorate, she reported. With the expiry of the Tripartite Agreement among the European Union, G5 Sahel and the United Nations in June, the logistical and operational support from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to the joint force would cease to be in effect. Despite the extensive support provided by the Mission, the international community’s efforts have fallen short of what is needed for the joint force to have the capacity to help stabilize the Sahel region.
Eric Tiaré, Executive Secretary of the Group of Five for the Sahel, citing the joint force’s Concept of Operations — drafted by military experts with an eye towards optimal security results — underscored the need for sustainable funding and for the mobilization of all forces to uproot terrorist groups. However, this fight cannot be won through military means alone, he said, stressing the need to address climate change in the region. Spotlighting the many women and children who have been displaced, he said: “All they want is to go back to their villages and live in dignity.”
Aïssatou Diouf, Enda Energy, and Coordinator of the Climate Action Network for West and Central Africa, highlighted the intrinsic link between climate change and security, describing the former as a source of various phenomena causing tension, violence and conflict in the Sahel. Offering several example of entire populations migrating or being displaced due to drought and food insecurity, which have put additional pressure on the country's already limited resources, she underscored that the region’s issues cannot be perceived from a security standpoint alone, adding that solutions must be crafted with regional communities.
In the ensuing debate, Council members expressed concern about the disturbing security situation in the region, as well as the critical humanitarian situation and the need for continued coordination to address challenges affecting the region, particularly terrorism.
The representative of Ghana, also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, attributed the region’s destabilization to the lingering crisis in Libya and its spread to Togo and Benin. Commending the efforts to undercut the terrorists’ radicalization agenda that has targeted youth and local communities, he encouraged coordination across the three pillars of governance within the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel. He also voiced concern about MINUSMA’s logistical and operational challenges, stressing the need to support the G5 Sahel joint force in responding to the challenging security environment.
The representative of France called for democratic transitions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad to be made with the support the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Denouncing the actions of the Wagner Group in Africa as “predatory on natural resources and State budgets”, he called for an urgent address of the terrorist threat, as abuses against civilians and the disproportionate use of force only fuel the dangerous spiral of violence.
However, the Russian Federation’s representative warned that terrorist organizations in the Sahel region are expanding their operations and geographical reach, posing a direct threat to coastal States. Noting that extremists in Mali are fighting for control over the main transport corridors, she urged the international community to respect the Malian authorities and wait for the investigation to be completed. Also spotlighting the unstable situation in Burkina Faso and Chad, she pointed out that these threats to security in the Sahel region are a direct consequence of the military intervention by Western countries in Libya.
Nonetheless, the United Arab Emirates’ representative underscored that the root causes of terrorism and extremism must be addressed through development initiatives that bridge social and economic gaps. Moreover, tangible progress must be made in ongoing transitional processes, she said, welcoming the efforts of the African Union and ECOWAS.
Along similar lines, Ecuador’s delegate also called for strengthened cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations. He welcomed discussions on bilateral cooperation between Mali and Niger last March and the support lent by MINUSMA. Underlining the need to tackle the root causes of the conflict, he expressed hope that progress in restructuring operations would allow for cooperation with fora such as the Accra Initiative.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 11:50 a.m.
MARTHA AMA AKYAA POBEE, Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations, presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in the Sahel (document S/2023/328), said that, since her last briefing to the Council on the region, the security situation remains worrying, with non-State armed groups continuing to carry out large-scale attacks against civilian and military targets, engaging in confrontations over access to resources, territorial control and influence. Terrorist groups were frequently targeting border areas, notably Liptako-Gourma, the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. She also noted that, earlier in the year, there had been an upsurge in clashes between Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
The humanitarian situation, exacerbated by the security crisis, has resulted in 4.7 million people needing assistance in Burkina Faso, compared to 3.5 million in 2022, she continued. In Mali, a staggering 8.8 million people will need assistance this year, compared to 7.5 million people in 2022, she said, adding that women and children are bearing the brunt of violence and food insecurity. However, progress has been made in the operationalization of the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) joint force, particularly in coordination and responsiveness of operations, in the context of larger strategic and operational shifts following Mali’s withdrawal from the joint force.
Still, although G5 Sahel member States had strengthened bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms with the Malian Armed Forces in the fight against terrorism, insecurity in the tri-border area continues to grow, she said. With the expiry of the Tripartite Agreement between among the European Union, G5 Sahel and the United Nations in June, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s (MINUSMA) logistical and operational support to the joint force as part of its mandate would cease to be in effect. Nonetheless, she outlined the extensive operational and logistical support lent by MINUSMA to the joint force, including fuels, rations, medical evacuation and engineering support, such as building camps, which filled critical gaps hindering its operational tempo and mobility.
Unfortunately, the international community’s efforts have fallen short of what is needed to lend the joint force the capacity to help stabilize the Sahel region, she said, noting that the issue could be considered later this month in the upcoming Council deliberations on the financing of African Union peace support operations mandated by the Security Council. The Organization is committed to working with partners to help the region tackle the challenges it faces, including by the formation of the Independent High-Level Panel on Security and Development in the Sahel, under the former President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, she said.
She underscored the desperate need for resolute advances to made in the fight against terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime in the region. Without significant gain and support, it will be increasingly difficult to reverse the security trajectory and the further expansion of insecurity towards coastal West African countries, she said, adding that recent instability in Sudan, east of the region, is an additional cause for concern. "Moreso, the devastating effects of the continuing destabilization of the Sahel would be felt far beyond the region and the African continent,” she stressed.
ERIC TIARÉ, Executive Secretary of the Group of Five for the Sahel, expressed concern over the region’s deteriorating security situation, despite efforts by countries affected by the region’s multidimensional crisis. Reporting that attacks by numerous armed groups have increased, he pointed out that the current situation is different from 2014, when the G5 Sahel was created, and 2017, when the joint force was established to deal with the armed groups’ rise. In recent years, the attacks in the tri-border area have been mainly perpetrated by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin group, he said, questioning if this situation could have been avoided if numerous appeals for full operationalization of the G5 Sahel joint force had been heeded.
In this regard, he expressed regret that the force has never been operationalized due to the lack of investment. Against that backdrop, he detailed the framework’s achievements and welcomed the logistical support that was provided to the joint force in 2018, which will end on 3 June. Recalling the recent G5 Sahel Heads of State Summit, he pointed to the leaders’ reaffirmed commitment to preserve and consolidate the Group as a framework for cooperation and coordination. More so, they welcomed the joint force’s new format with its new headquarters based in Niamey, adding that the battalions and the operational budget are waiting for certain approvals before endorsement by the African Union.
Noting that the Sahel is at a crossroads, he encouraged those present to support the joint force, which has a strategy in place, along with 14 combat-ready battalions. Citing the joint force’s Concept of Operations — drafted by military experts with an eye towards optimal security results — he underscored the need for sustainable funding and equipment. To this end, he called for the mobilization of all local, national and regional forces to uproot terrorist groups. However, he also pointed out that this fight cannot be won through military means alone, stressing the concomitant need to address climate change in the region.
“You all are well aware of what’s happening in the Sahel,” he said, spotlighting the hundreds of civilians and troops who have lost their lives and the many women and children who have been displaced. “All they want is to go back to their villages and live in dignity,” he stressed. Noting the high number of children on the streets due to school closures, he also underlined the situation along the region’s borders. An action-oriented strategy that draws on existing mechanisms is needed, and on that point, he recalled that the joint force is the only regional initiative that complements both the Organization’s multifaceted efforts in the Sahel and the broader efforts of the international community. “We must act swiftly to ensure that this crisis in the Sahel does not spread to other parts of Africa,” he added, underlining the need to address the root causes of conflict in the region.
AÏSSATOU DIOUF, Enda Energy, and Coordinator of the Climate Action Network for West and Central Africa, highlighted the intrinsic link between climate change and security, describing the former as a source of various phenomena causing tension, violence and conflict, especially in exposed and vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel. Some studies recognize the Sahel as one of three environmental hotspots, which include regions under increased environmental stress and more susceptible to collapse. The climate of the Sahel is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. Almost all the countries of the Sahel are being hard hit by multiple phenomena — droughts, water stress and land degradation — she said, pointing to problems such as water and food access that also result in sanitation issues and migration.
She went on to say that, in recent years, environmental problems have had an impact on the stability of certain African countries, particularly in the Sahel. Competition over access to water or other natural resources have prompted tensions between communities. For example, a few years ago, Lake Chad had enough water to meet the needs of the populations of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad; however, it has been progressively drying out, pushing entire populations to migrate to Chad to access water resources. As resources become scarcer, the struggle to access them intensifies, creating conditions for Boko Haram to thrive. This large lake — shared between five countries with more than 43 million inhabitants — has had its water reduced by 80 per cent in 40 years. As a result, men and women are being recruited by terrorist organizations as they have lost all hope and would do anything to earn a living.
As well, in the Sahel region, the loss of fertile lands is pushing farmers to migrate, she continued. Bolstering the capacity of communities and local actors to adapt to shocks is vital. Insecurity and cross-border conflicts in the Sahel are linked to poor governance, discrimination, inequalities, scarcity of resources and poverty, which contribute to insecurity and the rise of civil conflicts and violent extremism, which is impacted by recurrent droughts and humanitarian crises. In Mali, reports of Islamic extremists and transnational criminal networks raise fears that the Sahel could become a breeding ground for terrorism. Niger and Burkina Faso have also experienced episodes of drought and food insecurity, she said, noting that in the latter, more than 2 million people have been displaced, mostly women and children. Massive population displacements put additional pressure on the country's already limited resources and threaten intercommunity rivalries.
Outlining her recommendations, she said that providing lasting responses to the multiple crises raging in the Sahel requires a coordinated response. However, such issues cannot be perceived from a security standpoint alone, she emphasized, calling for cross-sectoral responses. The solutions provided must also be crafted with the communities in question to ensure sustainability and ownership. The local level is a good entry point for integrating the dimension of climate change and security into community projects. It is vital to secure the necessary climate finance to facilitate adaptation and bolster the resilience of communities, she asserted, noting that the cost of adaptation remains very high for the countries of the Sahel and State budgets cannot fully cover them.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), underscoring the importance of bolstering State systems and consolidating democracy, called for transitions in Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad to be made within stipulated timeframes with the support of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Further, the Council must pay heed to the links between climate change and security, as the phenomenon is impacting food and water security. The terrorist threat must also be urgently addressed, as abuses against civilians and the disproportionate use of force only fuel the dangerous spiral of violence. Denouncing the actions of the Wagner Group in Africa as “predatory on natural resources and State budgets”, he also said that the United Nations report on the events that took place in the Malian town of Moura in March 2022 is disturbing. Against this backdrop, national and regional approaches to tackling security challenges — including the Accra Initiative — are welcome, and the High-Level Panel on Security and Development in the Sahel could provide new impetus to regional measures. Adding support for standing United Nations financing for African operations, he said he would address the issue on 25 May.
JEFFREY DELAURENTIS (United States) expressed concern about the security, humanitarian and political crisis in the Sahel stemming from Governments’ failures. He urged the region’s leaders to recognize limitations of militarized approaches and address the structural drivers of instability. Reiterating concern by the State-led military operations in Mali and Burkina Faso, including Mali’s “short-sighted” partnership with the Wagner Group, he said Government-led human rights violations often serve as a trigger event accelerating recruitment into violent extremist organizations among at risk groups. Commending the United Nations for investigating a civilian massacre in Moura, he said he was troubled by the transitional Government’s restrictions on MINUSMA’s freedom of movement. To this end, he urged the transitional Government to uphold its responsibility as a host country to a peacekeeping operation. He also called on Mali’s transitional authorities to rejoin the Coalition, while extending his support to Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali to complete their transitions to democratically elected civilian Governments. This might enable the United States and other partners to resume their currently restricted assistance, he said.
DAI BING (China) highlighted complex regional challenges faced by countries in the Sahel, which have worked hard to maintain security, restore socioeconomic development and strengthen regional cooperation. Maintaining stability and security in the Sahel is strategically important to consolidating peace in Africa, and the international community should pay more attention to the difficulties experienced by countries in the region, including terrorism, humanitarian crises and climate change. Further, the international community should respect the sovereignty and ownership of Sahel States and provide constructive support for deepening regional cooperation. It should also draw lessons from the situation in Sudan, he stressed, urging “an appropriate level of patience with political transition in certain countries”. Citing the fight against terrorism as “a top priority”, he noted that terrorist activities in the Sahel are still on the rise, as such groups attack armed forces and cause massive civilian casualties and displacement. He stressed, however, that human rights should not be used as a political tool to interfere with counter-terrorism operations.
JOÃO GENÉSIO DE ALMEIDA FILHO (Brazil), highlighting the resilience of the G5 Sahel, recalled the first summit of its Heads of States since 2021. However, the G5 Sahel joint force’s reform has caused military operations’ cessation, he noted, pointing to how political factors can hamper tacking of violence and terrorism. Underscoring the importance of regional initiatives, he highlighted the Sahel Region Joint Military Staff Committee, Accra Initiative Task Force and the ECOWAS Standby Force. Pointing out that armed groups take root in areas with little or non-existent State presence, he encouraged regional transnational authorities to implement transition plans. On the humanitarian situation, he also observed that food insecurity and lack of economic prospects are aggravated by terrorists’ and illegal armed groups’ actions. Further, economic incentives pull individuals towards terrorist activities. To this end, he called on Member States to move away from security-driven responses and adopt development-based approaches.
HERNÁN PÉREZ LOOSE (Ecuador) voiced concern over the disturbing security situation in the region, as well as the critical humanitarian situation and the disproportionate impact on women and girls. He called for strengthened cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations to overcome challenges such as terrorism and transnational organized crime in the region, adding that the G5 Sahel joint force is key to combating the activities of groups in porous borders. Regarding the withdrawal of Mali from the joint force, he welcomed discussions on bilateral cooperation between Mali and Niger last March, and the support lent by MINUSMA. Further, he voiced hope that progress in restructuring operations would contribute to its effectiveness and allow for cooperation with fora such as the Accra Initiative. He called for the elimination of corrosive hate speech, noting that lessons could be drawn from the experience of Niger and Mauritania, which initiated intra- and intercommunity dialogue. Further, he called for the root causes of the conflict to be tackled, through the promotion of the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, welcoming the written advice of the Peacebuilding Commission to this end.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom) stressed that the multiple challenges of the Sahel must be tackled by those countries, supported by international partners. To that end, the United Kingdom contributed around $284 million to the region last year. With three regional States in the midst of political transitions, he cited the continued leadership of ECOWAS and the African Union and urged Burkinabe, Chadian and Malian authorities to adhere to agreed election timetables. Welcoming the G5 Sahel’s reaffirmed commitment to the Compliance Framework, he urged further progress towards implementing human rights due diligence mitigation measures, as recommended by MINUSMA. He voiced concern over the disturbing findings in last week’s report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the massacre of hundreds of people in Moura, Mali, by Malian security forces and the Russian-Federation-backed Wagner Group — with such cases of summary executions, rape and torture amounting to war crimes. He added his full support for MINUSMA’s role to investigate and report on violations and called on Malian authorities to respect its freedom of movement. New reports of around 150 civilian fatalities, including 45 children, following an attack by armed forces in the village of Karma, Burkina Faso, on 20 April are also deeply disturbing.
ALBANA DAUTLLARI (Albania), expressing concern over unprecedented levels of terrorism and violent extremism and the risk of spill over to coastal States, welcomed the continued operationalization of the joint force and the revised security architecture since Mali’s withdrawal. Citing the disturbing findings of the Moura Report, raising serious concerns about the presence of the Wagner Group, she called for those responsible for the heinous crimes to be held accountable. With several States under military rule, she urged transitional authorities to respect the timelines agreed with ECOWAS and facilitate a timely return to civilian rule — as the trend of unconstitutional changes of Government risks undoing democratic gains. Encouraging the G5 Sahel to continue dialogue and cooperation with members, she cited recent discussions under the Accra Initiative as a mechanism to foster regionally led solutions. With around 30 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, the crisis requires a holistic approach addressing the root causes — including the adverse effects of climate change, which amplifies conflicts by increasing the fight for resources. Therefore, military interventions must be complemented with humanitarian and development efforts to strengthen institutions, enhance the rule of law, and promote socioeconomic opportunities.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, welcomed the positive developments in the G5 Sahel, including the Heads of State Summit and the rotation of the presidency. While condemning attacks against civilians and security personnel in the region, he said the region’s destabilization is connected with the lingering crisis in Libya and its spread to Togo and Benin. To this end, he encouraged the Group’s Heads of State and ministers to revitalize the joint force by adopting a Concept of Operations and operational arrangements, including the nomination of a new Force Commander and the adoption of additional measures for the joint force’s cost-effective operations.
Welcoming the efforts to undercut the terrorists’ radicalization agenda that has targeted youth and local communities, while looting their natural resources, he encouraged coordination across the three pillars of governance within the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and called for further investment in non-kinetic measures. While encouraging Member States’ support in addressing the infrastructure deficits of the joint force, he expressed concern about MINUSMA’s logistical and operational challenges. To this end, he underscored the importance of enhancing the Mission’s effectiveness and supporting the G5 Sahel joint force in responding to the challenging security environment. Highlighting the role of regional mechanisms, including the Accra Initiative and the Nouakchott Process, he expressed hope that the Issoufou-led Panel’s consultations on strategic assessment in the Sahel would help harmonize relevant regional mechanisms.
FRANCESCA GATT (Malta) sounded alarm at the grave impact of the violence on children, with a staggering increase in their killing and maiming, the systematic burning of schools and food insecurity. As well, the confirmed killings of hundreds in Moura by the Malian Armed Forces and foreign military personnel is deeply disturbing, contradicting any aim of achieving long-lasting peace. Citing the protection of civilians as a priority, she voiced her support for the continued efforts to operationalise the G5 Sahel joint force. She further underlined the severe climate change consequences in the region which threaten access to food and water by undermining agricultural activity, severely impairing the health of vulnerable communities. This triggers conflict over food and water resources, amplifying the effects of existing vulnerabilities. A holistic counter-terrorism strategy for the region must also include an understanding of the drivers of violent extremism and insecurity. Calling for transitions to democratic rule and respect for the rule of law, she highlighted the role of ECOWAS and the African Union in these efforts.
AMEIRAH OBAID MOHAMED OBAID ALHEFEITI (United Arab Emirates) underscored the need for continued coordination to address challenges affecting the region — particularly terrorism. Tangible progress must also be made in ongoing transitional processes, she said, commending the efforts of the African Union and ECOWAS in this regard. Turning to transnational threats, she voiced support for regional initiatives and mechanisms to tackle terrorism and organized crime, also calling on the Council to consider how to ensure the sustained, efficient operation of the G5 Sahel joint force. Further, the root causes of terrorism and extremism must be addressed through development initiatives that bridge social and economic gaps. In this context, she voiced concern over the reported closure of approximately 9,000 schools in the central Sahel due to violence. Against that backdrop, she outlined her country’s efforts to help address the urgent humanitarian situation in the region, including disbursing $600 million in aid over the past five years and providing relief for the recent influx of people displaced from Sudan to Chad.
ISHIKANE KIMIHIRO (Japan) expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, underscoring the importance of joint regional and international efforts to tackle multi-faceted challenges. Recognizing the G5 Sahel’s importance to regional cooperation, cross-border security and development, he echoed calls for Mali to rejoin the framework. Also spotlighting the importance of support by regional actors, he welcomed that the tripartite agreement among the European Union, G5 Sahel and the United Nations arranged support for the G5 Sahel joint force from MINUSMA. Political stability can only be derived from resilient democratic institutions, he went on to say, calling on the authorities of Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad to prepare for timely, inclusive elections. He also reiterated Japan’s commitment to promote sustainable growth in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.
ANNA M. EVSTIGNEEVA (Russian Federation), citing terrorism as one of the most acute African problems, said the ongoing degradation of the situation is being fuelled by the disruptive activities of myriad extremist groups. Terrorist organizations taking root in the Sahel region are expanding their operations and geographical reach, posing a direct threat to coastal States. She drew particular attention to extremists in Mali who are fighting for control over the main transport corridors. In this context, she emphasized that is it essential for States in the region to continue cooperation on security matters. The situation in Burkina Faso and Chad is also highly unstable, she said, underlining that these threats to the security and stability in the Sahel region are a direct consequence of the military intervention by Western countries in Libya and the disintegration of Libyan statehood. France’s attempts to destabilize the Sahel have not been fruitful either, she said, observing that the terrorist threat has only grown. The main role in supporting security in the region should be played by regional States, with tangible support from the international community. She also urged the international community to respect the Malian authorities and wait for the investigation to be completed.
PASCALE CHRISTINE BAERISWYL (Switzerland), Council President for May, spoke in her national capacity to stress that focusing on the security dimension of conflicts in the Sahel is not enough to reduce or contain the threat. To end armed conflict, fight terrorism and prevent violent extremism, the international community must address the root causes of violence in a holistic manner. Noting that young people build resilience in communities and facilitate post-trauma healing and reconciliation, she encouraged youth empowerment and leadership. Environmental and climatic factors — including the quality and availability of natural resources — also impact stability in Sahel, and she therefore called for local conflict‑resolution and natural-resource-management mechanisms to be complemented by regional and international measures. Reiterating her country’s commitment to the pastoral sector in Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, she added that Switzerland supports a programme aiming to reduce tensions between farmers and pastoralists in Chad.