West Africa, Sahel Requires Tangible, Long-Term Support to Eliminate Terrorism, Address Humanitarian Crisis, Special Representative Tells Security Council
A senior United Nations official today told the Security Council that the situation in West Africa and the Sahel has deteriorated against a backdrop of shrinking civic and political space.
Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) Leonardo Santos Simaõ, speaking to the 15-member Council for the first time since assuming office, welcomed recent elections in Benin, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
However, he also warned that various roadblocks in some countries, such as a lack of transparency in vote tabulation, undermining citizens’ trust in the region’s critical electoral processes, were severely hindering progress.
“These challenges should be addressed way ahead of future elections,” he stressed, outlining various ways UNOWAS had supported the region’s electoral processes through dialogues and confidence-building initiatives in Benin and Nigeria. UNOWAS had also engaged in strengthening rule of law amid concerns of impartiality of the judiciary, he said, further urging the region’s leaders to advance the role of women and young people in decision-making processes.
The crisis in the Sahel requires tangible and long-term support to stamp out the scourge of terrorism and address the region’s burgeoning humanitarian crisis, he continued, expressing particular concern for the 6.3 million displaced persons across the Sahel region.
Omar Alieu Touray, President of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, also briefing the Council, said that from 1 January to 30 June 2023, the region recorded 1,814 incidents of terrorist attacks, which resulted in 4,593 fatalities. By end of April 2023, half a million refugees were recorded in the region.
Nearly 30 million people are in need of food assistance, and without adequate response, this number will increase to 42 million by the end of August, he warned, also adding: “This is just a snippet of the horrendous impact of insecurity in West Africa.”
The multiplicity of various initiatives aimed at helping remedy the security, political and humanitarian issues presents a challenge in coordination, ownership and inclusion, he pointed out, presenting an ECOWAS proposal to integrate them into the regional Plan of Action.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members voiced concern over the worsening security situation in the region, and particularly in the Sahelian countries, where loss of territory to terrorist and armed groups has led to new waves of displacement. Many stressed that UNOWAS’ mandate is as critical as ever, especially with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) readying to depart that country.
Ghana’s delegate, also speaking on behalf of Gabon and Mozambique, encouraged the countries of the region to fulfil their obligations under regional arrangements such as the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Growing incidence of terrorism and violent extremism and their evolving methods of operation are of major concern. As MINUSMA carries on with its withdrawal from Mali, he urged coordinated action with neighbouring countries to minimize any further adverse security impact on the region.
The representative of the United States expressed concern over the lack of transparency of the tabulation process in the June general elections in Sierra Leone. Transition Governments must be held accountable to their stated timelines to return to constitutional order, he also added.
“Any truly inclusive democratic process cannot have opposition candidates jailed or barred from running,” stressed Japan’s delegate, also expressing regret that MINUSMA must withdraw after a decade of dedicated work, despite the many challenges Mali faces.
Several speakers also expressed concern over the presence of foreign fighters in the region, with France’s delegate stressing that Wagner Group mercenaries represent an extremely destabilizing threat in the Sahel. They violate human rights under the guise of fighting terrorism and plundering resources across the African continent, she said.
Many other speakers said they were deeply alarmed over the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the Sahel, which continues to be made worse by a perfect storm of violence, displacement and growing food insecurity.
Addressing this critical situation requires the combined efforts by all relevant countries in the region, supported by the international community, Brazil’s delegate stressed. “The figure of 6.3 million displaced persons is staggering,” he added.
LEONARDO SANTOS SIMAÕ, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), speaking to the Security Council for the first time since assuming office, presented the report of the Secretary-General on the activities of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (document S/2023/490). He welcomed recent elections in several countries in West Africa and the Sahel, namely in Benin, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, saying the initiatives marked critical milestones towards democratic consolidation, offering opportunities for citizens to choose their leaders. However, in several countries, there were concerns over a shrinking civic and political space, as well as a lack of transparency in vote tabulation, which undermined citizens’ trust in the electoral processes. “These challenges should be addressed way ahead of future elections,” he stressed.
For its part, UNOWAS supported the various electoral processes through high-level good offices and support for pre-electoral inter-party dialogues and confidence-building initiatives among stakeholders in Benin and Nigeria. UNOWAS is enhancing its partnerships with regional partners to reinforce the rule of law, against the backdrop of concerns over the impartiality of the judiciary in parts of the region. Further, he expressed alarm for the underrepresentation of women across the region in political processes and decision-making. Moreover, with more than 60 per cent of the population being younger than 25, youth are an important group whose voice must be fully heard in peacebuilding efforts, he added.
Recalling his visits to various countries in the region, he said that meeting with leaders on the ground gave him an understanding of the magnitude of the crises in the Sahel. “In Mali, we are tackling major challenges,” he said, adding that the crisis in the Sahel requires tangible and long-term support to stamp out the scourge of terrorism. “The security situation in the Central Sahel has deteriorated further, with multiple attacks against civilians and defence and security forces, especially in the Liptako Gourma area,” he continued. As coastal countries enhance their efforts, strengthening internal security capabilities and reinforcing bilateral cooperation, the southward expansion of insecurity remains a potent threat. To that end, sustained political and financial engagement will be needed to operationalize the activities under the Accra Initiative.
Emphasizing the urgency of the humanitarian crisis in the region, he expressed particular concern for the 6.3 million displaced persons across the Sahel. “A growing number of these people have been forced to flee,” he said, urging all stakeholders to pool efforts to safeguard the dignity of refugees. Insecurity impacts future generations. More than 11,000 schools have been shut down in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, stripping children of their basic rights. Further, he commended the progress achieved by the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission, which, he said, is “another example of peacebuilding beyond the limelight of everyday news”.
OMAR ALIEU TOURAY, President of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, said the region has a population of 400 million largely made up of young ambitious and dynamic people. The youthful population, the fertile land and natural resources of the region hold considerable promise for the region, but that promise hinges on governance and security. Stressing the importance of inclusive democratic processes and accountability in the management of public resources, he said 12 of the 15 countries in the region have democratically elected Governments. However, the other three [Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali] are under military rule, he said, calling for Council support for the transition to constitutional order in all the three countries.
Reversal of democratic gains runs parallel to insecurity in West Africa and the Sahel, he said, pointing out that terrorism, armed rebellion, organized crime, unconstitutional change of Government, illegal maritime activities, environmental crises and fake news are the key drivers of insecurity. From 1 January to 30 June 2023, the region recorded 1,814 incidents of terrorist attacks, which resulted in 4,593 fatalities. By end of April 2023, half a million refugees were recorded in the region, with the number of internally displaced persons exceeding 6 million. Nearly 30 million people need food assistance, and without adequate response, this number will increase to 42 million by the end of August. “This is just a snippet of the horrendous impact of insecurity in West Africa,” he deplored.
Responses to insecurity in the region have been diverse, he said, citing bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral arrangements, such as Barkhane, Takuba, G5 Sahel, Accra Initiative, Multinational Joint Task Force, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and ECOWAS’ own Plan of Action for the Eradication of Terrorism and Extremism. The multiplicity of these initiatives, however, presents a challenge in coordination, ownership and inclusion, he pointed out, presenting an ECOWAS proposal to integrate them into the regional Plan of Action. ECOWAS Heads of State and Government have taken three decisions aimed at facilitating the transition to such an inclusive arrangement, including a review of the Regional Standby Force with two options: a brigade of 5,000 troops at an annual cost of $2.3 billion or the deployment of troops on demand at an annual cost of $360 million.
On the political front, he said, the regional leaders have decided to re-engage the three Member States in transition at the highest level, reaffirming ECOWAS’ commitment to supporting credible and inclusive democratic elections there while also seeking support for the Algiers peace process that aims to facilitate peaceful settlement between the Government of Mali and the armed groups. Turning to the security issues, he said the regional response shall include: the expeditious operationalization of a revised ECOWAS Plan of Action for the Eradication of Terrorism; collaboration with other security initiatives; and direct support to Member States including countries in transition in their fight against terrorism. The leaders reiterated their strong commitment to financing the regional security mechanism from the region’s own resources, but also expressed their support for the African Union’s request for a predictable funding of Africa-led missions through the United Nations assessed contribution, he added.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, said that, since the renewal of UNOWAS’ mandate, the international community has seen the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and the Gambia. He encouraged ongoing efforts to restore constitutional order in Mali, urging the Malian Authorities and the Signatory Groups to remain engaged in realizing the objectives of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali emanating from the Algiers process. However, he voiced concern over the security situation in the region, especially in the Sahelian countries, where loss of territory to terrorist and armed groups is leading to new waves of displacement and humanitarian consequences. Turning to the political situation, he encouraged the countries of the region to fulfil their obligations under regional arrangements such as the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
With respect to the security situation, he highlighted that the growing incidence of terrorism and violent extremism, and their evolving methods of operation are of major concern. He strongly condemned attacks by terrorist groups against civilian and security personnel in the region. As MINUSMA carries on with its withdrawal from Mali, he urged coordinated action with neighbouring countries to minimize any further adverse security impact on the region. Now more than ever, logistical and funding support for regional mechanisms such as the Multinational Joint Task Force, the G5 Sahel joint force and the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali is critical, he said, welcoming the decision to activate the ECOWAS Standby Force. As for the humanitarian situation, which has been spawned by the escalation of conflicts and the adverse impact of climate change, he drew attention to the 6 million displaced persons. Accordingly, he called for donor partners to prioritize the implementation of humanitarian response plans for countries in West Africa and the Sahel by helping to meet the $3.5 billion target required to tackle the increasing humanitarian needs.
PASCALE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) said the security situation in the region remains fragile and humanitarian needs are increasing. On elections, she noted that the polls have so far been largely peaceful, welcoming UNOWAS’ ongoing commitment to promoting democratic governance and peaceful electoral processes. Although some notable progress has been made at the State level — notably in Benin and Mauritania — women remain largely underrepresented throughout the region in political processes and decision-making. Turning to the security front, she said investing in violence prevention and peacebuilding requires a commitment to various security, political and socioeconomic causes. The situation of young people and children in West Africa and the Sahel remains particularly worrying, she cautioned, adding that attacks on schools are often accompanied by other serious violations, such as sexual and gender-based violence. She also highlighted Switzerland’s programme aimed at strengthening the resilience of 700,000 people in Burkina Faso by easing conflicts between farmers and herders by adapting farming methods and subsistence livelihoods to climate challenges.
ROBERT A. WOOD (United States) recognized the continued efforts of UNOWAS to help promote and sustain democratic processes in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Sierra Leone. He expressed concern over the lack of transparency of the tabulation process in the June general elections in Sierra Leone but also applauded the people of that country for participating in the electoral process. The United States reiterates support to transition processes in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, and continues to call for a return to democratic governance. Transition Governments must be held accountable to their stated timelines to return to constitutional order. Turning to humanitarian needs, he underscored the urgency of the arrival of the new United Nations resident coordinator in Burkina Faso. UNOWAS’ mandate is as critical as ever as MINUSMA readies to depart Mali. The United States is deeply concerned by the spread of instability in coastal West Africa, he said, also underscoring the role of the Wagner Group in contributing to the violence in the region.
MOHAMED ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates), noting the dual challenge of insecurity and changing climate in the region and the resultant mass displacement and aggravating humanitarian situation, called for a rethink of long-held assumptions. To improve security, the region must maintain a multitrack approach. Four countries in the region are among the group most impacted by terrorism in the world. It is imperative to proactively create a secure environment through both soft and hard measures. Building resilience in the communities is part of a comprehensive security strategy for the region. All parties to conflict must adhere to international humanitarian law, he said, warning against sexual violence against women and girls, who are also at greater risk of being abducted. The Council must approach insecurity through a climate-sensitive lens. Reduced crops due to scarce rainfall and desertification render people vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups. “We see these dynamics in West Africa,” he said, calling for concerted effort to understand the interplay between security and climate change.
GENG SHUANG (China) emphasized that countries in West Africa and the Sahel have achieved positive results in maintaining peace and stability and deepening regional cooperation. At the same time, they are facing multiple challenges, such as terrorism, food insecurity and climate change. He welcomed the regional electoral results since the beginning of 2023, including the general elections in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and the constitutional referendum in Mali. Further, he expressed hope that under the Nigerian leadership, ECOWAS will continue to play an active role in promoting development and maintaining security in the region. He also commended countries in the region for stepping up their counter-terrorism efforts. The international financial institutions should not reduce aid to and investment in the region due to other crises, he stressed. Highlighting challenges posed by climate change to the countries in the Sahel, he said the lack of technology is one of the primary obstacles to climate response in the region.
SHINO MITSUKO (Japan) said that while most of the elections in 2023 have been conducted peacefully, not all have been without controversy. “Any truly inclusive democratic process cannot have opposition candidates jailed or barred from running,” she stressed. Japan calls on Mali to continue to make every effort towards holding elections. Turning to the political transitions in Guinea and Burkina Faso, she said that security cannot be achieved without accountable and inclusive governance. The situation in the Sahel has deteriorated, she said. Hence, it is regrettable that MINUSMA must withdraw after a decade of its dedicated work, despite the many challenges Mali faces. In tackling the many challenges of the region, people must be placed at the centre of all peacebuilding initiatives and Governments must build strong and robust institutions to provide for their well-being.
HERNÁN PÉREZ LOOSE (Ecuador) said that robust and stable institutions are key to improving the living conditions of populations. The holding of elections in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania are a welcomed step in that regard. He expressed concern at the worsening security situation in Central Sahel, particularly in Burkina Faso and Mali. He condemned all terrorist acts, while at the same time reiterating that steps taken by States to fight and combat this scourge must be in line with international law and international humanitarian law. Turning to the growing humanitarian needs in the region, he underscored that it is women, young people, children and older persons who suffer the most under such conditions. Food insecurity is affecting 21.8 million people in the region. It is crucial, therefore, to continue coordination efforts at the international and regional levels and boost initiatives to deliver aid to those who need it.
FRANCESCA GATT (Malta) welcomed the increased representation of women as local councillors and mayors in the Gambia, the highest ever proportion of women in Benin’s National Assembly, increased women parliamentarians in Mauritania and a quota for women’s representation in Liberia. She, however, expressed concern over the setbacks to women’s representation and political participation in Nigeria, where the number of females in the National Assembly decreased by 19 per cent. Calling for a holistic approach towards deterring any extension of violence in the region, she underlined the need to tackle the root causes of violent extremism and conflict. “Education, human rights, sustainable development, justice and the rule of law must run parallel to counter-terrorism operations,” she stressed, voicing continued support for UNOWAS in advocating for best practices on climate-change resilience and adaptation on the ground. On this note, she expressed hope that the Council reaches an agreement on a presidential statement that truly reflects the situation on the ground.
ARIAN SPASSE (Albania) welcomed the holding of elections in several countries, promoting the consolidation of democratic processes. However, the shrinking of civic and political space remains worrisome, he said, underscoring the importance of inclusive political dialogue and consensus-building among all stakeholders to sustain the progress achieved thus far. Further, the security situation is increasingly perilous, with terrorism, transnational organized crime, intercommunal violence and illicit financial flows expanding. Violent extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso continue to target military and civilian infrastructure, resulting in severe human rights violations. “It is frustrating that approximately 10,000 schools across Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria were closed or non-operational due to violence,” he added. The Sahel is grappling with escalating food insecurity, climate change implications, displaced persons and humanitarian assistance reaching unprecedented levels, he observed, calling for a holistic approach that addresses the multifaceted challenges facing the region.
NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France), welcoming positive democratic developments in some countries in the region, stressed that elections must be held in a climate conducive to dialogue and allowing for the participation and free expression of all, including women, journalists and human rights defenders. “This is particularly important in countries where the constitutional order has been disrupted”, she said, urging Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali to hold credible elections within the time frame agreed with ECOWAS. France remains committed to working alongside the countries of the Sahel region in the fight against terrorism and in assisting in the strengthening of maritime security, she stressed, welcoming that ECOWAS Heads of State have requested a report on the presence of foreign private armies in the region. Wagner Group mercenaries represent an extremely destabilizing threat, violating human rights under the guise of fighting terrorism and plundering resources across the African continent. Her country, together with the European Union, has long supported security initiatives by the countries in the region and pledges to do more to support the coastal States of the Gulf of Guinea to counter expanding terrorist threats from the Sahel. There is an urgent need to support regional initiatives and enable them to benefit from United Nations funding, she added.
ANNA M. EVSTIGNEEVA (Russian Federation), citing the border regions of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger as “the epicentre of tensions”, voiced concern over an increased activity by fighters from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims. Moreover, the subversive activities of Boko Haram and Da’esh in West Africa exacerbate the alarming situation in the countries of the Lake Chad Basin region. Evidently, “the attempts of the EU countries to facilitate stabilization in the Sahel were not crowned with success,” she said, adding that threats to the region have only escalated due to the unilateral termination of the activities of the French “Barkhan” force and the European Union’s “Takuba” force in Mali. The announcement of the representative of France that somebody is “plundering Africa’s resources” sounds “absolutely unacceptable”, especially in light of the colonialist history of that country in the region. Criticizing “the envious posture of Western countries vis-à-vis the development of cooperation between the States of the region with the Russian Federation”, she emphasized that the main role in maintaining peace and security in the region should belong to its Member States.
NORBERTO MORETTI (Brazil) commended UNOWAS’ emphasis on partnerships with regional and subregional organizations, such as the African Union, ECOWAS and the African Development Bank. Political participation under the rule of law is vital. He expressed concern over the security situation in Burkina Faso and Mali due to the persistence of terrorist activities. It is encouraging to see improvements in the Lake Chad Basin region and in maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea. Brazil stands ready to further assist counter-piracy efforts, through boosting cooperation among regional navies and reinforcing the Yaoundé Architecture. He said that the persistent humanitarian crisis in several parts of the region is marked by violence, displacement and food insecurity. “The figure of 6.3 million displaced persons is staggering,” he said. Addressing this critical situation requires the combined efforts by all relevant countries in the region, supported by the international community.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom), Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming democratic progress in some parts of the region while expressing concern over democratic uncertainty and the shrinkage of civic space in other States. Restoration of constitutional government in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea has been too slow, he pointed out, calling for redoubled efforts on election timetables. Election discrepancy in Sierra Leone is also concerning, he added. On the security situation, he said his country has been committed to protecting civil rights, expressing concern about the damage being done by the Russian Federation’s Wagner mercenary group, whose track record shows that they cannot deliver long-term security in the region. Now that President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that the Kremlin funded the Wagner Group, Moscow must hold the perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. The Council heard today that the dire humanitarian situation and security situations in West Africa are exacerbated by climate change, he said, calling for the adoption of a Council presidential statement in support of UNOWAS.