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Recent developments in West Africa and the Sahel have been characterized by both volatility and democratic gains, the top United Nations official in the region told the Security Council today, warning that the latter “are not immune from reversal” and could be negatively impacted by the former.
Mohamed ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), described positive trends towards democratization, outlined in the most recent report of the Secretary-General (document S/2018/649) covering the period 1 January to 30 June. Those include the successful holding of democratic local elections in Guinea, local and municipal elections in the Gambia, and presidential, legislative and local elections in Sierra Leone, he said, also welcoming the abolition of the death penalty in Benin and Burkina Faso.
However, he warned, such positive developments continue to compete with the region’s volatile security situation. In the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, the spillover of the Malian crisis is increasingly affecting Burkina Faso and Niger, and terrorist groups continue to cause devastation throughout the region. Despite gains made by the Nigerian armed forces and a Multinational Joint Task Force — launched by the five countries of the Group of Five for the Sahel — Boko Haram and the West African province of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) remain active, often using women and children as suicide bombers.
“The complexity of recent attacks is a worrying outcome of West African and Sahelian Islamist groups reinforcing their linkages,” he said. Local insurgencies are also spreading, exacerbating intercommunal conflicts and undermining State authority, while environmental degradation and socioeconomic marginalization impact some 45 million people across the region. Also voicing concern over escalating violence between nomadic herders and agrarian communities and unrest in Cameroon’s English-speaking areas, he urged Member States to provide holistic support to the region and facilitate an enabling environment for the exercise of freedoms of expression and assembly.
Several Council members took the floor to welcome recent progress in the region and hail the good offices and other support activities of UNOWAS. Some also expressed alarm over persistent and complex regional challenges, with Côte d’Ivoire’s representative noting that, beyond terrorism and violent extremism, transnational organized crime, armed groups and the proliferation of conflicts pitting herders against farmers remain of serious concern. Insecurity spawned from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, acts of piracy and armed robberies also continue unabated, he said.
The representative of Equatorial Guinea warned that challenges facing West Africa and the Sahel should be viewed as threats to the entire continent. Boko Haram’s violence has led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and the forcible displacement of thousands of people, as well as escalating food insecurity. Voicing concern over violent clashes between herders and nomadic groups, she called upon regional partners to undertake mediation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts to address those tensions in a long-term manner. She also joined other speakers in voicing support for efforts to recalibrate the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel and drive forward its implementation.
Bolivia’s delegate, echoing expressions of concern over the region’s security situation, also drew attention to development and rule of law challenges. Emphasizing that many of its current crises are consequences of interventionism and regime change policies associated with the 2011 military intervention in Libya, he said that operation had the unfortunate effect of pushing armed groups and weapons into the Sahel. Adding to those challenges today are the activities of organized criminal networks, he said, also expressing alarm over the continued recruitment of children by Boko Haram.
Also speaking were the representatives of Peru, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and the Netherlands.
The meeting began at 3:11 p.m. and ended at 4:04 p.m.
MOHAMED IBN CHAMBAS, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), briefed the Council on the Office’s recent activities, as well as developments on the ground. Since he last addressed the Council, he said, positive movement on the democratization front has been competing with the region’s volatile security situation. In the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, the spillover of the Malian crisis is increasingly affecting Burkina Faso and Niger, and terrorist groups continue to cause devastation throughout the region. “The complexity of recent attacks is a worrying outcome of West African and Sahelian Islamist groups reinforcing their linkages,” he said, adding that local insurgencies are also spreading, exacerbating intercommunal conflicts and undermining State authority.
Expressing concern over alleged human rights violations by security forces in the region, he called upon its Governments to prevent such violations and bring the perpetrators to justice. In the Lake Chad Basin — despite gains made by the Nigerian armed forces and the Multinational Joint Task Force, launched by the five countries that make up the Group of Five for the Sahel (G-5 Sahel) — Boko Haram and the West Africa province of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) remain active. On 1 July, an attack in Niger killed 10 of that country’s soldiers, and Boko Haram’s trend of using female and child suicide bombers continues. Calling for increased and holistic support to diplomatic, security and humanitarian responses to Boko Haram, he said UNOWAS is providing technical support for a joint summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) on the matter on 30 July.
Describing environmental degradation and socioeconomic marginalization — impacting some 45 million people — resulting from Lake Chad’s severe depletion, he said an estimated 2.3 million remain displaced by the aggregate effects of insecurity, weak governance and climate change. Urging Member States to support the humanitarian response and revitalization of the region, he said violence between farmers and herders is increasingly a major security threat, and risks morphing into the terrorist attacks that have defined the security landscape. In that vein, he emphasized that any military response to those security challenges must be matched by the implementation of comprehensive strategies linking security and humanitarian interventions to development and human rights initiatives.
In other recent developments, he said, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea increased over the reporting period with both drug smuggling and the trafficking of small arms and light weapons — including by terrorist groups — posing major threats. Welcoming regional efforts to combat those phenomena, he said the demarcation of the Cameroon-Nigeria border and the pillar construction continue to face challenges due to insecurity in areas affected by Boko Haram, as well as unrest in Cameroon’s English‑speaking regions. Spotlighting an upsurge in popular discontent in the region, manifested through often violent demonstrations calling for political and economic reforms, he said several countries of the region also continue to struggle with justice, national reconciliation and human rights challenges.
In that regard, he urged Member States to provide an enabling environment for the exercise of freedoms of expression and assembly — which are critical to the consolidation of democracy and good governance — and noted that, in a positive development, Benin and Burkina Faso recently abolished the death penalty. Indeed, the region has continued on a positive trajectory since his last briefing, with democratic local elections in Guinea, local and municipal elections in the Gambia, and presidential, legislative and local elections in Sierra Leone. His office also continued to closely monitor the situation in countries with forthcoming elections, such as Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal. Noting that the continuing political crisis in Togo has already caused the suspension of parliamentary elections, he outlined ECOWAS mediation efforts to overcome the political impasse, warning that “democratic gains in the region are not immune to reversal”.
THÉODORE DAH (Côte d’Ivoire) commended the recent progress made, but expressed alarm at the persistent, multifaceted challenges facing the West Africa region. Beyond terrorism and violent extremism, transnational organized crime, armed groups and the proliferation of armed conflicts pitting herders against farmers remain of serious concern. Insecurity spawned from terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, acts of piracy and armed robberies continue unabated, he said, although the Multinational Joint Task Force has resulted in a reduction in the operational capacities of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region. All stakeholders must work hand in hand to create the conditions necessary for holding inclusive, peaceful and credible elections. Although the economic prospects in West Africa remained promising, more must be done to address weak purchasing power, which is often linked to inequality. He underscored the alarming figures related to the humanitarian situation on the ground and emphasized the need to address the needs of the 6.9 million people experiencing food insecurity and the 2.3 million displaced persons in the Lake Chad Basin. The role of women in the peace process remains relevant, he said, drawing attention to the Council’s recent debate on women, peace and security.
PAUL DUCLOS (Peru) noted with great concern the situation of persistent violence and insecurity, the presence of terrorist groups, as well as the humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin. UNOWAS must work to support free, fair and inclusive elections in Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria. Further, it should work with West African countries on other priorities, including security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes, the empowerment of women and the impacts of climate change, as well as other objectives. He called upon UNOWAS to play a key role to ensure that various initiatives maintain operational and political coherence, while also reflecting the unique circumstances and needs of the people of the region.
PEDRO LUIS INCHAUSTE JORDÁN (Bolivia) spotlighted the links between good offices, dialogue, preventive diplomacy, inclusivity and national ownership — which together are leading the way in West Africa — emphasizing that all members of the international community have a role to play there. However, he voiced concern that major challenges remain in the region’s security, development and rule of law. It cannot be ignored that many of those challenges are consequences of interventionism and regime change policies following the 2011 military intervention in Libya, which had the unfortunate effect of pushing armed groups and weapons from that country down to the Sahel region. Adding to those challenges are the activities of organized criminal networks, crises and conflicts that have a disproportionate impact on civilians, especially women and girls. Also expressing concern over the continued recruitment of children by Boko Haram, he called for the swift and full implementation of the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel.
AMPARO MELE COLIFA (Equatorial Guinea) warned that such threats as attacks by Boko Haram should not be viewed as isolated, regional crises, but rather as threats to the entire African continent. Boko Haram’s violence has led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and the forcible displacement of thousands of people, as well as escalating food insecurity. Violent clashes between herders and nomadic groups in central Nigeria are also of major concern, she said, calling upon regional partners to immediately undertake mediation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding activities to address those tensions in a long-term manner. In that regard, she cautioned stakeholders to always prioritize peaceful solutions, guided by inclusive and objective dialogue processes between the parties. Reiterating her full support for the African Union Peace and Security Council’s June communiqué regarding the need to achieve lasting political solutions to the crises in Mali and Libya — which also underscored its support to regional actors — she also welcomed efforts to recalibrate the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel and drive forward its cross-cutting implementation.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia) welcomed the positive developments taking place in the region, including constitutional and security sector reforms in several countries, as well as those efforts aimed at improving governance and consolidating democracy. The conduct of peaceful elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone is also encouraging. The role of UNOWAS in the upcoming elections in various countries will be vital for the holding of peaceful, inclusive and fair electoral processes. She commended States’ efforts to fight terrorism and transnational crime. Climate change, food insecurity, forced displacement, unemployment and the lack of opportunities continue to threaten the socioeconomic development of the region, she said, underlining the importance of stepping up efforts for the full implementation of the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel. It would have been useful if the Council could have received a briefing from the African Union, and in that context, she stressed the need for African ownership of initiatives in the region.
KAIRAT UMAROV (Kazakhstan) called on UNOWAS to continue its work in strengthening post-electoral stability and drew attention to several challenges, including the increasing threat of terrorism and violent extremism, particularly given their links to transnational crime. His delegation welcomed an increase in national and regional ownership to address threats and emphasized the need for strong counter-terrorism efforts that are fully compliant with international law. He expressed concern about the increasing threat of conflict between farmers and herders, aggravated by the impacts of climate change, population movements, rapid population growth and weak governance. While welcoming the recent efforts to reform the wider United Nations development system, he underscored the need for increased cooperation at the regional level.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands) said that regional and national efforts are essential for peace and security, yet they should not be limited to military activities. To sustain security, properly addressing governance deficits and justice is equally important, she said, stressing that accountability, participation and inclusive dialogue are also imperative for paving the way to sustainable peace. She commended efforts by UNOWAS to address conflicts between pastoralists and farmers, particularly as terrorist groups and criminal networks increase their cooperation in the region. Climate change also intensifies tensions between farmers and herders, she noted, emphasizing the importance of regional cooperation, the rule of law, early warning and early action.