Persistent terrorist attacks, maritime insecurity and rising political tension are just some of the backdrops against which countries of Central Africa are now battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior United Nations official in the region told the Security Council during a 12 June videoconference meeting*, noting that 22,000 cases of the virus have already been confirmed across 11 countries.
François Louncény Fall, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA), said COVID-19 has disrupted lives and the functioning of institutions across countries that already suffer a range of serious security and development challenges. The first case of the virus was recorded on 6 March, and since then members of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have been responding quickly. The pandemic has also resulted in an economic crisis, he said, citing new projections that Central Africa is likely to experience a 2.3 per cent contraction in growth.
“The slowdown in economic activities due to COVID-19 deprives States of the resources they need to address the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, with the risk of creating social unrest,” he warned. Governments are being forced to choose between urgent public health expenditures and other priorities, such as the smooth functioning of institutions and the financing of reforms. As Central Africa’s Governments and regional instruments adapt to the new crisis context, ECCAS is also pushing forward several crucial reforms.
Recalling that the Economic Community held a high-level meeting on 3 and 4 June, he said ministers adopted a four-pronged regional response strategy to combat COVID-19 and its implications in Central Africa. They spotlighted the need to prevent the spread of the virus; limit the death rate and manage positive cases; tackle the virus’ socioeconomic impact; and respond to cross-border security issues resulting from the pandemic. UNOCA continues to mobilize the relevant United Nations entities to support ECCAS as it evolves. Drawing attention to the creation of a new UNOCA-ECCAS working group, he cited two virtual meetings with United Nations Resident Coordinators to ensure their country-level coordination with regional initiatives.
He noted that States across the subregion have worked to limit the pandemic’s impact on economic and social rights, assisting businesses and vulnerable populations and responding to calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for the decongestion of prisons. Noting that some of the restrictive measures imposed to combat COVID-19 have been viewed as impediments to the exercise of fundamental freedoms, he urged countries to ensure that law enforcement agents apply restrictions carefully and proportionately and to abide by human rights principles and standards.
“The persistence of armed conflicts in some parts of Central Africa undermines our efforts to respond to challenges posed by COVID-19,” he said. Despite the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic, conflicts continue, and terrorists and armed groups are destabilizing the subregion. In that vein, he welcomed the launch by Cameroon and Chad of “Operation Wrath of Boma” to fight terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin, which seems to have weakened Boko Haram. However, experience shows that the group can only be eradicated through a well-coordinated strategy combining both military and non-military approaches, tackling root drivers of conflict and strengthening the Multinational Joint Task Force.
Noting that the Lord’s Resistance Army has also been weakened, he said the group nevertheless continues to kill, loot and abduct civilians and children. Regional actors and their international partners should strengthen their cooperation and mobilize the resources against it. Meanwhile, Central African States continue to grapple with other major challenges — including the impacts of climate change and the mounting threat of maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea — all while trying to improve good governance and respond to challenging internal situations. For example, several countries have launched legal proceedings against prominent persons accused of embezzling public resources.
Turning to Cameroon, he said three military officers have now been charged with murder following their involvement in a February attack on the village of Ngarbuh. An independent commission of inquiry has also been called for in the death of the journalist Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe. Outlining progress in implementing the recommendations of Cameroon’s 2019 national dialogue, he spotlighted initiatives to reconstruct and develop the country’s north-west and south-west, while calling for the protection of civilians and more dialogue. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, steps are needed to build confidence in the dialogue platforms set out in the Constitution.
Following the briefing, the representative of France, Council President for June, said in his national capacity that Central Africa remains fragile despite some progress. Spotlighting the Central African Republic’s volatile situation, he said its peace agreement is being threatened by armed groups and the pre-election period is fuelling tensions. The Lake Chad Basin faces the persistent threat of Boko Haram, and the Gulf of Guinea remains the epicentre of global piracy. Those situations are even more delicate against the backdrop of COVID-19, he stressed, noting that France has pledged €1.2 billion to support Africa’s fight against the virus, advocated for a moratorium on debt servicing and is contributing to a humanitarian “air bridge” between Europe and African countries.
The Russian Federation’s delegate expressed support for UNOCA’s good offices, preventive diplomacy and other activities which are in high demand across the subregion. Welcoming timely measures taken by Central African countries to curb the spread of COVID-19 and finalize ECCAS reforms, he spotlighted political developments in the Central African Republic, welcoming President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s efforts to stabilize the situation and promote reconciliation. Noting that the conflict in Cameroon’s anglophone provinces has deep historical roots and can only be resolved at the negotiating table, he urged all Cameroonian parties to exercise maximum restraint and abandon violence.
The representative of the Dominican Republic also drew attention to security challenges and human rights violations in Cameroon, expressing hope that those responsible for the death of the journalist Samuel Wazizi will be brought to justice. “It is highly important that the Cameroonian authorities can ensure that national and international human rights organizations and the media can work in the country unhindered,” he said. Also spotlighting the impacts of attacks by Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army, sexual violence and climate change, he noted that severe floods have caused displacement and exacerbated the challenges of the COVID-19 response. He welcomed that mitigating those adverse effects remains a priority for UNOCA.
Estonia’s representative echoed concerns about COVID-19, as well as existing threats to regional peace and security in Central Africa. “Targeting civilians and taking advantage of the pandemic by intensifying attacks is especially deplorable,” he stressed, also condemning attacks against humanitarian and medical personnel. He welcomed steps taken by the Government of Cameroon to implement the recommendations of the national dialogue. However, the country’s deteriorating humanitarian situation and reports of human rights abuses committed against women and children remain a source of concern. Voicing support for UNOCA’s efforts to support Cameroon’s political momentum, he also expressed hope that political strides will be promptly translated into security and human rights improvements.
The representative of the United Kingdom called on countries to work together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in ways that will strengthen, and not undermine, peace and security. Echoing the Secretary-General’s call for an end to all attacks on civilians, he urged United Nations agencies to scale up their rapid response mechanisms with an increased focus on gender-based violence. He also encouraged Cameroon’s international partners — including the African Union, UNOCA and the Peacebuilding Commission — to support efforts to restore peace. Stressing the importance of regional cooperation through the Multi-National Joint Task Force in the Lake Chad Basin, he also reiterated the importance of preserving a peaceful climate in Burundi during its current period of transition.
Also participating were the representatives of Belgium, China, Germany, Tunisia (also on behalf of Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and South Africa), United States and Viet Nam (also on behalf of Indonesia).
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.