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9 July 2020

Situation in West Africa, Sahel ‘Extremely Volatile’ as Terrorists Exploit Ethnic Animosities, Special Representative Warns Security Council

Intercommunal violence and persistent attacks by extremists continue to undermine peace and security across West Africa, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the region warned the Security Council in a 9 July videoconference meeting*, as delegates called for sustained engagement with all partners to advance a holistic approach to peace.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), said that despite intense efforts by concerned countries, violent extremists continue attack security forces and civilians, forcibly recruiting children into fighting in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2020/585), he described security conditions as “extremely volatile”.  In Burkina Faso alone, as of June, 921,000 people have been forced to flee, representing a 92 per cent rise over 2019 figures.  In Mali, nearly 240,000 people are internally displaced — 54 per cent of them women — while in Niger, 489,000 people were forced to flee, including Nigerian and Malian refugees.  In Nigeria, 7.7 million people will need emergency assistance in 2020.

He said that as national and multinational forces intensify their operations to counter the violence, communities have organized volunteer groups and self-defence militias.  Rights groups have raised concerns over reports of alleged abuses by these militias, as well as by security and defence forces.

“The growing linkages between terrorism, organized crime and intercommunal violence cannot be overemphasized”, he said.  “Terrorists continue to exploit latent ethnic animosities and the absence of the State in peripheral areas to advance their agenda.”

He urged the United Nations to remain committed to working with all partners, by building national and institutional capacity, improving community resilience and advocating for good governance, political inclusion, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law.  It must also support the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 2020-2024 action plan to end terrorism and extend broad support for both the Regional Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience Strategy for Areas Affected by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin Region, and the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel.

For his part, he said he facilitated a meeting, on 4 March, among the Lake Chad Basin Commission secretariat, the head of the Multinational Joint Task Force, and the Regional United Nations Sustainable Development Group, in Dakar, to develop a common understanding of the role of United Nations agencies in implementing the Regional Stabilization, Recovery and Resilience Strategy.  Further, UNOWAS signed a cooperation agreement with the Mano River Union on peace and security issues and support to women and youth on cross-border cooperation.

Turning to climate change, he said its effects are amplifying farmer-herder conflicts, increasing social tensions, and fostering rural-urban migration, violence and food insecurity.  UNOWAS is conducting an analysis to understand the options for mitigating the impact on peace and security, in partnership with ECOWAS, the World Bank, and with international and regional think tanks.

As for COVID-19, he said the coronavirus is exacerbating known conflict drivers, negatively impacting human rights and the rule of law, and disproportionately affecting women and girls, with reported increases in femicide.  UNOWAS has held virtual consultations with resident coordinators to assess the impact of COVID-19, identifying ways to strengthen collaboration with national and regional stakeholders in support of Government response efforts.  The resident coordinators noted that while Government COVID-19 responses have been consensus driven, there have been cases where responses received serious criticism from national actors.  UNOWAS will continue work with countries to broaden social support, inclusivity and national cohesion.

Despite the pandemic, the region has seen a number of positive developments, he said, notably the relatively peaceful conduct of elections in Togo, local elections in Benin, and the completion of work of the Constitutional Review Commission in the Gambia.

Noting that five high-stakes presidential elections are planned in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger, he said they “present an opportunity for democratic consolidation in these countries”.  To ensure they are credible and inclusive, consensus will be needed to address underlying challenges.  While the pandemic led to delays or the postponement of voter registration in some of these countries, preparations have resumed and stakeholders in most of these States have maintained their determination to hold elections as scheduled.

In the ensuing dialogue, China’s delegate encouraged countries in the region to settle differences through dialogue.  Recalling that Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger all have elections upcoming in 2020, he said that to create conducive conditions, parties must enhance mutual trust and resolve differences peacefully through dialogue.  He encouraged UNOWAS to strengthen coordination with other United Nations agencies, and regional and subregional organizations, aligning international and regional development initiatives with national strategies.  Further, greater support should be provided to help countries stem Boko Haram attacks, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and intercommunal violence.  All parties should heed the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.  China supports various peace and security programmes, providing 300 million yuan in aid for counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel.

France’s representative said the international community must redouble efforts to support regional countries.  In the three-border area shared by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, terrorist groups are forcing thousands of people to flee.  Military operations carried out since March by France and the Group of Five for the Sahel have yielded results, weakening terrorist groups.  Consolidation of democratic processes in the region face a decisive moment.  In Guinea, legislative elections and the 22 March referendum were fraught with tensions and distrust.  It is essential that an in-depth dialogue takes place and the presidential election in October is held in a transparent, credible and inclusive manner.  In Burkina Faso, insecurity in the north and east could hinder the holding of elections on 22 November.  In the Lake Chad Basin, he welcomed successes achieved by Chad against terrorist groups.

Belgium’s representative, drawing attention to worsening security conditions in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and Boko Haram terrorist attacks in Nigeria, said such violence has caused suffering for hundreds of thousands of civilians, with COVID-19 exacerbating this “already bleak” picture.  Noting that defence and security forces are obliged to respect human rights, he said fighting impunity is the best way to regain public trust.  A holistic approach to West Africa is needed, containing elements for good governance, fighting impunity, strengthening democratic institutions, addressing grievances of marginalized groups and fostering sustainable development.  “Threats to pacific coexistence need to be resisted,” he added, noting that voting in the upcoming elections must occur on a level playing field.  In Guinea, he called for renewed dialogue, while in Burkina Faso and Niger, he said that the challenge will be to ensure elections are held across those countries.  He expressed support for UNOWAS and United Nations country team efforts towards national reconciliation, post-conflict reconstruction and security sector reform.

Viet Nam’s representative called on political actors in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea to reach consensus so that elections can take place inclusively, transparently, credibly and peacefully.  All concerned parties should cooperate in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism across West Africa and the Sahel, and he more broadly voiced support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.  Indeed, Governments and other relevant parties in the region should uphold their obligations to implement international humanitarian law and ensure that aid reaches those most in need, without hindrance.  He also called for an integrated approach to security, humanitarian and development challenges, and climate change.

The representative of the Dominican Republic expressed hope that activities suspended due to COVID-19 can soon be resumed, including the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission.  Voter registration and constitutional referenda across the subregion must also be completed, with presidential elections held in an inclusive and peaceful political climate.  He expressed concern that the pandemic will further degrade the human security crisis, especially in the Sahel, and push Nigeria’s growth rate down by as much as 3.4 per cent in 2020.  Some 24 million Sahelians need humanitarian assistance and protection, a situation exacerbated by poor health systems and food insecurity, which could trigger confrontations over scarce resources.  He condemned attacks against civilians by violent extremists, urging leaders to demonstrate political will and steadfastly carry out regional strategies to prevent and resolve crises.

The representative of Estonia expressed concern over terrorist attacks and intercommunal violence, notably in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Liptako-Gourma tri-border area, stressing that the key to stability in the region is the full political ownership by regional States.  An effective State presence is of utmost importance.  He urged all countries to strengthen dispute-settlement mechanisms and address all grave violations, calling for perpetrators of such crimes to be held accountable, regardless of their status.  COVID-19 has added another layer to a complicated and dire humanitarian situation, which underscores that aid must reach all those in need.  Understanding grievances and addressing the causes of conflict must be at the core of national and international efforts.  He commended UNOWAS and ECOWAS for addressing the impact of climate change on security and encouraged them to take further steps in this regard.  The full participation of women and young people in political processes will bring the region closer to lasting stability and he encouraged that further steps be taken towards this goal.

The Russian Federation’s representative shared concerns over terrorist activity, inter-ethnic and intercommunal conflict, drug trafficking and organized crime across West Africa.  He expressed concern that Boko Haram has become more active in the Lake Chad Basin, calling COVID-19 “extremely dangerous” for regional security.  It is already clear that more people will need humanitarian assistance.  Yet, African States and public institutions have coped, and he expressed hope that elections scheduled across the region in 2020 will be held democratically, transparently and legitimately, with strict respect for sovereignty and no external interference.  Faced with the difficult tasks of helping to resolve regional crises, foster political mediation and strengthen State institutions, among other tasks, the success of UNOWAS depends on how well it coordinates with the African Union, ECOWAS and other regional organizations.  Some issues — including piracy and demarcation of the Cameroon-Nigeria border — require close cooperation with the United Nations Office for Central Africa.

The representative of the United States said UNOWAS should encourage the free, fair and transparent holding of elections across the region in 2020.  Countries in West Africa and the Sahel are grappling with internal political tensions, COVID-19, violence by armed groups and worsening food security and humanitarian conditions.  Noting that the United States has allocated $12 billion for the global response to COVID-19, she expressed concern over growing instability across the Sahel, and specifically, Nigeria.  States undermine their own credibility when security forces violate human rights and she called on regional Governments to strengthen State institutions and provide good governance to their citizens.  The United States is taking policy and programmatic steps to address violence emanating from the Sahel into coastal West Africa, especially since the 10 June attack in Côte d'Ivoire.  In Mali, it is monitoring protests calling for the President’s resignation.  All actors must engage in dialogue, she said, expressing opposition to any effort geared towards an extra-constitutional change of Government in Mali.

The United Kingdom’s representative drew attention to chronic underdevelopment, extreme poverty, marginalization, insecurity and governance vacuums filled by malevolent actors across the Sahel.  With more than 15 million people in need of aid and 3 million displaced in the Sahel alone, it is critical that the response reaches those most in need.  He urged all parties to ensure unhindered humanitarian access and movement to allow the delivery of essential goods and services.  “Without this, food insecurity and protection needs will continue to rise,” he asserted.  In Mali and Burkina Faso, all parties must respect human rights and international humanitarian law.  The rise in extremist and terrorist violence in the Lake Chad basin is also deeply troubling.  Preventing backsliding on governance, accountability, access to justice and human rights is critical to ensure environments conducive to free and fair elections.  He expressed the United Kingdom’s commitment to a global response to COVID-19, with $1 billion announced thus far, including $20 million dedicated to the African Union’s Response Fund.

Indonesia’s representative welcomed the holding of elections and political processes in several countries, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, and called for building the capacity of Governments and regional organizations so as to consolidate democracy.  He expressed concern over intercommunal violence in the region, advocating community-based dispute resolution mechanisms and efforts to both diffuse tensions and dismantle militias.  He commended Government efforts to fight cross-border security challenges and encouraged support for ECOWAS in implementing its 2020-2024 action plan to end terrorism.  It is also important to alleviate the dire humanitarian situation and he urged international partners to provide funding for life-saving assistance.  Furthermore, it is crucial to facilitate and maintain unimpeded humanitarian relief for hard-to-reach areas.

The representative of Germany, Council president for July, spoke in his national capacity to stress that the effects of climate change have led to disputes between herders and farmers over scarce resources.  Such conditions create a breeding ground for violent extremism and terrorism, he said, underscoring the importance of the “climate and security nexus” in the UNOWAS mandate.  Meanwhile, women and girls are targets of sexual and gender-based violence.  While commending the integration of the gendered dimension in the work of UNOWAS, he said “much more needs to be done”, as women’s full and equal participation substantially increases the chances for peace and stability.  More broadly, any international engagement must go hand-in-hand with the principles of national ownership.  “It is the primary responsibility of Governments to build trust in State institutions,” ensuring the rule of law and respect for human rights.  He expressed concern over tensions related to elections in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, as well as worsening security conditions in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Lake Chad Basin.  He urged all actors to fully respect human rights, stressing that freedom of opinion and expression is even more important during these difficult days of COVID-19.

Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Indonesia, Niger (also on behalf of South Africa and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States and Viet Nam.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, also addressed the Council.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.