Although West Africa and the Sahel continues to face unprecedented security challenges, it is still “a land of immense opportunities”, a senior UN official told the Security Council on Tuesday.
In her briefing, Giovanie Biha, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Officer-in-Charge of the UN Office for the region, UNOWAS, urged ambassadors to continue to support a strategy centred on building resilience, promoting good governance, and strengthening peace and security.
Ms. Biha presented the latest UNOWAS report covering trends and developments over the past six months.
Insecurity affecting millions
“Despite efforts by national security forces and international partners, insecurity has again deteriorated in large parts of the region,” she told the Council.
Operations by armed groups, violent extremists and criminal networks forced the closure of more than 10,000 schools, with millions of children affected, and some 7,000 health centres.
These non-state groups are fighting among themselves for supremacy and control of resources, she said, which is pushing States to the margin and causing untold misery to millions who have fled elsewhere to safety.
“Indeed, the central Sahel continues to face multidimensional challenges, unprecedented levels of security and humanitarian challenges, socio-political instability, further compounded by the impact of climate change, and food insecurity which was exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine,” she added.
At the same time, countries along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea have also seen an increase in attacks against their territories, threatening transport routes to landlocked nations further north.
Promoting consensus and dialogue
Ms. Biha reported on UNOWAS activities, including its efforts to promote political consensus and to ensure a level playing field ahead of elections this year in countries such as Nigeria.
The Office has also been working with the West African economic bloc ECOWAS and other UN entities to contribute to conflict resolution, both at the regional and local levels, including among farming and herding communities in northern Benin.
Relatedly, UNOWAS also worked with youth and women’s groups to promote conflict-sensitive best practices on climate change adaptation. These findings were brought to the COP27 UN climate conference in Egypt last November.
“In Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, peace caravans supported by the United Nations have concluded their journey through the respective countries, providing spaces for effective intercommunal dialogue along their way,” she added.
Commitment and support
In the wake of the September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, and another in Guinea a year earlier, UNOWAS has welcomed agreements on the length of political transitions.
“UNOWAS will remain actively committed to the assessment and follow-up mechanism agreed between Burkina Faso and ECOWAS and in the operationalization of the transition timeline in Guinea,” said Ms. Biha.
“The UN system will have to continue providing support to the countries concerned by focusing on responding to the grievances that led to those coups taking place.”
Combating insecurity and stepping up humanitarian assistance are particularly important in the context of these urgent challenges, she stressed, noting that millions remain the target of seemingly endless attacks, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso.
She further welcomed efforts in the Gambia to continue implementing recommendations made by the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.
Advocating for women
“We are also pleased to see that several countries in the region have adopted new national legislation, on parity in participation for women in political decision making, and this after years of sustained advocacy,” she told ambassadors.
The UN official expressed hope that lawmakers and other actors in Nigeria and the Gambia will relaunch the legislative process on this very important issue.
“For our part, UNOWAS will continue its collaboration with the Working Group on Women, Youth, Peace and Security in West Africa and the Sahel to assess the effectiveness of the current approaches, and to find new ways to ensure that half of the region’s population can make their voice heard in assemblies where decisions are taken, and budgets approved,” she said.
Meanwhile, a process towards establishing a justice ministers’ forum among ECOWAS countries “can be a critical tool, given the recurrent allegations that the judicial system is being instrumentalized in the region.”
Ms. Biha urged the Council to continue to support the UN strategy.
“Despite the many challenges facing the countries of the region, especially the Sahel region, the region remains a land of immense opportunities,” she said.
“I take this opportunity to salute the enormous resilience of the population of the region, particularly the Sahelian people who faced with many challenges of unprecedented magnitude continue to fight every day for a better future”.