UN warns of continuing instability in Africa’s Sahel

Peace operations chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix issues warning at Security Council meeting

A soldier from the French Army monitors a rural area during the Bourgou IV operation in northern Burkina Faso, along the border with Mali and Niger, on November 10, 2019. - This is the first time that the French Army, the national armies and the multinational force of the G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) have officially worked together in the field.
The mission of the 1,400 soldiers of this Bourgou IV operation (including 600 of the 4,500 French soldiers of the Barkhane force): to restore authority in a remote area where no army has set foot in more than a year, leaving the field open to jihadists. (Photo by MICHELE CATTANI / AFP)

The UN's peacekeeping chief has given a warning that the crisis in Africa’s Sahel region remains volatile, with insecurity and instability seriously undermining prospects for development, and many lives being lost every day as a result of terrorist attacks.

“Millions of people are displaced,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN's undersecretary general for peace operations, said on Friday.

Children "can no longer go to school and primary health care remains inaccessible for many” while the Covid-19 pandemic is still raging, he said.

He was speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on the G5 Sahel force set up by five African nations – Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania – in 2017 to fight the growing terrorist threat in the vast Sahel region.

Mr Lacroix said the joint force continues to increase its operational pace but faces “enormous challenges", including the return of foreign fighters from the conflict in nearby Libya, domestic challenges, political uncertainty and major shortfalls in equipment and the capacity to carry out operations effectively.

“The joint force is now at a crossroads and there is a risk that it will lose the gains that have been made,” he said.

In July, UN experts said Africa became the region hardest hit by terrorism in the first half of 2021 as ISIS and Al Qaeda and their affiliates spread their influence, boasting gains in supporters and territory and inflicting the greatest casualties, including in the Sahel.

Mr Lacroix repeated the UN's support for the establishment of a logistical and operational support office for the G5 Sahel force financed by assessed contributions from the UN’s 193 member nations.

The force now receives support from bilateral donors, including the US.

US deputy ambassador Richard Mills echoed the alarm of the UN and other council members at “rising violent extremism, intercommunal violence, the growing humanitarian needs, and certain cases of democratic backsliding in the Sahel".

He said last week’s “tragic attack in Niger that killed 69 civilians only deepens that alarm". Militants ambushed a self-defence brigade in western Niger, killing 69 people in the latest attack in the volatile border region near Mali.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, speaks during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Mr Mills said the Biden administration remained committed “to continuing our strong bilateral partnership with member states of the G5 Sahel by providing equipment, training, and advisory support for critical capability gaps", referring to the more than $588 million the US has authorised to provide security assistance and efforts to counter extremism since 2017.

But he repeated US opposition to UN funding, saying: “Let me be clear: the United States continues to believe that the UN – regardless of the mechanism – is not an appropriate vehicle to provide logistical support to the G5 Sahel joint force.”

He said “it is not a multilateral force on foreign soil mandated as a peace operation” and the Security Council must remain forced on achieving political solutions.

“Our collective efforts in the Sahel must go beyond a military response … and address problems with governance,” Mr Mills said.

Mr Lacroix also said “security efforts alone are not sufficient to address the crisis in the Sahel".

He called for a “holistic approach” that addresses governance problems and the root causes of poverty and exclusion so that young people in the region can see a future with opportunities.

Mr Lacroix repeated Secretary General Antonio Guterres' call for the establishment of a political forum with representatives from the G5 countries, international and regional organisations, the UN, EU and Security Council members.

“This forum would both promote regional ownership and foster enhanced international support while ensuring that the operations of the [G5] force are aligned with important political processes", including the introduction of a 2015 peace agreement in Mali, he said.

Updated: November 13th 2021, 9:28 AM