“The fight for the blossoming, development and stability of West Africa is in a way my own”

On 11 March this year, pirates kidnapped 15 members of the crew of a Dutch tanker sailing off the coast of Benin. The news did not spread much beyond specialized maritime and shipping media, but it did raise a lot of concern in the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), which counts among its responsibilities working with regional partners to address such threats as piracy and maritime insecurity. The incident, which ended with the release of the sailors in April, was a reminder of the varied and extensive challenges the region faces and the complexity of UNOWAS’s mission. We recently spoke to UNOWAS head Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh, Special Representative of the Secretary General, about his role, which he took up in April 2021.

What are the main challenges in West Africa and the Sahel and how would you prioritize them? What role can the UN play in helping to overcome these challenges?

Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh: I admit that when looking at the region there are obviously many challenges. But among the most important ones are the challenges related to security — not only in the Sahel but also maritime piracy along the Gulf of Guinea; the challenges related to electoral processes; the place of women and youth in everyday life in terms of participation; and, last but not least, the challenges related to climate change.

We see that West Africa, which until recently was considered a haven of democracy, has not been able to meet these challenges. Unfortunately, for some time now, it has been clear that the sub-region is going through what I would call turbulence on the path of consolidating democracy. Among these turbulences, as mentioned before, we note especially elections. We have had to deal with post-election protests, violence, even deaths, and sometimes unconstitutional changes, such as coups as we have seen recently in Mali and Guinea. And because these turbulences threaten peace, stability and development in the sub-region, it is urgent to strengthen support for the efforts to try to resolve these crises.

Piracy and armed attacks in the Gulf of Guinea remain a concern. As the Gulf of Guinea is shared between West and Central Africa, we are working with the United Nations Office for Central Africa, UNOCA, to identify a sustainable solution to try and reduce or put an end to this crime. We are doing this in consultation with regional organizations such as ECOWAS, ECCAS and the Gulf of Guinea Commission. In addition, we are very pleased that the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission is also involved.

Overall, the Sahel region remains vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate change is a reality with land becoming scarcer, young people lacking prospects, lacking jobs, increasing inter-communal conflicts, rising food insecurity, and the issue of women and youth, who are the main victims of these changes. This can aggravate instability, and perhaps even provoke conflict.

Now, what can the United Nations, and more specifically UNOWAS, do? We continue to work closely with our regional and international partners to strengthen cooperation on democratic governance and electoral processes. A lot of efforts are made in the framework of preventive diplomacy and early warning to prevent or reduce these threats to peace and security. And all this work we are doing in concertation with ECOWAS and obviously with the countries concerned. We are currently organizing a platform to unite the ministers of justice to establish cooperation and information sharing between the main actors of the region, promoting the rule of law, in accordance with the ECOWAS Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.

Climate change is a reality, with land becoming scarcer, … increasing inter-communal conflicts, rising food insecurity, and the issue of women and youth, who are the main victims of these changes. This can aggravate instability, and perhaps even provoke conflict.

We are pursuing the same efforts with regional and national authorities to push for the implementation of institutional, legal and political normative frameworks that already exist on gender quota, gender parity and national action plans for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Our advocacy work aims to ensure greater inclusion of youth and women in governance, especially in elective and nominative functions. This is important to help counteract the growing trend of young people in West Africa resorting to crimes, their involvement in armed groups, in illegal migration, basically in search of survival. We need to create other alternatives for them. In this regard, we also welcome the appointment of our brother and friend Abdoulaye Mar Dieye as UN Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel, because it is an extremely important issue. Since his appointment, we have seen some progress in the implementation of the Integrated Strategy of the United Nations for the Sahel, with greater involvement of UN funds, programmes and agencies.

We are also trying to change the discourse on the Sahel to present it as an opportunity full of potential. We have also transformed our approach to portray young people as actors of change and transformation instead of beneficiaries. We want a paradigm shift at this level as well.

In terms of climate change and the farmer/herder conflict, UNOWAS is working with UNOCA, ECOWAS and with Special Coordinator Dieye to identify solutions and areas in which the United Nations can be involved. UNOWAS, in collaboration with UN agencies, has launched a UN regional work program on climate change, security, environment and development. I believe that there is a very favorable atmosphere for us to work together in synergy to seek peace, security and development in the sub-region.

The United Nations does extremely important work throughout the world in general, but particularly in the [West African] sub-region. In 2002, there was a decision of the International Court of Justice on the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon, and the implementation of this decision has been entrusted to the head of UNOWAS. The Nigeria-Cameroon Mixed Commission (CNMC), which I chair, has prevented the perpetuation of the conflict between two neighboring, brotherly countries. A lot of progress has been achieved: The delimitation of the border is nearly complete. The CNMC is making extremely important progress and thanks to the United Nations we have been able to limit and avoid a conflict that could be catastrophic between two neighboring countries.

Despite national and international efforts, violence and instability continue to plague the region. What needs to change in order to address the root causes of instability?

Although we are talking about the same sub-region, we can see that there are nuances in the root causes of conflict. For example, on the question of transhumance — the farmer/herder conflict — Sahelian countries have tried to adopt their own models, what I call endogenous solutions. Benin, for example, or Nigeria, have opted for a policy of sedentarization of herders, but also opening up transhumance corridors that are codified and guarded to allow for the free movement of animals to avoid such conflicts. I believe that each country must, according to its circumstances and environment, imagine its own model. We could even go further and create fora or frameworks for negotiations, discussions, exchange of dialogue between farmers and herders.

Secondly, we know that terrorist violence is amplified when there is a rupture of national consensus. Sometimes this violence feeds on local conflicts, caused by tensions between farmers and herders or caused by climate change. Since 2011, when the Libyan regime collapsed, we saw a real blossoming of these conflicts in the Sahel, and then from there it began to push towards the coastal countries. So far, the response against this violence is only military. But there also needs to be a stronger focus on providing support to the civilian population in affected areas. We therefore encourage states to create structures closer to the population, because these populations feel abandoned and, in fact, the violent extremists and armed groups are only able to occupy these places because they lack state structures. Working more closely with the local populations, using religious, traditional or customary legitimacies as a resource, can help in the search for solutions.

[W]e know that terrorist violence is amplified when there is a rupture of national consensus.

Recently in Nigeria, more than 6,000 Boko Haram fighters surrendered to the authorities in one day. Imagine that! Apart from the logistics to accommodate them, the question remains on how to insert them back into society. The question of justice, the question of forgiveness are also elements that countries must consider. We believe that everything must be done to reweave the social fabric that has been torn due to conflict and violence. The World Bank has been very proactive in financing income-generating activities to help reintegrate these young people returning to their communities. We believe that initiatives like these are a possible approach to dealing with the origins of these different conflicts.

Do you think that the subregion is currently experiencing a decline in democracy? If so, what role can the UN play in meeting this challenge?

Democracy in the sub-region is indeed experiencing some turbulence. But we should not forget that there are also positive developments. For example, in 2020, many elections that were considered a great risk were held successfully and allowed citizens to exercise their civic and political rights. For example in Cape Verde, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Niger. In Niger, for the first time, a democratically elected president handed over power peacefully. Based on this experience, and especially after having discussed this with many heads of state and different communities, I remain confident. I am not naive, but I am optimistic that this phase of turbulence in the medium to long term will give way to something positive. Especially when I see that the last summit of ECOWAS Heads of State held on 16 September, after having drawn a number of lessons, instructed the President of the ECOWAS Commission to revise the Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance in order to fill some gaps made evident by the coups d’état in Guinea and Mali and violence experienced in Côte d’Ivoire. This means that the heads of state are beginning to use self-criticism, saying quite simply that we must go forward rather than backward. This gives me some confidence and optimism, while remaining vigilant, and the UN, through UNOWAS, is ready to accompany this process.

What is most important to you in your work and in your new role as Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel?

I start from the principle that I am the representative of the United Nations, but I do not forget that I am African, I am Sahelian. And, in a way, I consider myself to be from West Africa. This fight for good democracy, for the blossoming, development and stability of West Africa is in a way my own. I am passionate about it. And so, if I have something that is close to my heart and that reinforces my optimism, it is my determination and my commitment to contribute to the return of West Africa to the forefront of the African continent in terms of regional integration, continental solidarity and above all of democratic progress.

The number of women and youth represented in political processes is still low in West Africa and the Sahel, even though many countries have national action plans in place to strengthen inclusion. What is missing? How can the UN support countries in the sub-region in implementing their commitments to women and youth participation?

An evaluation of the degree of participation of women and youth in decision-making in West Africa that was carried out in 2020 revealed that more and more women participate in the political life of political parties and more and more women have created organizations to be electoral observers. These are positive developments. In the subregion, we note that women are appointed to high-level positions, such as the presidency of electoral commissions in Benin, Liberia and Ghana. In Cape Verde, Guinea and Senegal the law on parity is making its way. UNOWAS will continue to actively advocate for the actual implementation of the parity and quota laws adopted by most of the region, because making a law is one thing, and implementing it is another. We must therefore be on the lookout to be able to push the states to implementation.

Democracy in the sub-region is indeed experiencing some turbulence. But we should not forget that there are also positive developments. For example, in 2020, many elections that were considered a great risk were held successfully and allowed citizens to exercise their civic and political rights.

We must also help and encourage the women and young people, who want to be involved in politics. We must help build their capacities. In Mali, for instance, we helped women candidates to prepare their documents, we even helped them in material ways by printing T-shirts and other publicity.

In the area of peacemaking and peacebuilding, because there too women and youth play an extremely important role, UNOWAS in partnership with ECOWAS and UN Women, has trained high-level mediators, both at the national and community level. It is an extremely important activity and perhaps it only remains for us to widen it, to give these women more visibility at the subregional, and why not also at the international level.

In post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation, UNOWAS supports the recovery of displaced populations, host communities, and provides training to vulnerable women. It is important to help these women become self-sufficient, in order to reduce their dependency. This is an activity in which we are also involved in, and which is beginning to produce effects.

Finally, in terms of the way forward, we are focusing on advocacy because that is our mandate. The United Nations has credibility and legitimacy. Recently, for example, in the Security Council when I presented my report, they called on a woman representing the civil society in Côte d’Ivoire to make a presentation. If we can push for each summit of heads of state to invite civil society, we can listen to young people, and listen to women. I believe that it can help their voices be really heard and their concerns understood.



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Politically Speaking

Politically Speaking


The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs