Crippling poverty and rising corruption are feeding a growing public frustration over West Africa’s political leadership, the top UN representative to the region said in an interview.
But efforts by military rulers to hand power back to civilians in both Guinea and Niger offer the best chance at progress in the vast zone, which is rich in mineral resources but notorious for coups and rebellions, Said Djinnit told Reuters over the weekend.
“There are governments trying, struggling to improve governance and the well-being of the people. And this has been a source of hope for me,” said Djinnit, the United Nations’ special representative to West Africa since 2008.
“On the other hand, we see that the poverty is still with the region, the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger, and the sense of frustration that governments are not up to the challenges of their responsibilities is growing,” he said.
Coups, corruption, insurgencies, piracy and kidnappings in West Africa are a worry for investors and Western nations that depend on the region for a growing share of their oil, minerals and agricultural commodities.
The United States estimates a quarter of its oil will come from West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea by 2015, and has bumped up training operations for West African militaries to help them combat piracy, drugs smuggling and terrorist operations.
But the tumult will not stop until responsible governments are in place in West Africa to address endemic poverty that has lingered since the end of colonial rule and that has tempted many to engage in crime and rebellion.
“We cannot delink the issue of extremism from the issue of harmony in society and especially poverty. There is a sense of neglect and marginalization that can facilitate people to go to extremes,” he said.
“The core of the responsibility is with the governments.”
Djinnit said he was hopeful elections in Guinea, the world’s top producer of aluminium ore bauxite, and later in Niger, could mark some progress towards stability and potentially cement fragile gains made in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, which are recovering from brutal civil wars from the 1990s.
“The biggest achievement we could have in the region at this point would be stabilizing Guinea,” he said.
Guinea’s military leader General Sekouba Konate has set elections for June 27 but there are concerns that allies of injured and sidelined former junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara may attempt to disrupt or delay the poll.
“I have heard of some pro-Dadis elements, maybe in the forest. Their capacity to disturb the process is unknown to me,” Djinnit said. “We will be taking some preventive action. The people who have been identified as close to Dadis Camara and Dadis Camara himself will be approached,” he added.
Camara, convalescing in Burkina Faso after he was shot in the head by a renegade soldier in December, drew widespread international condemnation before his injury after his security forces killed more than 150 protesters in September.
The incident led the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the world’s first permanent tribunal set up to prosecute war crimes, to start a preliminary investigation.
“We will find the time to talk to Dadis Camara himself. He has a case with the ICC and whatever he does or does not do around this election will count toward his ICC case and he should know that,” Djinnit said.
Regional body ECOWAS will provide an international security force for the election, and Guinea will also train a special security unit, Djinnit said.
Djinnit added that he was also hopeful for a smooth transition to civilian rule in Niger, a leading uranium producer where the ruling military junta that took power in February has promised to leave within 12 months.
“For us, the sooner the transition the better. I hope that they will abide by this schedule and I have every reason to believe they would,” he said.
Niger’s junta toppled the government of former president Mamadou Tandja, who angered Nigerians and the international community by orchestrating a constitutional re-jig extending his term in office.
Pic: President Mamadou Tandja of Niger