West African and international powers are failing to tackle the spiralling threat of Islamist militancy in the Sahel region, which is spreading to the Gulf of Guinea, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
Groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthened their foothold across the arid Sahel region this year, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamist militants who occupied the north, but rather than stabilising the region, the situation progressively worsened.
“We are losing ground in the face of violence,” Guterres told a high-level panel on the side-lines of the United National General Assembly.
“I know we are all concerned about continuing escalation of violence in the Sahel and its expansion to Gulf of Guinea countries.”
In July, the UN said Islamist attacks were spreading so fast in West Africa the region should consider bolstering response beyond current military efforts.
France has about 4 500 troops in the region as part of Burkina Faso counter-terrorism operations, while the United Nations operates a peacekeeping force in Mali of about 15 000 soldiers and police.
In 2017, five countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania – backed by France, launched the G5 Sahel task force to combat the insurgents. The initiative is perennially underfunded.
“The risk of contagion to other countries is there,” Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore said. “The G5 states can’t handle this situation.”
Incidents of violence spread to Burkina’s southern border to coastal West African countries Togo, Benin, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
West African leaders pledged $1 billion to combat the threat, but as with previous funding, claims scepticism over the move.
France and Germany last month began a new push to reinforce and train regional forces, widening military co-operation with regional bloc ECOWA and countries in the Lake Chad Basin.
“This is an initiative to get new forces into the Sahel and reinforce local capacities so countries can face the challenges in the long-term,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.