In October 2011, Togo was elected to a non-permanent chair on the United Nations Security Council, seen as both international recognition and a reward for the country’s democratic progress since 2007.
Receiving three-quarters of the UN member states’ votes for ascension to the UN Security Council was a clear reflection of international appreciation for Togo’s diplomatic drive to sponsor worldwide peace and reconciliation.
As well as providing more than 800 UN peacekeeping military personnel to various conflict points in the region, including Côte d’Ivoire, DRCongo and Liberia, Togo has also played a key role in providing peacekeeping forces in Sudan and to address the crisis in Haiti.
In February 2012, less than three months after its election to the Security Council, this small West African country assumed the huge responsibility of the rotating presidency of the Security Council.
While there was much to occupy the 15-member Council in February – not least the stand-off and sabre-rattling over Iran’s nuclear programme, and the unfolding and truly tragic crisis in Syria – Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé ensured that issues regarding the peace and security of the Gulf of Guinea and Sahel region remained high on the agenda.
In fact, President Gnassingbé called a meeting of all the African envoys attached to the UN in New York to sensitise them to the situation in the Sahel. Meanwhile, he tasked Kodjo Menan, Togo’s ambassador to the UN, to organise a major level ministerial debate. This was to be an all too rare occasion for Africa, as an equal partner, to lead the debate for solutions to Africa’s problems in an international forum. Once again, it demonstrated President Gnassingbé’s intent to make certain that an African voice was heard at the highest diplomatic level.
The debate’s agenda dealt with the threats to social and political stability both in the West Africa region generally, and in the Sahel in particular. Addressing the symposium in his national capacity, Togo’s president described security in West Africa and the Sahel as “tenuous”.
With terrorism and piracy increasingly prevalent, he observed that the confluence of these trends with ongoing criminal activity had made the region susceptible to trafficking of all kinds. Clearly, although these issues have a distinct regional dimension, they are in fact the responsibility of the international community to tackle. Any serious analysis of the international trade in illegal drugs or terrorism would conclude that these are global threats.
“Furthermore,” the president added, putting the case for Africa, “countries emerging from conflict often have to cope with high levels of poverty, making them easy prey for outside criminal networks – and to compound matters, the struggle against the combined ills was siphoning off vital intellectual, human and financial resources, which should instead be devoted to development.”
In his opening remarks to the meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that organised crime, drug trafficking and piracy were all on the rise in the West Africa region and that last year’s upheaval in Libya had sparked an influx of weapons into the region.
In addition, fears were mounting that the situation could worsen further still for millions of people due to a growing food crisis afflicting the Sahel, rooted in drought, high food prices and conflict.
“There is even the fear that we could see in this region a crisis of the magnitude of the one in the Horn of Africa,” the UN head warned ominously. “We must not allow this to happen.”
Tackling the increasing flow of narcotics, mainly cocaine from South America to Europe and the US, the Secretary-General noted, will require the closing off of the West Africa and Sahel region as a staging post for the traffickers.
To this end, Ban Ki-moon reported, the UN was working closely with the authorities in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone on the West African Coast Initiative (WACI), and had begun the training of Transnational Organised Crime Units by United Nations police personnel.
WACI was developed in 2008 following the adoption of the Ecowas Regional Action Plan on Transnational Organised Crime in Abuja, Nigeria. It was designed to ensure practical co-operation in all fields of law enforcement, including forensics, border management, money laundering and criminal justice.
Echoing the Secretary-General’s concerns, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director, Yuri Fedotov, reported that the value of the illicit drugs passing through West Africa was generating a staggering $900m a year.
“South American drug cartels,” Fedotov explained, “are exploiting regional vulnerabilities in West Africa: poverty, unemployment, lack of border controls, weakness of law enforcement structures, and endemic corruption.”
But drugs are not the region’s only concern. Other illegal activities were growing and pressing problems too, including terrorism, maritime piracy, arms trading, kidnappings, human trafficking, counterfeit currency, and fake branded goods, including medicines.
The UN chief had already told the symposium that he was especially disturbed by reports of terrorist activity. He described the findings of an assessment mission the UN had dispatched in December 2011 to look at the effects of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel that found evidence that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had begun to form strategic alliances with drug traffickers and other criminal enterprises. The growing incidence of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea exacerbated the situation, he added.
In fact, a week before the symposium, a piracy incident off the coast of Nigeria had resulted in the murder of a ship’s captain and engineer. In attempting to formulate a response to the piracy threat, the UN experts had concluded that any comprehensive maritime strategy should be encompassed within a wider transnational organised crime response, to include drug trafficking as well as other serious problems such as illicit fishing, illicit toxic waste dumping and people trafficking.
“The warnings are there; the trends are clear,” Ban reiterated. “We have to co-operate even more closely with member states, as well as regional and international organisations. We have seen this toxic brew in other regions, in Africa and elsewhere.”
Worryingly, the UNODC’s chief, Fedotov, reported a fast-growing local market in West Africa for illegal drugs, with up to 2.5m drug users estimated to live in West and Central Africa – even if the drug traffickers were primarily using West Africa as a transit point.
“It is also important to understand the extent to which drug trafficking in the region might be linked to the piracy,” Fedotov added, while explaining just why it was so important to develop an inter-agency approach that would not only support local institutions but encourage deeper co-operation between the countries of the region.
One such country, struggling to contain a violent campaign of bombings by Boko Haram, is Nigeria. The Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the UN, Ambassador Raff Bukun-Oluwole Onemola, commented that the surge in terrorist attacks in the Sahel, as well as the trafficking networks, “deserved critical attention by the Security Council and the international community”.
Onemola welcomed the assessment missions to the Gulf of Guinea and Sahel, and expressed his hope that these would inspire a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges. He drew particular attention to the naval plan drawn up by Togo, Benin and Nigeria that had already met with some success.
Indeed, it was generally recognised that for the West Africa region to have any success in countering international crime and terrorism, an international response was absolutely crucial. Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé said that due to the scope of the problem “our States need more help, both material and financial, to combat often heavily armed criminal groups that have focused on our region.”
He called for “consistent, common and coordinated strategies” in that regard, and said that a major way the global community could contribute would be to seriously consider setting up an international contact group on transnational crime, similar to that on piracy off the coast of Somalia.
“We should not allow organised crime to destabilise West Africa and the Sahel,” Gnassingbé said, cautioning that failure to act would undermine hard-fought development gains.