Jonathan warns arms pouring into Sahel

2012-02-17 12:43

Abuja - Nigeria's president warned at a west African regional summit on Thursday that a security crisis in the Sahel has led to a rise in the number of weapons flowing into the drought-hit region.

The north African desert area has faced intensified threats from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) following the conflict in Libya, which caused a surge in arms proliferation, the UN Security Council has said.

Some have warned that instability in the Sahel is also linked to the rise in attacks in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram Islamists who have killed more than 200 people already this year.

"We are... witnessing a lot of crisis in some parts of the sub region," Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan said at the start of the Economic Community of west African States summit in Abuja.

"Because of the crisis we have in the Sahel region, we see [a] flow of small arms and light weapons," he added.

Mali, one of the Sahel states repeatedly targeted by Aqim, has also been forced to combat a fresh offensive launched last month by Tuareg rebels.

The rebels have attacked several northern Malian towns since January 17, part of a long-running battle to demand autonomy for their nomadic, desert tribes. They may have also forged a link with Aqim, France said this week.

Boko Haram may also be closely tied to al-Qaeda's north Africa branch, according to some analysts.

The outgoing head of the Ecowas commission, Ghana's James Victor Gbeho, affirmed that both historical tensions and the fallout from Libya's civil war have inflamed violence in the Sahel.

Speaking at the summit in Nigeria's capital, he said "the resurgence of rebellion and banditry in Mali and other states in the Sahel region" is tied to "unresolved historical factors and fueled by the recent crisis in Libya."

Precarious conditions

Both Jonathan, the current Ecowas chairperson, and Gbeho are due to step down from the roles with the regional body.

A senior African diplomat who requested anonymity told AFP Ivory Coast's president Alassane Ouattara is expected to succeed the Nigerian leader, following a vote set to take place before the summit closes.

The unrest in Mali has sparked widespread internal displacement and a surge in refugees fleeing the country. Niger and Burkina Faso, both Ecowas members, have seen the arrival of thousands of Malian refugees, as has Mauritania, which is not a member of the bloc.

The Red Cross has said that at least 30 000 people are displaced in Mali and living in extremely "precarious conditions", while the number of people who have fled the country is believed to be more than 20 000.

Amid this insecurity, the Sahel also needs "urgent" assistance to mitigate against the potential onset of famine following late and erratic rains that have ruined crops across a wide swathe of territory, United Nations and European Union aid chiefs said this week.

Jonathan also said that "action" was required to stem the uptick in piracy now plaguing the Gulf of Guinea.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have launched three attacks in the area in recent days, including one on Monday in which the captain and chief engineer of a cargo vessel were shot dead off the coast of Nigeria.