UNITED NATIONS — Days after attacks on two villages killed more than 100 civilians in his African nation, Niger's president said Wednesday that tackling the growing fragility of nations must be a top priority of the 21st century.
President Mahamadou Issoufou urged international help so countries in Africa's Sahel and Lake Chad Basin can build stronger democratic institutions and strengthen their security and defense capabilities.
He said the massacre near Niger's border with Mali is a stark reminder that "what is happening in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin ... strikes the entire international community."
Speaking at a virtual high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Issoufou said that "fragile conflicts are increasingly the battleground for political rivalries." He said terrorism, pandemics, forced displacements, disasters and famine "often take root in fragility."
Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali are battling the spread of deadly extremist violence, including from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, which has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands despite the presence of thousands of regional and international troops. Niger must also deal with instability spilling over from Nigeria, exacerbated by local tensions.
The deadly attacks on the western villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye took place Saturday, the same day that Niger announced its presidential election will go to a second round on Feb. 21. Issoufou is stepping down after two terms and the West African nation, which has seen four coups, could see its first democratic transition of power since independence from France in 1960.
The next president will have to deal with major problems including extremism, poverty, displacement and corruption. Issoufou told the council: "We need as broad involvement as possible of the international community to the international coalition to counter terrorism in the Sahel."
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, said that "it is in Africa that the issue of state fragility and peacekeeping issues are most acute," pointing especially to the spate of attacks in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, including the weekend attacks in Niger.
Tunisian President Kais Saied, whose country holds the Security Council presidency this month and organized the meeting, said that "peacebuilding efforts need to focus on stability and progressively addressing fragility so development and prosperity can be achieved."
He stressed the importance of promoting human rights, democracy, good governance and inclusive participation in fragile nations.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, "Conflict continues to breed poverty and foster institutional fragility, which in turn decreases the resilience of these societies and the prospects for peace."
"By 2030, the World Bank estimates that two thirds of the world's extreme poor will live in fragile or conflict-affected countries," he said.
The U.N. chief quoted the World Bank's Fragility and Conflict Report, which said one in five people in the Middle East and North Africa "lives in close proximity to a major conflict." This has led humanitarian needs to multiply, "reaching the highest levels since the Second World War," Guterres said.
The number of people at risk of starvation has doubled, international methods to manage conflicts "have been stretched to the breaking point" resulting in a number of countries being caught in a vicious cycle, he said.
Guterres said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends, with extreme poverty rising for the first time in 22 years in 2020, and the contraction of economic activity in fragile and conflict-affected settings "expected to push an additional 18 million to 27 million people into extreme poverty."
Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, told the council, "You have the power in your hands to help to end the vicious cycle of conflict, displacement and despair so many have faced for so many years."
She urged the U.N.'s most powerful body to look beyond its narrow interests -- which have blocked action on Syria and other conflicts -- "and recognize that peaceful, just and inclusive societies have benefits far beyond their own borders."
She warned that "unattended issues in society fester and deepen fragility." She strongly backed early interventions to prevent conflicts and U.N. peacekeeping operations that are flexible enough to change with challenging circumstances to help restore stability in conflict countries.
Many peacekeeping operations cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and some more than a billion dollars, and Sirleaf asked the 15 council members to consider a new idea for spending some of that money.
"What would result if some 25% of financing for peacekeeping were allocated to a technical training contingent of peacekeepers dedicated to training young, unemployed potential militants?" Sirleaf asked.