The decision by Mali’s ruling junta to end the UN peacekeepers’ decade-long mission could result in the country sliding deeper into chaos amid an Islamist insurgency and the possible revival of a separatist uprising in the north.
The Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali, (MINUSMA) has been hobbled by restrictions on its air and ground operations since the ruling junta joined forces with Russia’s Wagner Group in 2021.
The 15-member UN Security Council (UNSC) was scheduled to renew MINUSMA’s mandate before the current one expires on 30 June. On 14 June, however, the regime rejected all the UN’s proposals and two days later, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told a UNSC that there had been ‘a crisis of confidence between Malian authorities and MINUSMA’ and the force should leave ‘right away.’ MINUSMA’s head, Mauritania’s El-Ghassim Wane, told reporters that peacekeepers can only operate with consent from the host country: without that, the mission is ‘impossible.’
According to a French-proposed draft UNSC resolution the UN will end its decade-long peacekeeping mission in Mali on 30 June and will withdraw all of its 13,000 personnel within by 31 December 2023.
Despite the restrictions, the MINUSMA force has held the line in northern cities including Gao and Timbuktu which are surrounded by militants. It: patrols camps for displaced people, which come under frequent attack; provides medical evacuations for Mali’s under-equipped army; provides escorts for food and humanitarian convoys; and flies government officials across the country to avoid driving in conflict zones. It has also helped to placate Tuareg-led rebels in northern Mali who halted their separatist uprising with the 2015 Algiers Accord.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah — a former Mauritanian foreign minister who served as the UN’s top official in West Africa and now runs a regional think-tank — said on 16 June: ‘If you leave, you have anarchy and civil war, especially against civilians and the weak. If you stay, you are almost discredited.’
A spokesman for the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) — the Tuareg-led rebel alliance — said that any UN withdrawal was premature because the peace deal had not been fully implemented and would threaten stability across the Sahel region. He said, however, that the CMA had not yet reached an official position.
Relations between the UN. and Mali’s junta — which consolidated power in two coups in 2020 and 2021 — have been frayed for years. Bamako wanted MINUSMA to become a more active fighting force to counter the Islamist threat, which the UN said was not part of its mission. Meanwhile the latter pushed for greater freedoms to protect civilians and investigate rights abuses by militants, the army and, more recently, the Wagner Group.
Relations reached breaking point in May when UN investigators released a report accusing the army and ‘armed white men’ of massacring 500 people at Moura in March 2022 (Sahara Focus, May 2023). Mali, Russia and Wagner deny wrongdoing in Moura or of targeting civilians anywhere in Mali.
The UN has repeatedly said that the constraints imposed by the junta have stopped it from fulfilling its mission. It has frequently denied or delayed permission for MINUSMA to move in combat zones which has made it more difficult to respond to civilians under attack or swiftly probe abuses.
Since MINUSMA’s launch in 2013 around 200 peacekeepers have died in fighting which has made it the UN’s most deadly combat mission.
According to a UN internal report, by mid-2022, restrictions prevented the it from operating unscheduled flights over 70,000 kms2 of Mali with nearly 500 flight requests, or around 25%, being denied in the previous year.
Frustrated, countries — including the UK, Germany and Sweden which provided some of the best trained soldiers — announced troop withdrawals amounting to more than 20% of the mission. Last year France withdrew its remaining 2,400 MINUSMA troops and air support it gave the UN. In July 2022, Egypt suspended its MINUSMA activities because of attacks on its troops and, for nearly a year, its 1,072 soldiers had been stuck in its base.
The majority of MINUSMA’s remaining soldiers are supplied by African nations but on 30 March 2023 it was reported that three of its four elite mobile task force are not operational.
Despite its restrictions and shortcomings, MINUSMA has continued to play a significant role in Mali. Its US$1 billion budget has created thousands of jobs and provided local support by erecting streets lights or police stations in a country whose economy has been crippled by coup-related sanctions imposed by its neighbours. It has also helped in organising a constitutional referendum on 18 June (see below), which is meant to pave the way to presidential elections next year. Crucially, it has also coordinated peace talks between rival armed groups in the north.
An anonymous senior UN official said that Tuareg leaders had indicated that the withdrawal of the UN mission could lead to the collapse of the Algiers Accord, which marked the official end of a four-year armed uprising that seized large parts of northern Mali with repercussions felt across the region.
The CMA’s spokesman, Ould Mohamed Ramdane, also said that in addition to its role in ongoing talks, MINUSMA had brought ‘calm and security’ to areas where it was deployed and had dispensed a lot of humanitarian aid in northern Mali. He added: ‘We all think that its withdrawal will have a major impact on the northern localities but also on stability throughout the Sahel.’
Restrictions imposed on MINUSMA’s movements by the regime have meant that the mission has become increasingly focused in recent years on protecting itself. Some 90% of troop operations have been used to secure its own bases and defend peacekeepers. It has therefore struggled to counter a tide of anti-UN online posts and lost the battle for public opinion in Mali. In a recent survey of nearly 2,300 Malians conducted by Germany’s Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation, 72% blamed MINUSMA for not protecting civilians. In contrast, over 90% said they had confidence in Russia to support Mali in the fight against Islamists.This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.