Albert Gerard Koenders, the United Nations special envoy for the Mali peacekeeping mission, may be leaving that post in Bamako, the capital, to return to his native Netherlands as the new foreign minister. Neither the UN nor the Dutch government has announced the possibility yet, but some media accounts in Europe and in Mali suggest it is happening. A major international nongovernmental group in the region has confirmed the rumors.
Koenders, who is 56 and known as Bert, is a former Dutch minister for development cooperation and ran the UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast from 2011 to 2013, before he was appointed to Minusma, formally the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. He is said to be replacing Frans Timmermans, the current Dutch foreign minister, who is moving to a high post in the European Commission, news reports say.
Arnauld Antoine Akodjènou, the recently appointed deputy special envoy for Minusma, may be a contender to replace Koenders. Akodjènou, from Benin, another Francophone country, was previously the deputy special envoy to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the Ivory Coast.
Koenders participated in a high-level summit on Mali, held Sept. 27 at the UN, to discuss the “political process” underway in the country, which is still besieged by various Islamist terrorists, some associated with Al Qaeda, in pockets of the north and is recovering from a coup in 2012. The French military pushback in 2013 against the jihadists proved effective but their presence remains as they stage isolated attacks. Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the UN and president of the Security Council in September, told the media that the UN was as focused on the crises of Ebola and ISIS, the insurgents in the Middle East, as it was in preventing “a crisis situation in Mali.”
Indeed, Mali may be the most deadly UN mission among the peacekeeping department’s current retinue as fatal attacks from jihadists continue despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and French military in remote outposts like Kidal. These assaults include suicide bombers, rocket fire at UN camps and roadside bombs — leaving 10 Chadian peacekeepers dead in September alone in Mali. In the deadliest attack committed against Minusma so far, a peacekeeping convoy traveling in eastern Mali was ambushed in October, leaving nine peacekeepers from Niger dead, and bringing the total to 30 dead since the mission began 15 months ago. [In addition, a peacekeeper from Senegal was killed in October.]
The UN summit meeting in New York, attended by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, was closed to the press. The meeting was convened on the sidelines of the opening of the 69th General Assembly and covered updates on the negotiations toward a peace agreement among some of the rebel groups and the government of Mali. The meeting occurred against the backdrop of efforts by the US, France and other countries to try to contain — with equipment, personnel and money — Islamic terrorist encroachments in the Sahel region of Africa, which includes Mali.
A summary from the UN on the meeting said that the event included members of the mediation team, such as Algeria, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Union, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. The Security Council also took part; Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Islamic Development Bank participated as observers.
Koenders was appointed to Minusma in May 2013, before it deployed in July 2013. He was tasked with helping to re-establish Malian government authority throughout the country after the 2012 coup and is credited with restoring a semblance of normalcy in Bamako, a city of intense poverty, almost daily power blackouts and a police force that badgers civilians with dubious fines. Koenders helped to ensure that the government’s elections in 2013, during which Keita won, ensued without much violence.
The close, productive relationship that Koenders has fostered with the Dutch government has enabled, for the first time in the UN peacekeeping system, a reconnaissance unit to be installed, which Minusma uses in its remote outposts in the Sahara desert. Whether the cooperation of the Dutch government with Minusma will last if Koenders departs is unclear, although Sweden said at a peacekeeping summit in New York recently that it was also sending a surveillance unit to Minusma.
[This article was updated on Oct. 9, 2014.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.