As the world’s deadliest United Nations mission, in Mali, registered its first two peacekeeper deaths for 2022 from improvised explosive devices, uncertainty looms over the role that the French military operation Barkhane will play in helping protect UN bases from fatal attacks. Mali’s military junta ordered the French troops out of the country in February.
“We are keen to provide support to Minusma, only if the Malian authorities ask us for that,” a senior French officer who asked not to be named, told PassBlue recently. “We will be able to provide intelligence gathering and close air support from our bases in Niamey” — the capital of neighboring Niger.
Claims that Russian mercenaries are working in Mali is one of the few stories that puts the country in the headlines these days, as the global media focus heavily on Russia’s unrelenting assaults on Ukraine. Yet security and human-rights abuses remain dire in Mali, which was almost overrun by jihadist groups nearly a decade ago in a conflict that has drawn a coalition of European and African forces to push back the armed militias. These forces make up the vast majority of troops who are deployed and die in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Minusma.
Discussions among the French foreign ministry, UN peacekeeping officials in New York City and Minusma continue over the role that Barkhane will play in providing reconnaissance and air support for the peacekeepers and their numerous bases throughout Mali, if they are attacked by jihadists groups, according to the French officer. Nothing, however, has been decided yet.
People with detailed knowledge of Barkhane and Minusma said that the 4,300-strong French force that has been headquartered in northern Mali since 2014 has been offering important air support for peacekeeper patrols and convoys delivering equipment and intelligence and assisting with medical evacuation from bases that are being hit by increasingly sophisticated deadly attacks.
Drawing on internal data provided by Minusma, PassBlue found that in 2021 there was a twofold increase in attacks from the previous year by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs. Most of the casualties were poorly equipped African troops with limited or inadequate training in IED detection. (The attack in March 2022 killed two Egyptian peacekeepers.) Analysts have also pointed to the more advanced attacks launched by jihadist groups, particularly against bases in the restive Kidal region. That is where Chadian peacekeepers, who have registered the highest number of casualties overall, operate. Barkhane has already closed its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu.
In February, the Malian junta, who came to power in a coup last year and is led by Col. Assimi Goïta, ordered French and other European as well as Canadian forces working with the Malian military under Opération Takuba to depart. (Takuba is a French-led counterterrorism task force working with Malian forces in coordination with the G5 Sahel force, composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.)
The new coup leadership accused the French of violating bilateral agreements. Barkhane, in particular, has drawn the ire of Malian military leaders because it conducts operations in their country without Malian state oversight and approval, shields local legal prosecution of its troops and has been criticized for its inability to help the country get rid of the jihadists.
Recently, Sweden announced it would not keep its peacekeepers in Minusma beyond 2023, a year earlier than planned. A Swedish diplomat at the UN told PassBlue in January, when the government was contemplating its next steps, that it was “very concerned about developments in Mali, both with regard to the postponement of elections and to the presence of the Wagner group.” Germany must decide in May about keeping its peacekeepers in Minusma as well.
The alleged presence of the Wagner Group, a Russian private paramilitary contractor, with apparent links to the Kremlin and now working in the Central African Republic, has enraged France and the European Union. The latter has suspended military training and support in the Central African Republic, but it continues to offer military training and support in Mali.
According to two sources who spoke with PassBlue on the condition of anonymity, including the French officer, the Wagner Group is conducting operations with the Malian military in the central region of the country — Ségou, Mopti and Timbuktu — an area that has spiked with jihadist violence in the last few years. The officer said there were an estimated 900 members of the Wagner Group operating on the ground. When asked whether the presence of the paramilitary posed dangers to other foreign forces, the French officer said:
“[W]e are not afraid. The second point that is very clear is they should not try to oppose our forces, because the disengagement of Barkhane from Mali will be conducted in a synchronized and coordinated manner and we take all of the measures to make sure it will be very secure. I’m sure that if there is the smallest problem with Wagner it will be very quickly resolved.”
Barkhane’s full departure could take around six months as the rainy season is coming soon in Mali. The mission is expected to relocate to Niger but will need parliamentary approval, given the backlash there against the presence of French troops. The Malian government has yet to confirm the existence of the Wagner Group in the country, and a Malian diplomat at the UN has repeatedly told PassBlue that the Russian government is providing military support to Mali and not the private militia. He also said that since Russia began helping Mali fend off jihadist attacks, the number of deadly hits has dropped, although the UN has not documented this information.
PassBlue asked United States Embassy officials in Bamako in late February about its concerns regarding the Wagner Group and whether the US military would assist Minusma with logistics. The officials declined to comment. Questions to the Minusma press office also went unanswered.
Two Malian scholars, Oumar Ba and Ousmane Diallo, recently argued that last year’s coup worsened tensions with Barkhane. (Another coup occurred in 2020.)
“The accession to power of a new group of Malian elites, some of whom are Russophiles who studied in the Soviet Union, and others who are willing to talk to insurgents to end the bloodshed, only accelerated what was inevitable: a rift between Mali and France and a redrawing of the French military presence in the Sahel,” they wrote in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, underlining France’s official stance against engagement and negotiation with jihadists.
While Minusma has been praised for some successes since it was established in 2013, a new survey found that the Malian public was losing faith in the mission’s ability to improve peace and stability in their country. That begs the question, some analysts suggest, whether the animosity toward the French and European forces will be redirected toward Minusma.
In a 2019 a report produced by the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON), a network of 40 partners across the globe headed by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, researchers found that Minusma had been a relatively successful peacekeeping mission until 2016, assisting with conducting elections, creating a peace agreement (that has never been entirely carried out) and improving stability in urban centers in the north. The report also emphasized, however, that endless deadly attacks against peacekeepers were hurting its ability to operate and protect civilians, one of its primary mandates.
Additionally, the report raised questions about the neutrality of the mission because of its reliance on Barkhane and sharing of bases in northern Mali with Minusma. The UN mission also provides logistical support to the G5 Sahel force, which has been accused of serious human-rights abuses. But Marie Sandnes, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, a think tank, said that Barkhane’s departure was unlikely to affect Minusma’s support to the G5 in the short term.
The force, which was created in 2017, continues to be dogged by low finances and questionable successes as terrorist attacks in the region keep rising. The UN Security Council has repeatedly refused to support it financially, as the US does not want to back a counterterrorism operation with UN funds.
Among jihadist groups, Minusma is deemed as occupying, or “crusading,” forces, and is part of the “broader international strategy” in counterterrorism, while also not officially conducting such operations, according to Jair van der Lijn, a Dutch scholar who led the EPON report on Minusma.
“Barkhane has also been a challenge to Minusma because if you claim you are not doing counterterrorism and you claim you are neutral and impartial and at the same time you are in the same places as Barkhane and you coordinate with Barkhane, then jihadist groups and populations at times will see you as not that impartial,” van der Lijn told PassBlue.
Mali and other African countries have stressed the need for Minusma to be handed a more aggressive mandate, but van der Lijn said this demand was met with resistance from France in the past. (A stronger mandate would have to be approved by the Security Council, of which France is a permanent member.)
Van der Lijn anticipates that the presence of the Wagner Group could be met with its own backlash from the Malian population, particularly if the country’s armed forces are placed under the command and training of a private military contractor that has been accused of human-rights abuses in the Central African Republic.
It also remains to be seen how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may affect Malian sentiment toward Russia’s presence in the country.
The Malian military has been accused of widespread abuses itself: “It could only reinforce the reason why communities have rebelled against the central government: the armed forces have never ever brought anything good to them, only insecurity,” van der Lijn said.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.