The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali is considering three distinct choices for its future operations, according to a new internal review. The analysis has been brought about by the mission’s “overstretched” status stemming from increased political and security challenges, including the final withdrawal of French and European Union troops in August 2022 and Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel counterterrorism force last year as well.
The first option is to increase troop strength for the mission, known as Minusma, to fully carry out its Security Council mandates. This choice envisions raising troop and police numbers by 3,680, though it is not a new idea but was proposed in 2021 and rejected by the Malian government at the time. The second option is to maintain focus on the mission’s priorities in a reduced “footprint.” This plan would mean giving up “some of the smaller camps in locations without significant protection of civilians’ concerns.”
The third option would be to withdraw uniformed personnel for Minusma to become a political mission in Bamako.
The review, obtained by PassBlue, is likely to be the main topic of the Security Council meeting on Mali on Jan. 27. The head of Minusma, El-Ghassim Wane, is expected to brief the members.
In the thoroughly written, 24-page document, dated Jan. 15, sent to Council members and produced by the UN secretary-general’s office, the lead-up to the recommendations in the review chronicle the history of the troubled peacekeeping mission from its inception in 2013 till now, in an equally troubled country. The mission is the bloodiest entity in the UN’s peacekeeping portfolio, with a total of 165 peacekeepers killed in the country since Minusma began operating. Moreover, a new force commander has yet to be named to succeed Kees Matthijssen, whose term recently ended. A successor should be in place by June, a source told PassBlue.
The stocktaking examines the political and security conditions affecting Minusma’s mandates: to protect civilians and carry out the 2015 Algiers peace accord between the government and the signatory armed groups from northern Mali. The government participated in the monthslong review, requesting, for example, that Minusma “plan” more closely with Mali in providing logistical support and funding military infrastructure projects; helping to stabilize areas freed from extremist groups; boosting the national economy through procurement and more use of Malian vendors; and hiring more Malians for Minusma staffing.
The government, however, is not convinced that an increase in UN personnel would be useful, and it has denied it is obstructing Minusma’s work, details of which are included in the review.
The picture is precarious, given the increasingly fraught relationship between the mission and the Malian government, which is led by a transitional president, Col. Assimi Goïta, a 40-year-old who seized power in a coup in May 2021, after a coup in 2020. It was clear from the interim prime minister’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September that Mali was not taking a love-your-neighbor approach to most of the countries in West Africa or the West.
Col. Abdoulaye Maïga attacked foreign political forces in his Sept. 24 speech, saying, among other remarks as the interim prime minister, that “almost 10 years after its establishment, the objective for which Minusma was deployed in Mali has not been achieved.” He described France as an “obscurant junta who is nostalgic for neo-colonialist, condescending, paternalistic and vengeful practices.” (France is a civilian-elected democracy and not a junta.)
Given the animosity from the Malian junta government generally, the quest behind the UN review was to decide whether the peacekeepers should stay or go.
The assessment was produced through consultations with a range of relevant parties, including troop-contributing countries to Minusma, the permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States), Minusma’s top management, the UN Department of Peace Operations and other UN specialists as well as the African Union and regional groups.
Since 2012, dozens of players in Mali, the region, the continent and far beyond have striven to stabilize the landlocked country after jihadists swarmed the north, instituting harsh laws, carrying out extreme punishments and expelling officials from the areas under siege. In 2013, a French-led military intervention somewhat normalized parts of the country. But after years of brewing tensions and sniping, the French fully withdrew last year, as had a large European Union military training mission and a regional military setup. These departures have left a “security void,” the review noted, that violent extremists are exploiting. (Paradoxically, though the French have left Mali, the French delegation in the Security Council still holds sole responsibility for the Minusma agenda item.)
In the last year, numerous troop-contributing countries to Minusma, fed up with the Malian government’s restrictions of peacekeepers’ movements and other serious problems, have announced they are leaving or may leave, making the mission ever more vulnerable. The countries that have announced such plans include Britain, Sweden, Germany, Egypt, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire — almost 17 percent of the Minusma’s total “force strength,” the review said.
Although Mali experienced a semblance of stability for a few years, after the French troops arrived a decade ago and Minusma was set up, by 2016 that relative calm vanished because of a dramatic rise in violence from “terrorists and criminal networks” in northern and central Mali, according to the review.
The country is still reeling from such violence, despite the presence of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries, who were hired by the Goïta government more than a year ago to help repel armed jihadists. Caught in the middle is Minusma, which no longer benefits from such essential military services as surveillance assistance from French troops and must contend with the Malian public’s rage that the UN mission is not keeping them safe. Yet Minusma was never meant to carry out counterterrorism work, even though it has been a lasting deadly target of criminal gangs and extremist militias. All these problems and other constraints have put the mission, of whom nearly half is staffed by African peacekeepers, at unbearable risk.
In the last 18 months, the review says, major rifts have widened in Minusma’s relationship with the Malian junta leaders, who lack governing experience, as they stress the mission’s need to respect Malian sovereignty, above all else. This demand occurs as Colonel Goïta and his cabinet have been edging closer to the Wagner Group in the country while shunning France. Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, who has held the post on and off through other Malian presidencies, has made an about-face in his current role, also damning the French.
Some media reports say that deadly violence has been rising in Mali, with more than 2,000 civilians killed since December 2021, compared with about 500 in the previous 12 months, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nongovernmental organization. At least a third of the deaths recorded last year were from attacks involving the Wagner Group, per data compiled by the project.
The distrust between the junta leadership and Minsuma includes the government questioning aspects of the status of forces agreement, arguing that they don’t align with national law; air and ground restrictions; and suddenly ousting the Minusma spokesperson last spring. (Mali has also kicked out large Western media outlets.) The restrictions of movement are “significant,” the review said, because they tend to occur where “protection” is needed the most.
The rifts have led to the UN’s current assessment on how the relationship could continue productively, given the dysfunction and that Minusma has been “overstretched” since 2019 to the point of being “unsustainable.” To envision a “reconfiguration” of the mission, the UN presents three choices, with the third being the starkest: converting to a “special political” operation.
The first option may be the UN’s most desired and may be a stalling tactic until the way ahead for Minusma can be clear: raising the number of troop and police personnel by 3,680. The expansion would “enhance the ability of the Mission to adopt a proactive, robust, flexible and agile posture in all aspects of mandate implementation by the Security Council.” Commensurate with an increase in troop strength is a projected growth in bases and logistics. A variation of this plan would grow peacekeeping numbers by 2,000.
The second option is to consolidate the mission’s “footprint.” This would entail the “closure/handover” of some of the smaller camps in places that have no “significant” civilian protection challenges. The details of which camps would be involved are provided, but the objective would be to “reduce the volume of resources devoted to self-protection and the logistics burden borne by the existing footprint, for the Mission to improve its responsiveness.” A big downside, the review said, would be the perception that Minusma is “abandoning local populations.” The option also featured variations: One to consolidate in central Mali and the second to focus on supporting the Algiers accord by raising the number of troops in the north. Either choice could result in a “deterioration of the security situation” in the north since it would mean a reduced Minusma presence.
The last option is the biggest leap, converting from a peacekeeping mission to a political one, with all uniformed personnel withdrawn. Given the size of the mission, with 17,557 personnel deployed as of June 2022, this step could leave a security vacuum if not done in cooperation with the Malian security and defense forces, the review noted — surely not guaranteed. Moreover, without uniformed personnel, the mission would be based only in Bamako, the capital, focusing on political matters, such as supporting “good governance” measures to the Malian leaders, helping to carry out the peace accord as well as human-rights monitoring.
Under choice No. 3, the UN, in its typical understatement, said that the “human and financial cost of the Mission would be reduced drastically.” Yet it concedes that the result will likely create a “serious deterioration in the security situation in Mali.”
What does Colonel Goïta want for his country of nearly 22 million people? The review doesn’t quote him. But according to a recent media report by AFP, Mali received a new delivery of warplanes and helicopters from Russia, “the latest in a series of deliveries from its new top military and political ally.” Eight planes and two helicopters were counted at a ceremony attended by Russia’s ambassador to Mali, Igor Gromyko, and Colonel Goïta, which he tweeted.
The shipment included Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes to support ground troops and the Czech-designed Albatros L-39, which can also be used as attack aircraft. Mali received Mi-8s as well, a Soviet-designed Russian helicopter that can transport troops and equipment and be fitted with weapons to defend ground troops, the report said. Although the Malians say they bought the weapons, they have released no details of the deal.
The article was updated to include new information on the options being proposed and when a new force commander will begin working.
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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.