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What the Withdrawal of Minusma From Mali Says About Peacekeeping’s Future


The withdrawal of the UN mission of Minusma from Mali by Dec. 31 has begun, coordinated with the country’s transitional authorities, the UN tweeted on July 14, 2023, with the above picture. More than 460 peacekeepers from Egypt’s battalion have already departed. The mission of 17,000 personnel leaving Mali will have profound meaning for the UN’s general peace operations. MINUSMA

The coup in Niger in late July sent shockwaves in West Africa and far beyond. Besides enormous consequences from the crisis in the region, it could also have a “negative impact” on the current withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (Minusma), the UN said. One route for the UN to remove its equipment and personnel is through the north into Niger rather than going through central Mali to Côte d’Ivoire. The UN mission, consisting of more than 17,000 personnel, is mandated to leave Mali by the end of the year, as demanded by the Malian transitional authorities.

The situation in Niger is reaching a crucial point as Ecowas, the geopolitical consortium of West African states, threatened the putschists with military intervention if they didn’t reinstate the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum by Aug. 6, which has just passed. In a joint statement issued previously with Burkina Faso, the Malian government warned that such military intervention in Niger would be “tantamount to a declaration of war” against the two countries. Ecowas, led by Nigeria, has now agreed to meet in an emergency session on Aug. 10 regarding Niger.

President Bazoum is still being detained by the coup leaders, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated “his full support to Ecowas’ ongoing mediation efforts.” The UN Security Council also renounced the coup.

Against this uncertain backdrop, the Council is scheduled to discuss the latest developments of the Minusma withdrawal on Aug. 28, two months after Mali’s foreign affairs minister, Abdoulaye Diop, called for the withdrawal “without delay” of the peacekeeping mission, surprising the Council. The expedited withdrawal, with a deadline of Dec. 31, is estimated to be costing $590 million.

Why was the request by Mali so hasty after 10 years of Minusma’s presence in the country?

The mission was established in 2013 to ensure security and monitor human rights violations. It was also tasked with helping to carry out the peace agreement among the Malian government, pro-government armed contingents from northern Mali and a coalition of rebel groups who signed the deal in 2015. Yet the relationship between Bamako, the capital, and the UN has deteriorated significantly over time. As the insecurity has kept growing in the country, a first coup happened in 2020, followed by a second in 2021.

The two coups marked a turning point, and now the Malian transitional authorities have grown close to Russia and welcomed the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group militia on its soil, triggering the departure not only of the UN but also French and other European troops earlier.

In a Zoom interview with Vanessa Gauthier Vela, a Canadian researcher who wrote her Ph.D. on Minusma at the Geneva Institute of International and Development Studies, we discussed what led to the breaking point between Minusma and the Malian authorities, past and present.

Through a feminist lens, Gauthier Vela studied the power dynamics that took place in the mission, namely the interactions between personnel from the global North vs. global South, men vs. women and senior staff vs. junior staff. Gauthier Vela spent several months in Mali in 2018 to conduct her research. What she found has tremendous value for other UN missions operating in Africa and elsewhere. During our exchange, she unveiled the hierarchies at stake within and around Minusma while offering a broader reflection on peacekeeping and its future as the Security Council considers such large, traditional missions in the road ahead.

“Can a peace mission exist at the same time as a counterinsurgency operation of highly militarized goals?” Gauthier Vela asked rhetorically, predicting that violence against civilians in Mali will rise as Minusma leaves.

The interview has been edited and condensed. — CHLOÉ COSSON

PASSBLUE: How did the breaking point between Minusma and the Malian government emerge?

GAUTHIER VELA: The context of insecurity is very important in all those tensions and discussions between what we call today the transitional authorities [of Mali] and the UN. Although Minusma has been in Mali since 2013, the insecurity has been growing. At first it was only in the north but then, around 2016, it also became a big problem in the center of the country, which made Minusma extend its mandate to include that area in its activity. What the Malian population sees is insecurity is not getting better. You have thousands of soldiers of the UN in a specific place, but things are not getting more secure.

It’s one reason that led to the two coups. The first happened in 2020. The junta that toppled the government at the time was — and still is — very popular with the population because they are saying: We know how to bring security to the country. The second coup happened in 2021 and it was done by the same people. So again, on this security question, it became time for [the transitional authorities] to get rid of the old partners in security, the French. As we know, Operation Serval helped to push back insurgencies in the north in 2012, then it became Operation Barkhane, which stayed for a long time.

The situation also became very tense with Ecowas [the Economic Community of West African States] and the G5 Sahel [another regional group of five countries focusing on security]. Mali decided to withdraw from the G5 Sahel in 2022. As a consequence, the transitional authorities became more isolated. At the same time, the UN was seen as a scapegoat, and there is a big anti-French sentiment in the population, which also turned into anti-Minusma sentiment because it’s seen as pushing the agenda of France.

The question of human rights didn’t help the relationship either between the transitional government and Minusma. Minusma has a mandate of monitoring human rights abuses, and the transitional government accused the mission of politicizing the subject. Additional tensions arose from the Moura massacre, which was referenced in a UN report in May, specifying that the Malian military and their foreign allies — most probably soldiers from the Wagner Group — had perpetrated human rights violations there.

Support for the peace agreement between the northern stakeholders and the government of Mali was supposed to be a central piece of the mandate of Minusma. However, many actors involved in the agreement apparently lost interest in it, and as a consequence Minusma seemed to lose its pertinence. Of course, Minusma was helpful, it’s a deterrent force, and because of this, there were fewer attacks by jihadists. The UN mission’s Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) have been useful as well for the population. They are short-term development projects that provide basic help for such essentials as water, education, new buildings. . . .

PASSBLUE: So the deteriorating relationship between Mali and Minusma was gradual, but it accelerated in 2021?

GAUTHIER VELA: Yes, that’s correct.

PASSBLUE: You have studied hierarchies, especially gendered and racialized hierarchies. What power dynamics were taking place in Minusma?

GAUTHIER VELA: I found out that the way the UN chooses to respond to the context of insecurity exacerbates hierarchies, I mean the way we think about the other, the way we think about ourselves, as the ally or the enemy, the protector or the protected. In the context where there is no peace to keep, hierarchization happens between, for example, the global North and the global South. When specialized military technology is required, the mission needs countries who have this technology, countries who can operate this technology; in the meanwhile, countries who do not have this technology and do not operate it but have a long experience in peacekeeping are not seen as having the same level of professionalism. Europe returned to peacekeeping when it sent troops to Minusma, but some countries were already there, like Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a good knowledge of what peacekeeping is, but they still faced hierarchies under the global North countries, [and were] seen as a less-useful protector. Also in a jihadist context, anybody can be seen as the enemy. So it becomes difficult to integrate the Malian experts and the Malian professionals in the mission at the same level as the internationals because there is this climate of mistrust towards the host population.

This is why the UN was interesting to me. I wanted to study hierarchies in a global sense, and I thought that the UN makes some local and global connections very obvious. For example, in a peacekeeping mission, the hierarchies between the global North and the global South are crystallized through a specific context, which is understood as dangerous and implies a different relationship with the local population. In this peacekeeping mission setting there are also less women than men, and it’s a context where the host population is always seen as the protected ones, the weak, the feminized ones who are unable to make their own decision.

PASSBLUE: You started to answer the following question: What lessons could be learned by the UN for the future of peacekeeping missions?

GAUTHIER VELA: I’m sure that there is going to be a very deep reflection on what is possible to achieve through multidimensional missions. So what we see right now is big missions with a lot of mandates. We know that to produce durable peace, the sphere of security, humanitarian and development should work together. But what does it mean in practice? What are the priorities? In Mali, it’s been a while that people in the humanitarian sector, for example, tell us that it is the security that is prioritized there. So suddenly, the military priorities are sucking in all the other spheres. So what does it mean for the UN? Can a peace mission exist at the same time as a counterinsurgency operation of highly militarized goals?

Also, the UN is supposed to stay neutral. What does it mean when it openly supports the state in a conflict? Because it is a conflict. For example, what is happening with the peace agreement in Mali? Everybody’s talking about the jihadists and the insecurity, but the peace agreement is in very uncertain waters. Reflections about what kind of relationship the UN has or the UN missions have with host authorities also need to happen. We are talking right now about an unelected transitional government who decided to kick out the UN. The UN didn’t resist because it would be totally counterproductive to stay in this context. But those tensions are also linked to certain internal dynamics in the Security Council and the tense relationship between Russia and Western countries.

When the coup happened in 2020, the UN decided to continue their mission. And now they are going to leave because the transitional government asked them to, meaning they are giving them legitimacy and authority as an unelected government. It’s a government that enjoys popular support but this is another topic. So the UN needs to reflect on all this. What kind of mandate are they able to fulfill? In which context are they able to work? What kind of relationship do they need to have with the host government and what are the non-negotiable [references ] of peacekeeping?

The head of Minusma, El-Ghassim Wane, center meeting with a representative of the Malian government, right, regarding the transfer of peacekeeping operation tasks to Mali, Aug. 2, 2023. The expert interviewed for this article predicted that violence against civilians in the country will increase as the UN withdraws. MINUSMA 

PASSBLUE: What will the withdrawal of Minusma look like in the next four months by December, according to what you’ve observed there?

GAUTHIER VELA: During my field work, Minusma was still new. When I was talking to some UN people in 2018, they were telling me that they were still in the installation phase. And I was thinking, it’s been five years, so when is the installation phase finishing? Nothing of this could have been foreseen, the two coups and the population being so tired [of Minusma]. The thing I see about the next months is that in the short term, violence against civilians will increase. The government of transition right now has this partner, Wagner, and they want to tackle the insecurity before anything else. It brings us back to that idea of militarization, where everybody is an ally or an enemy. We saw it in Moura. Suddenly, abuse of human rights can happen because if you are considered as an enemy, it’s an open door for abuse of human rights. It will increase also because there is no sign that the Malian authorities can secure the entire country and because there is no human rights barrier.

And the peace agreement may fall far down into the priorities. What is going to happen with the armed groups in the north is very uncertain. I’d like to add that we don’t know what the next steps of the Malian authorities are. The only thing that we know is that Minusma is leaving. Closer ties for Mali with Ecowas, its Sahelian neighbors and the African Union could be helpful on a security level. It could help Mali to not be isolated and not depend mostly on its Russian partner.

PASSBLUE: What is your take on the current role of the Wagner group and how could it develop in the next months in Mali?

GAUTHIER VELA: I think that the Wagner Group can be convenient for a government that focuses on counterterrorist operations because they don’t seem to be bothered by human rights. It could also be a convenient partner for different states and people around the world for this [reason]. But contrary to the partnership with Minusma, for example, there is no development or humanitarian aspect, so it will be purely military. This is a turn that’s going to be taken for people who choose a partnership exclusively with Wagner and it will have disastrous consequences for civilian populations. As we’ve seen on June 16 with the Malian authorities asking Minusma to leave, or with the apparent coup that [Yevgeny] Prigozhin [the head of Wagner] attempted [in July], Wagner became a big thing. They are well planted in multiple countries in Africa and leave an imprint for a longer time on how governments want to tackle the questions of insecurity.

PASSBLUE: Do you think that Minusma’s withdrawal will inspire other leaders hosting peacekeeping missions in Africa to leave? Such as Minusca in the Central African Republic?

GAUTHIER VELA: Something as drastic would be extremely surprising to me. But those big multidimensional missions in Africa, Minusca, for example; but also Monusco in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who have mandates on top of mandates, which they are not able to fulfill, can be unsatisfying for the population because we don’t see anything getting better. The feeling of dissatisfaction of the population could be used, as in Mali, for internal political struggles. So again, the UN can become a scapegoat for the things that are not going well in a country and for internal political dynamics. Monusco is supposed to end in 2024. The enthusiasm for it has been decreasing for a long time. It comes down to what I was saying earlier: The UN needs to think about what the real possibilities for multidimensional missions are. Is it possible to achieve those goals? And what is important in the end? Is it maybe to have fewer but more achievable goals? Is it to leave a big military imprint in the country? It’s about the role of peacekeeping and how we produce this durable peace.

PASSBLUE: You studied Minusma through a feminist lens. What does it imply?

GAUTHIER VELA: I started this project because I wanted to study sexual violence by peacekeepers on the local population. But the more I looked at it, the more I saw different power dynamics and not only between peacekeepers and the local population but also [among peacekeepers]. It’s about looking at how they treat themselves as locals, internationals, men, women, staff, senior staff, junior staff. . . . Afterwards, I expanded my project using my feminist lens to highlight power relations. Even the UN, the Security Council, came into this big frame, but I was less interested in the mandates of New York than in how peacekeepers feel in their everyday life. They are the ones who interpret the sometimes very complex mandates in their everyday life. And respecting their work, even if I’m critical of it, is how I was able to conduct my research while keeping my feminist lens on. I was able to concentrate on how people experience their everyday lives in the camps, at their offices, in relationships with their coworkers, with their superiors. . . . The people and those hierarchies interested me as a feminist.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the future of big peacekeeping missions in Africa?

Chloé Cosson has a master’s degree in cultural journalism from Sorbonne University, in Paris, and a B.A. in literature (writing and English studies) from Lumière University, Lyon. She was most recently a digital managing editor of Arte TV, in Strasbourg, France.

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What the Withdrawal of Minusma From Mali Says About Peacekeeping’s Future
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Rene Labre
Rene Labre
1 month ago

Great article

Bamako Boy
Bamako Boy
1 month ago

You do not have to spend too long in MINUSMA to see why the local population has no faith in it. Incompetence is common at every level as is low level corruption. Peacekeepers organize themselves to take little risk and with a couple of exceptions make no attempt to take the fight to the insurgents. There are also huge disparities in the quality of peacekeepers, their training, equipment commitment and professionalism. Many locals can see that many of the peacekeepers who died in MINUSMA did so due to their own incompetence. If the local population can see how incompetent these people are in protecting themselves, they will have no faith in their ability to protect locals. They can see the graft and cheating in who gets employment locally with the mission and the obvious over manning for things like gate guards on UN bases. And in the major towns, especially Bamako, you can’t miss the well paid internationals driving around in their air conditioned white UN SUVs taking photos of the poor and often driving aggressively. This picture is repeated in every African UN peacekeeping mission, though at its worst in Central African Republic.

1 month ago

Pass Blue and Chloé makes me More clever than I was ! Thank you for this !

Dr. Sally Anne Corcoran
Dr. Sally Anne Corcoran
1 month ago

Thank you for such an interesting article that examined some of the structural causes of less than optimal peacekeeping results. So vital to consider some of her questions/conclusions for peacekeeping in the future!

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