UN’s Mali Mission Needs Regional Focus to Support Peace Process

MINUSMA peacekeepers on duty as UN Security Council members visit Mali. Bamako, Mali, February 2, 2014. (UN Photo).

The United Nations Security Council will soon extend the mandate of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Two years after its establishment, the mission remains deeply challenged and increasingly under threat. This poses significant questions about how it might be reformed to support the nascent peace agreement aimed at ending the crisis in the north of Mali.

The agreement, which came out of protracted negotiations in Algiers, was last week signed by more or less all groups involved in the negotiations. However, the signatories are fragmented and based on shifting alliances whose political calculations may change overnight. Violence has been rife and MINUSMA has arguably become the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world. What can be done to strengthen MINUSMA to support the implementation of the peace agreement and work towards greater stability and human security in Mali?

MINUSMA was established to create the conditions for reconciliation and peace talks. In order to protect itself, MINUSMSA has been mandated to use coercive power where necessary. This task has been delegated to France as a follow-up of that country’s Operation Serval, which supported Mali from collapsing and being overtaken by extremists in early 2013. Whereas MINUSMA’s mission is defined within the confines of the Malian state, both the peace talks and the “robust” part of MINUSMA’s mandate handled by France have been conducted within a broader regional framework. This has left MINUSMA exposed and vulnerable, which needs to be addressed if it is to be successful.

At the heart of the crisis in Mali is a contest over what the Malian state should look like. This is mostly an issue of the nature of the power balance between the north and the south of the country, with many local nuances and grievances playing out. Across these fault lines operate a variety of extremists and criminal groups, who are not interested in helping to build up a viable Malian state, but who occasionally cloak themselves in a political agenda as a convenient backdrop for their illicit activities.

Both the political and the extremists/criminal dynamics have to be understood in a regional context. The Tuareg ethnic group who have rebelled against the government are not limited to the north of Mali. They move around and live in several neighboring countries. Extremists and criminal networks are also fundamentally transnational, certainly in Africa’s Sahel region.

The different parties to the peace talks facilitated by Algeria can be loosely divided as actors who support the government in Bamako and those who don’t. Regardless, they also represent different linkages into the politics of the region, with Algeria trying to manifest itself as a leading power. Meanwhile, the French have folded Serval into Barkhane, a regional follow-up operation with its headquarters in Chad. The “robust” part of MINUSMA, a peacekeeping mission, has become a sideshow of a regional operation against terrorism.

The Mali-based mandate of MINUSMA has not been well-connected to the key political peace process, as well as the hard power of its force protection, which have been operating within a regional framework. As a result, there has not been nearly enough diplomatic and political pressure on the Malian government to finally prioritize and pursue the necessary domestic process of dialogue and reconciliation. Here, significant amounts of precious time appear to have been lost. Given the seriousness of threat levels, sections of MINUSMA unsurprisingly took to using force themselves, blurring the way the Security Council mandated the use of coercive power.

The UN’s Independent High Level Panel on Peace Operations is recommending a stronger global-regional partnerships in peace operations around the world. It is time to act on this recommendation in Mali. The Security Council should renew the mandate of MINUMSA for a year, but make it a year of transition to handing power to the mission to the African Union (AU) and the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), with UN support.

This would put the work of the mission in finding political stability as well as addressing the issues of violent extremism and crime back into the relevant regional framework. The French assignment should also come to an end. This solution would not exclude contributions from outside Africa to be sustained for some longer time, where they can help to fill the gaps that still exist in the capacities of the AU and ECOWAS.

A rebalancing of MINUSMA towards a regional mission will also exert greater pressure on the Mali government to focus more seriously on supporting local and regional reconciliation, a process that up to this moment has been kept alive by the efforts of civil society.

The political and security situation has changed since the inception of MINUSMA. The Security Council needs to reflect those changes by transforming its mandate towards a regional mission.

Chukwuemeka B. Eze is Executive Director at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. Peter van Tuijl is Executive Director of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.