Redefining State Authority in Mali

Head of MINUSMA Mahamat Saleh Annadif meets with Guinean peacekeepers following terrorist attacks that killed six troops. Kidal, Mali, February 13, 2016. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

A year after the signing of a peace agreement with northern rebels, the government of Mali and United Nations Security Council are seeking an increase of 2,500 troops for the country. Ahead of the renewal of its mandate on Thursday this week, the UN stabilization mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is struggling just to provide for the security of its own personnel. While new peacekeepers might increase its capacity to respond to threats, there is a need to reassess the mission’s overall mandate, particularly its understanding of what state authority entails in Mali and how this can be reestablished.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed including a quick reaction force—a long-standing request of the Malian government—within the expanded MINUSMA. This illustrates a reinforced security agenda for the mission, which responds to the stalled implementation of the peace agreement and an increase in threats. During the past year jihadists have continued to move south to the Mopti and Segou regions and are targeting UN peacekeepers. Attacks are being claimed by groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Mourabitoun, and the Macina Liberation Front. Clashes between armed groups that signed the peace agreement—considered ceasefire violations—have also resumed, reviving fears of widespread intercommunal violence.

The peace deal, signed in two phases in May and June 2015 between the government and two coalitions of armed Tuareg-Arab rebels, was designed to provide a framework for long-term stability, but implementation is at a relative standstill. The lack of concrete progress and the worsening security environment has led to disillusionment among many parties. This includes local populations concerned about the absence of so-called “peace dividends” such as improved basic services, education, health, and justice.

The situation highlights the general failure of MINUSMA—in its role as one of the international custodians of the peace deal—to prioritize long-term political solutions and adopt a more localized, people-centric approach to stabilization. This would be in keeping with the “primacy of politics” approach recommended in last year’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report. MINUSMA has instead been pulled in a more militarized direction. To move past this, its support for the “extension of state authority” requirement of its mandate should be reconsidered to emphasize political negotiation and the fostering of stronger state-society relations. This is key to building legitimacy and trust in those authorities that will assume responsibility for Mali’s future.

Extension of State Authority

The extension of state authority is one of the complex expectations the UN Security Council has recently placed on peacekeeping operations. Although no fixed definition of state authority has been established, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office’s Capstone doctrine of 2015 identified various measures for missions, including developing political participation, operationally supporting the immediate activities of state institutions, small-scale capacity building, and supporting constitutional and institutional restructuring. A UN Civil Affairs Handbook also contains a framework for prioritizing and sequencing this engagement, although its recommendations remains limited in practice.

This focus of MINUSMA is likely to continue given the conclusions of a Department of Peacekeeping Operations strategic review in March 2016, which highlighted the mission’s need to “prioritize its support to the Government in the implementation of key provisions of the [peace] agreement, in particular those related to the gradual restoration and extension of State authority.” The latest Secretary-General’s report on Mali highlighted that there had been some limited progress on this task. This includes the establishment, on January 19, of the two new administrative regions of Menaka (formerly part of Gao) and Taoudeni (formerly part of Timbuktu); the promulgation, on May 10, of a local communities code, linked to the establishment of interim authorities in the Gao, Kidal, Menaka, Taoudenni, and Timbuktu regions; and the appointment of new governors of Kidal, Menaka, and Taoudenni on March 31, in response to ongoing security challenges, though Taoudenni’s governor is currently in Timbuktu and Kidal’s remains in Gao.

Nonetheless, progress in extending local administration in the north of Mali remains key. At present, the state’s efforts there have mostly focused on increasing security measures in order to protect infrastructure construction. Although this expands the state’s visibility, it does not automatically increase its authority. As the Capstone report outlined, states “derive authority both from their ability to perform their functions effectively and their ability to perform these functions legitimately.”

In Mali, public trust has been weakened by failures in implementing previous peace agreements, the historically feeble presence of the state in the north, violations committed by the army and other public institutions, and an ongoing lack of security, which have only created feelings of exclusion and injustice.

Prior to the 2012 crisis that pitted northern and southern forces against each other, Mali had seen four other rebellions that gave rise to four different peace agreements. All included provisions for decentralizing state services and reinforcing representation of northerners in the central government. All failed to deliver on this promise. In the most recent process, international mediation appeared to replicate past mistakes, by favoring yet another decentralized governance structure that has until now failed to take root.

As highlighted by an International Crisis Group report from 2015, it is important not to try to rebuild the institutions of a “sick political system.” The peace agreement should have reflected the aspirations of northern populations for change and recognized that functions traditionally assigned to the state can also be carried out by a combination of informal, ad hoc, traditional, or religious entities, which already enjoy a certain level of legitimacy within their communities. One way of achieving this would be nominating local authorities by consensus between the national government and communities themselves. The challenge is to find a way to marry traditional forms of representation with an embrace of democracy.

With this in mind, the government and armed groups took a big step forward on June 15 when they agreed to establish interim administrative authorities in northern areas. This could be more representative of the region’s interests and bring a broader array of people into the equation. The long-delayed move was initially planned for three months after the signature of the peace agreement and provides a much-needed avenue for finding further political solutions to Mali’s insecurity and development issues. It also points the way forward for a rejuvenated MINUSMA, working in support of the state.

Redefining MINUSMA’s Role

The new mandate of the UN mission could explicitly mention that the provision of people-centered development services be part and parcel of the extension of state authority, rather than an add-on track of secondary priority. Alternatively, the work of the mission with the UN Country Team—which is tasked largely with development-related tasks, while MINUSMA focuses on political and security aspects—should be expanded, creating a fully integrated strategy. This would help mitigate the limitations of the state-centric and prescriptive approaches to peacebuilding pursued thus far.

Such a mandate would be consistent with the spirit and letter of the newly adopted overarching framework of “sustaining peace” within the UN system. It would make room for inclusiveness of civil society and traditional leaders in decisions that affect their lives. These connections were unfortunately lacking from a recently established international commission of inquiry, as well as a truth, justice, and reconciliation commission in Mali.

MINUSMA could also work with the government of Mali to make consultation with local communities a common practice, including before the reestablishment of state officials and institutions. The National Conference planned for later this year creates an opportunity—provided that the event is sufficiently inclusive and consultative—to address legitimacy and trust deficits by relaunching the discussion around the foundation of governance in Mali.

Furthermore, establishing a compact between MINUSMA and the government, an idea which has been raised in discussions in Mali and UN headquarters in New York, could also include more participation of local communities, although the feasibility of this remains to be seen. It is time to put politics back into stabilization efforts and to make Mali a model of extending state authority, within the context of improved state-society relations and people-centric peace operations.

Delphine Mechoulan is a Policy Analyst in the  Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.