Will it Be MINUSMA à la Carte, or Geopolitical Endgame in Mali?

A view of United Nations peacekeepers of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Dec. 29, 2022. (UN Photo/Harandane Dicko)

Ten years after the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established, the mission’s future and that of its 15,000 military and police officers is more uncertain than ever. The peace operation—authorized in the wake of the January 2013 Franco-African military intervention by a Security Council then united behind a French penholder—now operates in a context of mistrust between Mali’s traditional partners and the country’s new authorities, bringing into question its role and legitimacy.

Governed today by a military junta supported by Russia (in both Bamako and New York), Mali is clearly behaving as if it wants out of old partnerships. It no longer wants France to be the “penholder” of the resolution; it is demanding that MINUSMA be à la carte; and it is delivering veiled threats to armed groups strengthening in the North. Even if the mission continues to serve some of the divergent interests of the host state, permanent members of the Council, and the United Nations (UN) bureaucracy, it nevertheless risks being weakened because of new great power rivalries.

When the MINUSMA mandate comes up for renewal in June 2023, the Security Council will consider three main options submitted by the UN secretary-general and outlined in an internal review published this past January. The first option includes an increase in the number of peacekeepers. However, the Malian authorities have already indicated they are “not convinced of the relevance” of such an increase, which they had opposed in 2021. The second option would be to keep the current strength of the mission but close bases in the Timbuktu and Kidal regions, redeploying peacekeepers to Ménaka and Ansongo. A third, more radical option is also being considered: replacing the peacekeeping mission with a “political mission”—meaning no more peacekeepers or presence outside the capital.

These three options are not new and largely reflect the dilemmas the UN faced when designing MINUSMA in March 2013 and again during a 2018 independent strategic review, when, controversially, the United States disagreed with France by questioning the relevance of the peacekeeping model in the face of terrorism and pushing for an exit strategy for the mission. The context now, however, is very different. The French anti-terrorist “parallel force” left Mali last summer. A new force of 1,000 to 2,000 men from the private military company Wagner Group and Russian instructors is operating in Mali, mainly in the country’s center. At the same time, the Malian authorities have increased pressure on MINUSMA over the past year.

The Risk of an “à la Carte” Mission

While the question of host state consent is uncertain, it is unlikely that the Malian transitional authorities will request, in the short term, the departure of MINUSMA. Indeed, they continue to benefit from it, such as in the transport of members of the Malian defense and security forces to northern Mali. Moreover, in a December 4, 2022 note submitted to MINUSMA’s internal review, the Malian authorities requested that the mission “give top priority to the security dimension of its mandate” and to “support on logistics, fuel, food ration, medical evacuations, and intelligence to the FAMA [Malian armed forces].” They also demanded that the mission refrains from what they describe as “politicizing and instrumentalizing the human rights issue.”

Mali’s demand that MINUSMA become “more offensive” is a recurrent theme. In June 2016, it led the Security Council to ask the mission to “adopt a more proactive and robust approach.” However, the main outcome of this has been creating expectations that peacekeepers are unable to meet, as most of their capabilities are dedicated to self-protection. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recalled in 2018, “a peacekeeping operation is not an army, or a counter-terrorist force, or a humanitarian agency. It is a tool to create the space for a nationally owned political solution.”

Contrary to its inflammatory rhetoric, Bamako seems to want MINUSMA to keep the same number of personnel and continue its regular flights to the North of the country—which allows Malian administrators to go to these regions—while increasing its support to building and repairing infrastructure, including for the Malian military. At the same time, the Malian junta appears to count on a divided Security Council to prevent MINUSMA from investigating human rights violations. It also certainly expects that divisions within the “international community” will allow the (new) transition timetable agreed on in July 2022 (which scheduled a presidential election in February 2024) to, once again, slide.

The Status Quo—the Worst Option Except for All the Others?

The mission faces many challenges, and the UN secretary-general himself acknowledged that “the status quo is not an option.” Therefore, a MINUSMA with an unchanged troop ceiling, yet somewhat reconfigured, could suit the majority for good and not-so-good reasons. The mission “has helped deter insurgents from taking over cities and larger towns,” even if its record on protection of civilians and stabilization is mixed. The securing of secondary towns and certain major roads by MINUSMA is certainly considered helpful by the FAMA and the Wagner Group, who can thus concentrate their efforts elsewhere, even if insecurity persists and attacks are getting closer to the capital Bamako.

Without UN bases and regular flights, the presence of the Malian state in the North and Mali’s territorial integrity are at risk of rapidly dissolving, the result of which would be an even greater destabilization of the subregion. It is difficult to see, then, what the contribution of a “political mission” in Bamako could be when it would be of no real operational use to the host state, nor would it have political leverage over it. Bamako would likely accuse the UN of “abandonment in mid-air,” and civilian populations would be left on their own—even more than they already are.

The experience of the Central African Republic (CAR) has shown that the presence of the Wagner Group poses challenges to peacekeepers at both the tactical and strategic levels—and to the protection of civilians—but that a “deconfliction,” although complicated, is still possible. Western capitals will undoubtedly ask themselves whether or not MINUSMA’s presence could help curb Russian influence and keep an eye on Wagner’s activities, which are already diversifying elsewhere. However, some will wonder whether this justifies a one billion euro a year operation.

In addition, peacekeeping has been shrinking since 2016, with the closure of UN missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Darfur, Haiti and soon, perhaps, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The only new operations launched by the UN since Mali and the CAR in 2013 are “political missions” (Colombia, Yemen, Sudan). Given the current polarization of the Security Council, a new major operation is unlikely, and closing MINUSMA would mean a blow to UN peacekeeping, particularly since, with no new operation in sight, it would not be possible to “recycle” either civilian employees or military contingents.

Can MINUSMA Handle the Increased Pressure from the Malian Authorities?

If the mandate is extended again in June 2023, one question will be whether or not MINUSMA can handle the increased pressure from the Malian authorities. The arrival of Russia and the Wagner Group in Mali in late 2021 led to an escalation in tensions between the transitional government and France, precipitating the end of Operation Barkhane and the suspension of French development assistance. At the same time, the deliveries of Russian military equipment—including radar-guided surface-to-air missiles that the American civil aviation agency (FAA) expressed concerns about—along with Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones show Mali is pursuing a military stabilization approach rather than the more political one advocated by the UN.

In January 2022, the ruling military junta forced MINUSMA to halt flights for several days, then imposed major no-fly zones for UN aircraft that covered nearly half the country. MINUSMA flights have since resumed, but now require 48 to 72 hours’ notice. During the last quarter of 2022, the UN reported that “237 MINUSMA flight requests have been either denied or received no response from Malian authorities,” who deplore the fact that the mission “despite the commitments made, does not share the information and data collected by the drones.”

A succession of events has made the rift between MINUSMA and the Malian host state widen even further. On March 22, 2022, a Malian attack helicopter fired six rockets toward British peacekeepers south of Gao. In a separate incident, the host state did not allow MINUSMA human rights investigators to visit the site of the alleged massacre of several hundred civilians in Moura (central Mali) during a joint Wagner-FAMA military operation in late March 2022. A year later, the conclusions of the investigation are still awaited. On February 5, 2023, the Malian government expelled the director of the MINUSMA’s human rights division, days after violently denigrating the speech of a Malian human rights defender before the Security Council. Despite this, on March 23, 2023 the UN issued a human rights report indicating civilian deaths were up by 54 percent in 2022, and that at least 90 human rights violations were committed by FAMA, representing 26 percent of the total documented violence.

Meanwhile, Russia’s and China’s positions at Security Council meetings are displays of support for the Malian transitional authorities. The Russian Foreign Ministry even congratulated Mali on an “important victory” against terrorism and described the allegations about the massacre of civilians by the FAMA and the involvement of Russian mercenaries as “disinformation” (while the Malian authorities continue to deny the presence of the Wagner Group, claiming they receive “state-to-state” support.) Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Bamako on February 7, 2023, solidified this new security partnership.

Malian transitional authorities have recently blocked more UN flights and supply convoys; stopped issuing visas to the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Mali Sanctions; and turned away foreign journalists, all while denying having “taken any restrictive measures specifically targeting the Mission” and calling for “better coordination for MINUSMA’s actions with the Malian State.” Even if MINUSMA prefers to show appeasement and participate in coordinated patrols with the FAMA (81 during the last quarter, according to the January 2023 report of the Secretary General of the UN), many within the UN fear a scenario à la Darfur or Eritrea, where the peacekeeping missions experienced a decline “by a thousand cuts” as host country consent continued to erode.

Troop-contributing countries (TCCs) are also losing patience amid a series of disconcerting events. In June 2022, Mali’s Foreign Minister strongly opposed the French offer to “continue its air support to MINUSMA” after the departure of the Barkhane force—support which had provided reassurance for many TCCs, as the UN mission lacks attack helicopters. On July 10, 2022, Malian authorities arrested 49 Ivorian soldiers who had come to support the German MINUSMA contingent upon their arrival at Bamako airport.[1] The MINUSMA spokesperson was expelled later that month, accused of posting “unacceptable information” on Twitter about the case. After the arrests, Mali suspended all rotations for a month, until a “coordination meeting” was held to “facilitate the coordination and regulation of rotation” of UN contingents. In this context, Sweden, the UK, Jordan, and Egypt are now withdrawing their contingents, which made up the “mobile intervention force” based in Gao. Côte d’Ivoire also intends to gradually withdraw; as does Benin. Finally, the German government is also considering the withdrawal of its troops and helicopters no later than May 2024. These cascading departures represent a quarter of the MINUSMA force, and won’t be easy for the UN to replace.

The 2015 Peace Agreement: a Very Unstable Foundation for a UN Presence

At the end of December 2022, the armed movements that had signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali Resulting from the June 2015 Algiers Process announced the suspension of their participation in the bodies implementing and monitoring the agreement “until a meeting is held with international mediation and on neutral ground.” At the end of January 2023, these groups also announced their withdrawal from the commission responsible for drafting the country’s new constitution. The constitutional referendum—an important step toward elections that would mark the end of the transition period—was initially planned for March 19, 2023, but was postponed earlier in the month.

The armed movements have come together under the new label of the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD), and include the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) along with the two factions of the Platform of the Movement of June 14, 2014 (Platform), and the Coordination of Inclusivity Movements (CMI). They have accused the transitional authorities of lacking the will to implement the agreement. The call from Prime Minister Choguel Maïga for an “intelligent and consensual rereading of the peace agreement,” in which he sees the seeds of a partition of Mali, has stoked controversy. The CSP-PSD also criticized the Malian authorities’ inertia in the face of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) offensive that has caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of displacements.

Hopes of reviving the process with the high-level meeting held in Bamako in August 2022[2] and the efforts of Algeria (whose President received CMA representatives on February 26) were short-lived. In a letter to the leader of the International Mediation, which was leaked on March 1, 2023, the Malian Minister of National Reconciliation denounced violations of the 2015 peace agreement by former CMA rebels whom he accuses of “increasingly clear collusion with terrorist groups.” The Malian transitional authorities seem primarily concerned with basing their legitimacy on patriotic sentiment and ensuring the loyalty of armed forces whose hierarchy has just been reshuffled.

At the same time, the CSP-PSD armed movements are strengthening their military coordination on the ground through joint patrols and with the announcement of the fusion of the CMA movements in Kidal in early February. They could even coordinate their efforts with those of the head of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), Iyad Ag Ghaly, against a strengthened ISGS—a coalition that perhaps in the future could face off against the FAMA and their supporters from the Wagner Group, if the need arises.

That the Malian authorities could be tempted to undertake new military adventurism in northern Mali, something the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta did in May 2014 in Kidal, cannot be ruled out. But it is uncertain if their Russian ally—which is also holding diplomatic meetings with CMA representatives in Bamako—would follow along. Although the Wagner Group has not reduced its manpower in Mali, it is already facing difficulties in central Mali and Ukraine. Algeria, Mali’s powerful neighbor and an incoming member of the Security Council in 2024-2025, will also not let such a scenario unfold, given the consequences it could have on its southern region.

MINUSMA’s main strategic priority remains “to support the implementation of the [2015] Agreement by the Malian parties,” even though it is now also mandated to “support the Political Transition,” in addition to its second strategic priority regarding Central Mali, which it was given in 2020 without additional resources. A resumption of clashes, the final abandonment of the Algiers Agreement, and a de facto North-South partition would disrupt the primary purpose of MINUSMA.

Toward a Geopolitical Endgame

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, polarization in the Security Council has increased. In this context, MINUSMA could be sent to the back of the line, paying the price for its connection— perceived or real—with France’s 2013 stabilization strategy. In June 2022, the Council voted to extend the mission’s mandate for another year, but, for the first time, Russia and China abstained rather than voted in favor, and the Council is no longer able to produce a joint statement on Mali for the press. The head of MINUSMA, El Ghassim Wane, visited London, Paris, and Moscow at the end of 2022 to try to ensure the continued support of the permanent members of the Council.

France insists that “the Malian transitional authorities must also uphold their responsibilities,” and the United States is alarmed by violations against civilians, including those committed by “armed terrorist groups, the Malian Armed Forces and the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.” Meanwhile, Russia accuses Western powers of using MINUSMA “to damage the reputation” of the Malian transitional government because they “are displeased with their independent approach to foreign policy.”

MINUSMA, which has its every action scrutinized, has no choice but to learn to live with a divided Security Council and a difficult host state. It must try to preserve the requisite impartiality needed to implement its ambiguous mandate crafted out of compromises between powers. It is also the victim of “disinformation campaigns” aimed at the mission, which it needs help to counter, though it must walk a fine line between being drawn into an information war and remaining relevant, while also avoiding being seen only as a service provider for a junta in power, or, worse, being an accomplice to crimes by turning a blind eye to certain actions by the host state.

The mission is almost impossible. Even if MINUSMA continues to serve some of the divergent interests of the host state and permanent members of the Council, it risks becoming collateral damage. The UN must seriously consider an exit strategy, which could involve an African force with a Security Council mandate under Chapter VII and predictable funding, an option that Antonio Guterres has advocated. Closing MINUSMA would undoubtedly turn the page on large multidimensional stabilization operations at a time when the UN increasingly faces both the risk of political marginalization and challenges to the liberal norms it has traditionally promoted.

[1] These soldiers were only recently released, after more than six months, thanks to Togolese mediation (while officially convicted, the release was the result of a presidential pardon).

[2] During this meeting, the parties had agreed to integrate 26,000 ex-combatants in two phases into the national defense and security forces and the public administration. In parallel, the Malian authorities have launched the “special recruitment” of 2,000 young people from the northern and central regions into the Malian armed forces outside the framework of the agreement.

Arthur Boutellis is Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

A version of this article was first published in French by Rubicon.