As Peacekeeping Exits Mali, the Transition Is a New Opportunity for the UN

The UN Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2690 (2023) terminating the mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) under resolution 2640 (2022), June 30, 2023. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

One week ago, the United Nations Security Council decided to terminate the mandate of the UN peace operation in Mali (MINUSMA), immediately ending the bulk of the mission’s core mandated tasks and putting in place an accelerated timeline for full departure by the end of 2023. This decision followed a mid-June request by Mali’s interim military government for the immediate withdrawal of MINUSMA, citing a “crisis of confidence” with the UN. This is not the first time a UN mission has been kicked out of a country: in 2010, the UN operation in Chad (MINURCAT) packed its bags within a year of being asked to leave by President Idriss Déby. And other missions like the one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have long dealt with a government that would prefer they leave or radically downsize.

It is difficult to know what impact MINUSMA’s withdrawal will have on the already volatile situation in Mali. Armed group signatories to the 2015 peace agreement have already referred to MINUSMA’s departure as a “fatal blow” to the peace process, while International Crisis Group has suggested that it could embolden jihadist groups operating in the region. Beyond the troop deployment in urban areas in the northern and central parts of the country, MINUSMA’s presence facilitates an enormous humanitarian aid operation and provides thousands of jobs, all of which will evaporate on December 31.

It is possible that MINUSMA’s drawdown may have little negative impact on the longer-term trajectory for Mali. It’s also worth remembering that the UN will retain a large presence in the country long after the peacekeeping mission is gone. With or without peacekeeping, there is a real risk of further political fracture over the coming period, which could have massive ripple effects across the region. And it may seem as though a UN mission’s exit from a country is a moment of rapidly diminishing political leverage for the UN and others to mitigate those risks. It is not. In fact, there are many examples of the UN creatively using transition moments to positive effect, generating leverage at precisely the moment when it appears to be losing a foothold in the country.

In planning the MINUSMA exit over the next six months, there is a risk that the UN will become overly focused on the technical aspects of withdrawal, expending enormous energy and resources on the complicated logistics of moving a billion-dollar operation. This would be a mistake. Instead, the UN should create a new strategic moment to influence Mali’s trajectory positively, treating the exit as a leverage point. This can be done by conditioning the exit on political progress toward the 2024 elections, creating a financial reward for a credible transition to civilian rule, and offering a new security arrangement that could limit the dangerous influence of the Wagner group in Mali.

Political Conditions

The 2015 peace agreement in Mali has hung on by a thread so far, and it is unclear whether the military rulers who took over in the May 2021 coup are committed to its implementation. A December 2022 decision by several northern armed groups to withdraw from the peace agreement may signal the imminent disintegration of the peace process. At the same time, a growing presence of jihadist groups along Mali’s border areas is likely to generate an even heavier-handed response by the Malian authorities. In this context, there is a very real risk that the precipitous departure of MINUSMA could be a sort of final straw, an excuse for the many spoilers of the 2015 peace agreement to put a nail in its coffin and for the military leadership to shrug off an agreement they don’t much like anyway.

Here, the recent national referendum and constitutional amendments allowing for elections in 2024 are a crucial hedge against a potential political collapse in the country. Despite low turnout and several unresolved aspects of the process, the referendum presents a window of opportunity for Mali to build public confidence and avoid further fracture. As MINUSMA exits the country over the next six months, it is crucial that the mission’s exit is conditioned on progress toward these elections and a stable political settlement beyond 2024. The Security Council should put some clear benchmarks in place and demand that they be met before the mission fully exits the country. Benchmarks could include establishing independent electoral institutions, providing political space for a broad range of political parties, preventing human rights abuses against citizens, and investing state resources in a credible national elections process. This could be coupled with an African Union (AU) offer to permit Mali back into the organization, conditional on measurable progress on elections between now and the end of the year.

It may feel too late for such a step, given that the Council has already announced the mission’s departure, and there appears little willingness by the Malian authorities to consider any negotiation from the UN side. But as the experience of UNAMID’s exit from Darfur demonstrated, the Council is capable of shifting course during transition processes, inserting delays, and creatively using the timeframe of withdrawal as leverage. There are plenty of opportunities in the coming period for the Council to put some political guardrails in place, and the elections timeline offers the best way to get something out of the UN’s exit.

A Financial Carrot

Since taking control of Mali in 2021, the military authorities have been severely ostracized by the international community, resulting in both political and financial isolation. This may have punished the orchestrators of the coup, but it also made them more susceptible to overtures from Russia, leading to a heavy reliance on the abusive mercenary Wagner group in recent years. MINUSMA’s departure is likely to worsen Mali’s international standing, potentially leading to further reductions in international donor engagement and the immediate loss of a $1.2 billion mission that employs thousands of Malians.

It is crucial that the leadership in Mali sees a light at the end of this tunnel, one where they can emerge into a new relationship with the international community. As of now, they seem to be bent on pushing the UN out, but this can change. One idea would be to offer a financial package, put together by the UN, AU, World Bank and major donors, and tie it to the same set of conditions described above. Indeed, an option for Mali would be to offer them a “UNITAMS-light” follow-on mission, one that is largely focused on peacebuilding support, ending the isolation of Mali, and generating international buy-in to a political transition. Such a follow-on mission would not necessarily need to be UN-led, but could be a test case for AU-led peace operations, perhaps offering AU access to assessed budgetary funds within the UN.

During some of the negotiations among the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sudan in the lead-up to the transition to UNITAMS that I was present for, the Sudanese message was clear: “We only want a UN presence if it helps to generate greater international investment.” Of course, the longer story of Sudan is not a positive one, but the idea of tying a small internationally-led mission to a financial offer may be a fruitful one. In fact, such a mission could be pitched as responding to the Malian objection to UN peacekeeping, but also offering a reassuring set of structures to support the political transition and generate greater international donor support.

A New Security Arrangement

The elephant in the room remains the Wagner group, the Russian-backed mercenaries who have been partnering with the Malian authorities to provide security in central Mali for the past few years. MINUSMA’s departure is likely to leave Mali more reliant on Wagner, which has a terrible human rights record and is likely to be a disruptive actor in the lead-up to the 2024 elections. But Wagner’s recent revolt against Moscow has cast its future in Africa into uncertainty, as President Vladimir Putin has offered the group only three options: join the military, join their leader in exile in Belarus, or return home as civilians. While Foreign Minister Lavrov’s statement that Wagner will stay in Africa may signal no change in Moscow’s policy, experts have suggested that the group may fracture further, including in Africa.

This too represents an opportunity for the UN to encourage a new security arrangement for Mali, one less reliant on groups like Wagner. While the chances to revitalize the G-5 Sahel security arrangements are almost certainly out of reach, there are a range of options for the UN, such as to support a small AU- or ECOWAS-led force that could replace Wagner in the central parts of the country, potentially also deploying to some of the harder-hit areas in the north. This could be presented as a security guarantee for the 2024 elections, so a temporary measure to ensure a credible elections process and the transition to civilian rule. Again, such an arrangement could be a test case for the AU to access the UN’s peacekeeping budget.

The Future of Peace Operations

Later this month, the UN will publish a brief on its New Agenda for Peace, which will offer a vision for the organization’s peace and security work going forward. The rapid departure of MINUSMA will almost certainly lead to questions about any future role of UN peacekeeping, and some may even suggest that the era of peacekeeping is coming to an end. While many people (including me) have misgivings about the impacts of UN peace operations and have written on some of its unintended consequences, I think reports of the “death of peacekeeping” miss out on the strategic opportunity that crises like Mali offer. It is easy to throw up our hands at the moribund state of the Security Council and assume that nothing can be done. But turbulence and uncertainty are precisely the moments to think creatively, to act opportunistically, and to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Adam Day is Head of UN University Centre for Policy Research in Geneva and was formerly the Senior Political Advisor to MONUSCO. His research on UN peace operations transitions can be found here.

The International Peace Institute’s work on transitions in UN Peace Operations and can be found here.