Tuesday, 25.07.2023 - PSCC Talk - Zoom

PSCC Talk: The precipitous withdrawal of MINUSMA from Mali: what consequences for stability and security in Mali and the Sahel?

On 25 July 2023, the Peace and Security Centre of Competence Sub-Saharan Africa of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES PSCC) Dakar organised an online debate on the topic "The precipitous withdrawal of MINUSMA from Mali: what consequences for stability and security in Mali and the Sahel? The aim of the meeting was to create a platform for bringing together experts from different regions and countries to have productive discussions on the withdrawal of MINUSMA from Mali in order to promote dialogue and progressive approaches. The conference brought together more than thirty participants, including members of civil society organisations, defence and security forces, international organisations and political players from the Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal), as well as from countries such as the United States and Sweden.

The deterioration in relations between Mali and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which was set up in 2013 to help stabilise the country and protect civilians, comes against a backdrop of a steadily deteriorating situation in the country. This has been the case in terms of security, with groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State controlling large parts of the country. But this has also been the case in humanitarian terms. In this realm, the situation continues to be devastating, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Finally, the military coups of 2020 and May 2021 marked a turning point in the rising tensions and the limits of the mission's movements. Tensions culminated in May 2023 with the publication of a MINUSMA report accusing the Malian army and "foreign" fighters of executing at least 500 people during an alleged anti-jihadist operation in Moura in March 2022. In addition to denouncing this report, the junta announced the opening of an investigation against the mission for "espionage, undermining the external security of the State" and "military conspiracy". UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres therefore recommended to the Security Council that the mission be "reconfigured" to focus on a limited number of "priorities" in order to make it more effective.

During discussions of the renewal of MINUSMA's mandate at the UN on 16 June 2023, Mali's Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdoulaye DIOP has demanded the "immediate withdrawal" of the UN force from the country, denouncing its "failure". On Friday 30 June, the United Nations unanimously approved the Malian authorities' request for the withdrawal of MINUSMA.  After 10 years in the country and some 12,000 soldiers, the UN mission now has 6 months to leave Mali.

This raises a number of questions:

  1. What consequences might such a withdrawal have for securing and stabilising the Sahel, which is facing a surge in violent extremist groups and transnational organised crime?
  2. What impact might the end of MINUSMA have on the G-5 Sahel and on the implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali resulting from the 2015 Algiers process?
  3. Does the withdrawal of MINUSMA, like other operations before it (BARKHANE, TAKUBA), mean the end of the international community's commitment to Mali?
  4. What lessons can be drawn from this hasty end to MINUSMA?

Speeches by Dr Serigne Bamba GAYE (Professor of International Relations) and Serge DANIEL (Journalist and writer), as well as discussions moderated by General Mohamed Znagui SID'AHMED ELY (G5-Sahel Defence and Security Expert), highlighted the following points:

The withdrawal of MINUSMA was to be expected; it was the result of a number of premises and the geopolitical context, Mali having become a battleground between Russia and France.

Firstly, there have been several episodes of tension between the military regime in Mali and the UN, whose relations were conflicting. This is the first time that a state has officially requested the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping operation. An unprecedented situation. The UN has discovered that a sovereign state can request the withdrawal of a PKO.

MINUSMA has always been questioned, particularly its mandate: support for the Algiers agreement and protection of civilians. From its inception, these two aspects of MINUSMA were questioned, adding to the fact that the mission was in a defensive rather than offensive position. Hence the question of the relevance of this mission, which led to a deterioration in relations between MINUSMA and the military authorities in power in Mali (Moura massacres, publication of the United Nations report alleging human rights violations by the FAMa and their Wagner auxiliaries). Relations between the two actors were therefore conflicting.

Secondly, the geopolitical context, with the strategic change in Mali (Wagner, Russia) and the struggle between two powers on the UN Security Council, has had consequences for the homogeneity of this body. This has had an impact on MINUSMA, with the geostrategic repositioning of Russia and China in the Sahel and in Mali.

It is feared that a plethora of armed groups and foreign forces will be present on the ground after the departure of MINUSMA (FAMa, Wagner, pro-government groups, rebel groups, jihadist groups JNIM, EIGS, MUJAO, AQIM, Boko Haram)

This withdrawal predicts an uncertain future and raises a number of questions, notably: what will be the relationship between the armed groups involved in the peace process and the Malian government, whose implementation of the Agreement has been slow? Will we see direct negotiations between these two players? Will northern Mali become more of a battleground for foreign powers? What will happen to the Sahel after the departure of MINUSMA?

What is certain is that logistically and materially it will be difficult to control the vacuum left by the mission. The first victims of MINUSMA's departure will be the civilian population. There are also fears of negative economic, social and, above all, youth impacts, as MINUSMA was also a source of hope for young people through the funding of micro-projects to consolidate and promote peace, and by setting up programmes to inform young people, train them and make them aware of the dangers and prospects, in order to inspire hope.

The withdrawal of MINUSMA does, however, reveal some non-exhaustive lessons learned:

  • The duration of peacekeeping operations: they are increasingly long-term (10 years or more), but they have no exit strategy. The longer an operation remains in a country, the more it becomes a problem within a problem.
  • The mandate: in a context of terrorism, shouldn't MINUSMA have a robust, offensive rather than defensive mandate, like MONUSCO with its rapid reaction force or rapid intervention brigade, or AMISOM against AL Shabab in Somalia?
  • International rivalries (France-Russia) have taken the Security Council hostage and are having an impact on MINUSMA. Unfortunately, these rivalries are going to be exacerbated because international relations are undergoing a new dynamic that is reconfiguring the international game.
  • The longer a PKO is on the ground, the more its relations with national authorities deteriorate. It is therefore necessary for the UN to rethink its relations with the host state (Haiti, Central African Republic, DRC, Mali).
  • What is the relevance of a PKO in a context of asymmetric threat? Unfortunately, no lessons were learned from NATO's intervention in Afghanistan.
  • Subsidiarity: wouldn't the UN benefit from reforming and rebuilding the PKOs by giving more room to regional organisations such as the African Union and ECOWAS in particular?
  • The G5-Sahel is in a complicated situation. The withdrawal of MINUSMA is extremely worrying, as is the security situation in Mali and the Sahel.
  • With 66% of Mali's northern territory populated by just 9% of the population, development work is difficult in large parts of the country, and the state finds it hard to carry out its functions in these regions. As a result, there is a plethora of armed groups, terrorist groups, rebel groups and foreign groups in Mali.
  • The case of MINUSMA and Mali provides a better understanding of the relationship between certain African countries and the UN in the context of maintaining security and peace in the world.

In terms of recommendations:

  • The G5 Sahel should step up to support Mali to enable local and regional players to fight extremist forces and should increase its presence in the country. In the political transition period, the country should be helped by ECOWAS.
  • The situation in Mali should be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem. It should be seen as an opportunity to redefine Africa's security architecture and thus gradually stabilise the situation in Mali and the Sahel region.
  • With the departure of MINUSMA and the countless repositioning on the ground, the possibility of ethnic or multi-ethnic conflict must be avoided.
  • The radicalisation of young people must be given greater attention if lasting peace is to be achieved. For example, through local development and the creation of opportunities for young people.
  • As we have seen in the case of Mali, as well as in the previous case of Afghanistan, traditional peace operations must adapt in order to be able to regulate asymmetric threats. Future missions must focus more on the security challenges of each host country.
  • The peace agreement resulting from the Algiers process must be emphasised and reactivated, as its implementation is currently slow.
  • The departure of MINUSMA needs to be put into perspective in order to find a consensus between the government of Mali and the armed groups that signed the Agreement.
  • The withdrawal of MINUSMA is not just a failure on the part of the UN, it is also a failure on the part of the Africans. Africans therefore need to be at the forefront of the struggle. The AU and ECOWAS must learn from what is happening in Mali with MINUSMA.

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