The United Nations in Africa: Mali’s Challenging Future

The Long Road Ahead

The UN’s peacekeeping operation in Mali faces an uphill battle to stabilize the country, made even more difficult by recent events. The peace that this operation hopes to keep stems from a 2015 peace agreement between northern Tuareg and Arab rebels and the government of Mali. But the civilian government was deposed in an August 2020 coup, hampering mission goals and further destabilizing the country. This article highlights three challenges to the mission mandate and how best to respond to them. 

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in April 2013 by Security Council resolution 2100, has become the UN’s most dangerous current peacekeeping operation. To date, there have been 253 fatalities out of the 15,209 authorized personnel in-country. On April 2nd, four peacekeepers were killed and nineteen wounded in a direct assault on their camp in Kidal region. Significant challenges abound for this mission aiming to implement its transitional roadmap and seven-part mandate. Its main goal since June 2015 has been safeguarding and implementing an Algiers peace agreement signed between the government and the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA) rebel coalition. Further complications come from jihadist insurgents such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), as well as brutal communal violence in central Mali. Understanding these hurdles, concrete strategies must follow. 

Dual Military Coups

The most immediate challenge facing MINUSMA’s mandate is the August 2020 coup, which saw the resignation of President Keïta and Prime Minister Cisse after they were detained by the Malian Armed Forces. On January 18th, 2021, the military junta’s transitional National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) was disbanded, with interim president Bah Ndaw supervising an 18-month transition back to civilian rule. This promise of civilian rule gave cause for optimism, but the second coup in late May saw the removal of Ndaw by Colonel Assimi Goïta, who also organized last year’s coup. Goïta has since become Mali’s new president while maintaining that elections and the release of Ndaw and his prime minister will eventually occur. 

Both coups have demonstrated the militarization of politics and the weakness of government legitimacy in Mali, and have significantly undermined item 2 in MINUSMA’s mandate; to support “national political dialogue and the electoral process.” Though protestors before and during the first coup had been calling for Keïta’s resignation due to economic woes and ongoing violence, a coercive resolution to an unpopular administration undermines national stability. Credibility has been damaged twice now among key allies of both Mali and MINUSMA, with the African Union (AU) suspending Mali twice, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposing sanctions for the first coup, the United States cutting off military aid, and the UN Security Council condemning the military’s actions all throughout.

Close coordination with the government in Bamako is required for MINUSMA’s continued operation. Mission policymakers have the unenviable task of cooperating with the self-preservationist military regime while simultaneously upholding item 1’s ideals of “constitutional order, democratic governance, and national unity.” The strategy moving forward must be one of continued pressure on and agreement with Goïta’s government on the timeline and specifics of a transfer back to civilian rule. The real power brokers in Mali must be identified and engaged, and the UN must not be satisfied with easy promises from the military. Together with AU, EU, and US partners, MINUSMA’s liaisons must extract from the military firm dates for elections and guarantees that they will be “inclusive, free, fair, and transparent,” as per the mandate.

Protection of Civilians

Alongside the tragic loss of 253 UN peacekeepers since 2013, MINUSMA has also witnessed a great deal of civilian casualties in areas outside of government control. Peacekeepers have been patrolling and expanding social services in these areas, in line with items 1 and 3 of the mandate; supporting “reestablishment of State authority throughout the country” and “protection of civilians and United Nations personnel.” But as peacekeepers navigate deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes, the multitude of violent actors, vast expanses of contested land, and complicated communal dynamics have allowed thousands of civilian casualties to slip through their fingers since 2013. Atrocities and possible war crimes have been well documented, further driving a wedge between hostile communities in central Mali. This continued violence against civilians undermines mission legitimacy and the 300+ development projects it has carried out.

Protecting civilians is often an issue of policing. Protecting them from separatists requires greater policing of the vast, contested northern regions, while population centers must be protected from jihadists. Communal violence in central Mali must be lessened by policing the boundaries between feuding communities. The number of police on mission should be increased, as MINUSMA has a 13-2 split of soldiers and police. More importantly, peacekeepers should step up technical assistance and recruitment drives for local police; this is a classic method to build peace and is included in the mandate. 

A new, complex frontier in peacekeeping

The final challenge concerns a relatively important shift in UN peacekeeping doctrine. Of sixteen active UN missions, MINUSMA is the only one authorized to conduct counterinsurgency. Its mandate allows it to use “all necessary means… [to] deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas.” Resolution 2164, an update to the mission, identified “asymmetric threats” as spoilers of peace; military jargon for insurgent groups. This has created challenges on the ground and great debate in the policy world. Strategically, peacekeepers appear not to have been deployed to keep the peace, but to reach peace through force, conducting counterinsurgency alongside France and the G5 Sahel (soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger). Tactically, counterinsurgency requires specialized training and equipment, two things that are far from standardized or even guaranteed in the UN system. Mission effectiveness is hampered by the unique challenges and confusions presented by this dissonance between peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. And with France recently announcing the end of its eight-year campaign in the Sahel, now is the time for MINUSMA to take up the mantle with clear and confident policy.

Any good counterinsurgency must clearly lay out its strategy. An understanding of the insurgents and of one’s own capacities is essential in choosing how to train soldiers and allocate resources. The 9 experts on-mission and 514 staff officers need a proper division of labor and understanding, including programs for intelligence, search-and-destroy, and public relations. All of this can only come from a unified, top-down doctrine. That is why this new arena for UN peacekeeping needs a field handbook that systematically demarcates tactics and limitations of action. This also lowers MINUSMA’s high death rate: training troops not for pitched battles but for countering IEDs and ambushes is vital, as argued by former mission commander Michael Lollesgaard.

Overall, much needs to be done. Two coups in under a year, the protection of civilians, and counterinsurgency strategy must be addressed through diplomatic pressure, increased police efforts, and tactical guidance, respectively. Relative peace is not on the immediate horizon, but these strategies will push the situation in Mali in a constructive direction.


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