After Mali: What is the Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa?

The abrupt demand on June 16 last year by Mali’s transitional foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, for the “withdrawal without delay” of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in a UN Security Council meeting was received with a sort of stunned relief. Germany, with perhaps the best equipped force in the mission and 1000 troops on the ground, had already taken tentative steps to withdraw its forces. And though a draft resolution extending the mandate of the force at its current troop level was ready for adoption, most Council members had concluded at least since the military coup of May 2021 that the mission as configured had failed to perform its basic mandate. Still, Council members rejected other proposals emanating from an internal review to increase troop numbers or to replace the peacekeeping force with a UN special political mission.

In less than a week after Diop’s demand, France, which is the penholder for MINUSMA, circulated a draft resolution to end the UN mission. The resolution, which mandated the complete withdrawal of 15,000 uniformed personnel (including over 13,000 troops), from the decade-old mission, was unanimously adopted on 30 June. Though the UN Secretary-General António Guterres lamented at the time that “the timeline, scope and complexity” of the withdrawal were “unprecedented,” the mission’s withdrawal was completed at the end of December. Less than a month later, Mali – along with Burkina Faso and Niger – made the more stunning announcement that it was withdrawing membership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), summing up to the most extraordinary rejection of multilateralism in the region ever.

The failures of the UN’s most dangerous mission

That MINUSMA was the most abject failure of a UN peace operation in the region in recent memory there can be no doubt. How did it happen? And what impact will it have on UN peacekeeping at a time of heightened discussions around this vital aspect of the UN’s work?

Perhaps none at all. Failures like that MINUSMA – which is not the first UN mission to be rejected by its host country – can always be counterpoised with widely hailed successes. The UN’s peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire were successful. Why were they so and why did MINUSMA fail? And why are more costly missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, stumbling from one setback to another with little prospect of success?

Comparing the peacekeeping missions and political and security context of Liberia and Sierra Leone, two countries that faced civil wars, with that of Mali may help provide some answers. Diop claimed MINUSMA did worse than fail to support the Malian authorities in “stabilizing the situation in Mali’s northern regions, averting threats and actively taking steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas, particularly through the re-establishment of State authority throughout the country” – which were its core mandate. The UN, Diop said, seemed to have “become part of the problem, fueling inter-community tensions exacerbated by extremely serious allegations that are highly detrimental to peace, reconciliation and national cohesion.” It is easy to ascribe Diop’s jauntiness to the assurances of security support from Russia and its Wagner mercenaries. Indeed, Mali had contracted Wagner chiefly because it felt that the UN and France were not effective enough. However, the security situation – as well as reports of human rights violations – seem to have gotten much worse in recent months.

The mandate was not the problem

The problem was not, as is so often the case with UN missions, the lack of a robust mandate. Security Council resolution 2100, drafted by France and adopted in April 2013, mandated MINUSMA to stabilize Mali, especially its northern regions (where the jihadists were most active), deter threats to the state and civilians, and support the government’s efforts to extend the writ of the state throughout the vast expanse of the largely Sahelian country. The mission was established after France launched Operation Serval – upon the request of a previous transitional government in Bamako – at the end of 2012 to stop Islamist assaults on the capital. The operation was swiftly successful in that immediate aim, but battle-hardened and heavily armed insurgents continued attacks elsewhere.

Based in New York at the time, I wrote an opinion article for CNN applauding Operation Serval but drawing attention to the fact that an important regional intervention plan had failed to get support. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to which Mali belonged, had in August 2012 submitted a detailed plan to the Security Council for a West African peace operation to stabilize the country and requested the UN to provide financial support. West African leaders assessed the Islamist campaigns in Mali as a regional security threat, seeing it as part of terrorist networks that included Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

France takes the lead militarily

The plan was apparently still under consideration by the Security Council when France launched its operation in late December 2012. Some West African leaders worried that it was a bit precipitous and would almost certainly not be sustained. The Islamists had been deemed as terrorists with whom a negotiated resolution was impossible – and indeed was to be abhorred.

France bolstered this message by transforming Operation Serval to Operation Barkhane, a wider military operation covering not just Mali but Niger and Burkina Faso: over 5000 French forces were deployed across the three countries with around 2,400 in Mali. Resolution 2100 authorized the French troops to “use all necessary means” to intervene in support of MINUSMA if it faces “imminent and serious threat.” That, in the context, meant that the French were to remain in active combat as long as MINUSMA existed. That made MINUSMA certainly the best equipped UN force ever deployed in West Africa, yet around 310 UN peacekeepers died in combat, making it second deadliest peacekeeping mission only to Lebanon.

Lessons from Liberia and Sierra Leone

Compare this dismal situation to that of, say, Liberia or Sierra Leone. In both countries, the UN missions were established after peace agreements between the warring parties had been negotiated and signed. The UN missions had been preceded by muscular ECOWAS’ peace operations whose determination and efforts had made clear to the warring parties that only a negotiated settlement would work. Liberia, in fact, was the first experiment in regional peace operation in Africa, with the intervention of ECOWAS’ Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in the1990s. That operation in turn marked the first time that the UN ever deployed its military personnel to actively support an already established regional peace initiative, abandoning a foundational policy that tended to keep such regional initiatives at arm’s length. That template was applied, more or less, to Sierra Leone. The two countries still remain peaceful, holding regular national elections and registering largely smooth political transitions.

Those successes, as well as that of Côte d’Ivoire, mean that there will always be a strong argument that UN peacekeeping can and does work. Alan Doss, who headed the UN missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire (as well as a less happy tenure in DRC), reflected on the future of UN peacekeeping in his immensely valuable book, A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning from UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars (2020). “Does peacekeeping have a future?” he asks. “I would like to say no, safe in the belief that conflicts of the kind in which the UN has intervened in recent decades will be prevented in the first place. But I fear that this will not be the case. Given the international community’s mixed record in conflict prevention, I anticipate that UN peacekeepers will continue to be called upon to intervene in other people’s wars.

For such calls to continue to get support, however, more successes need to be registered. To ensure this in Africa, regional initiatives need to be more systematically supported: regional leaders should lead, not be dragged into, interventions that are planned from outside.

Dr. Lansana Gberie is Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organizations, including the World Trade Centre.  He worked for the United Nations for many years, including as Coordinator and Finance Expert of the United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts on Liberia following his appointment by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2012. He was previously Senior Research Fellow at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana. Dr. Gberie is the author of, among others, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone and War Politics and Justice in West Africa: Essays 2003-2014.

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