The transitional government in Mali, the epicenter since 2012 of the Sahel Crisis, made a bombshell of an announcement last month, when Foreign Affairs Minister Abdoulaye Diop called for the immediate withdrawal of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The demand, issued on June 16, came amid an ongoing diplomatic row between Mali and its former Western partners that shows no signs of ending anytime soon. On June 30, the UN Security Council responded by unanimously passing resolution 2690, ending MINUSMA’s mandate. Later, UN officials and Malian authorities agreed on a plan to withdraw the mission over a six-month timeline, between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2023.
The developments caught analysts off guard. While the transitional government had clearly been at odds with MINUSMA, few imagined that Mali would take things so far, or do so in such an abrupt fashion. And yet, as surprising at it may be, the move follows the logic that the junta government has adopted since seizing power on May 24, 2021, in the country’s second military coup in as many years. From the outset, the junta distanced itself from Mali’s traditional Western partners so as to forge closer ties with Russia, its new military partner in the fight against terrorism. More specifically, it turned to the private Russian military contractor the Wagner Group, which dispatched an estimated 1,500-2,000 mercenaries.
The transitional government has taken pains to deny the Wagner Group’s presence, referring to the fighters instead as “Russian instructors.” But on May 12, diplomatic tensions reached what may have been the breaking point with the publication of a report, issued by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, on the killing of more than 500 civilians, along with approximately 30 jihadists, in the village of Moura, in Mali’s central Mopti region. The report suggests that Malian Armed Forces (or FAMA, the French acronym), in conjunction with auxiliaries from the Wagner Group, massacred civilians in operations carried out in Moura between March 27 and 31, and also cited numerous cases of rape and sexual abuse.
MINUSMA’s mandate, both real and imagined
Analysts point to a new element in the Sahel crisis: a growing public resentment, toward UN forces, as has been seen in Mali and Burkina Faso. People see MINUSMA, in particular, as having failed to contain the spread of terrorism both in Mali and beyond its borders. But there has also been a misunderstanding, from the outset, about nature of the mission’s mandate. Despite its size (more than 15,000 uniformed personnel) and colossal annual budget (around $1.2 billion), MINUSMA never had the green light to fight armed terrorist groups in Mali. It was meant, above all, to be a peacekeeping operation, within the framework of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (APR). Truth be told, MINUSMA was never intended to replace the Malian army in its sovereign role of defending national territory. An argument could be made, nevertheless, that the mission did a poor job of communicating the limits of its mandate. That, in turn, played into the hands of Mali’s military government, which paints MINUSMA as having failed to fulfill its expectations (even if those expectations were never, in reality, part of the plan).
The local population’s disenchantment, in other words, is the product of a misunderstanding, one the government’s propaganda arm is happy to exploit. Public opinion sees the fight against terrorism as the main challenge in Mali. What then is the point of MINUSMA, locals ask, if it can’t end the spiral of terrorism?
In truth, the transitional government’s rupture with its former Western allies took place even before these more recent developments. From the start, the junta’s expectations differed greatly from those of MINUSMA, and it is undeniable that the latter’s presence in Mali posed a considerable obstacle to military operations carried out by FAMA and Wagner forces. The human rights component of MINUSMA’s mandate is one such obstacle, as evidenced by the Moura report, which the Malian military government did not appreciate one bit. As a direct consequence of the report, the United States issued sanctions against two Malian military officers (Col. Moustapha Sangaré and Maj. Lassine Togola) suspected of playing a crucial role in the massacre.
The year before, on June 9, 2022, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) issued economic sanctions against Mali’s military government for failing to hold elections, as originally promised, in February 2022.The sanctions, which Bamako described as “very harsh,” called among other things for the closure of borders between Mali and the other ECOWAS member states, the freezing of Malian assets within the Central Bank of West African States, and the recall of member countries’ ambassadors. Both the African Union and the European Union approved the measures.
Mali’s military government is concerned, it appears, that it could face more sanctions still in wake of the Moura report. It sees MINUSMA’s presence, thus, as increasingly problematic. But that then leaves an even bigger question: whether its demand for the mission’s withdrawal will lead to a complete diplomatic break with Paris.
A mission “Made in France”
MINUSMA is, after all, a French project, albeit one that, from the beginning, lacked a clear objective. The project was always vague. But from the outset, in 2013, France played a central role, with French people occupying the mission’s key, strategic positions. Keep in mind that France was also behind the creation of the G5-Sahel, a joint military force (involving Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad) organized to fight terrorism and slated to replace the French-led, anti-insurgency operation known was Barkhane (2014-2022). Presidency of the G5-Sahel was supposed to shift on a rotating basis. When that ceased to occur (whether or not at France’s urging, as the Malian government alleges), Mali decided last year to withdraw. For the French, MINUSMA’s main role was never to wage war on terrorists but rather to keep the peace. In 2017, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2364, solidifying the APR as the core of the mission’s mandate. The Security Council wanted all of the signatory parties (the armed groups in the North, the government in Bamako) to be actively involved in the peace process. That didn’t happen, because the APR was never fully applied. Armed groups were never disarmed. And now, with MINUSMA’s looming departure, the whole scenario is back, in many ways, to square one, with a security situation that is only getting worse.
The military regime’s mindset
In the meantime, public opinion in Mali and elsewhere in Africa sees these types of peacekeeping missions more and more as a cover for intervention by Western powers. For a large segment of the Malian army and the population itself, MINUSMA’s presence is evidence that despite the withdrawal of French forces in August 2022, French never, in fact, left Mali. What’s more, the disbanded Barkhane force is still present just across the border, in Niger. Thus, in order to properly break from its former, privileged military partner – which also happens to be the country’s former colonial power – the transitional government in Mali sees MINUSMA’s removal as the logical next step. That is their mindset. And they’re not wrong in pointing out that the mission was unable to stabilize either Mali or the Sahel region as a whole. It’s also the case that by spreading out into the Sahel, the jihadist groups present in Mali have only gained ground.
The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) has established a permanent foothold in the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, a region also known as Liptako-Gourma. With the exception of the city of Menaka, IS-GS controls a large portion of the area’s settlements and has executed civilians for failing to follow Sharia law. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has gained control, in the meantime, in areas of central Mali, including around the Inner Niger Delta, filling the vacuum left by another jihadist group, Katibat Macina.
Passing things by Putin
As impulsive as it may seem, the decision to demand MINUSMA’s withdrawal was calculated, given political events that directly preceded the announcement on June 16. Two days earlier, on June 14, Mali’s interim president, Assimi Goita, revealed on Twitter that he had spoken by phone with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart. The discussion, he wrote, focused on “diplomatic, economic and security relations.” And while it is difficult to know the exact content of the telephone exchange, it stands to reason that the Malian government received express backing from Russia, which has veto power in the UN Security Council.
Also, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was expected to make a state visit to France in June, instead travelled (from June 13-15) to Russia, where he had an audience in the Kremlin with Putin. Algeria is a key player in the Sahel Crisis, particularly with regards to the breakaway enclave of Kidal, in Mali’s northern desert. Tebboune, aware that Mali way want to eventually retake Kidal by force, has insisted on various occasions that the dispute can only be solved within the framework of the APR. “Where the Sahel region is concerned, we support relations between Mali and the Russian Federation,” the Algerian leader stated in Moscow. “Mali neighbors our country. We should negotiate and discuss all issues under any circumstances. We have an instrument known as the Algiers Agreement.”
The road ahead
With IS-GS conducting terrorist attacks in the Liptako-Gourma region, JNIM wreaking havoc in Mali’s central region, and Wagner mercenaries and self-defense militias operating in different areas, it’s no exaggeration to say that Mali’s security situation has sharply deteriorated. Clearly, MINUSMA was unable to contain the spiral of terrorism. But it withdrawal is likely to make things even worse.
Logistically speaking, MINUSMA is very important. It has two bases in central Mali, nine in the north of the country, and a large base in Bamako. The mission provided a huge amount of air transport between the cities of the south and the north in Mali, and its presence allows for at least a facade of national unity, as members of armed groups are allowed some representation in government. MINUSMA wasn’t, however, able to resolve the country’s underlying political problems, and its probable departure could reinvigorate jihadist groups. That having been said, the Malian army has acquired a significant amount of military equipment since opting for direct conflict as a way to resolve the country’s multifaceted crisis, and the military leaders seem confident in their ability to control the national territory, especially with support from their “Russian allies.”
Many analysts expected the FAMA to suffer more than it has from the departure of Barkhane forces. Instead, those fighters have been replaced by mercenaries with questionable methods and little regard for human rights issues. MIMUSMA’s withdrawal could cost Mali economically, particularly with regards to the jobs the mission provides, and given that Malian leaders have been mum on what they plan to do with the MIMUSMA bases. But the biggest concern now is the possibility of renewed hostilities between Bamako and Kidal. Many observers believe, cynically, that the transitional government is keen for a military offensive against Kidal, and that in doing so, it could remain in power and further postpone elections, which are currently scheduled for February 2024.
A hypothetical victory in such a conflict could drum up popular support for the regime and guarantee its longevity in power. Putting that type of political fiction aside, one thing is certain: if MINUSMA does withdraw, its 10-year presence in Mali will, from a political standpoint, have amounted to essentially nothing given that it puts us right back at square one, and with a security situation that is more challenging than ever.
Themba Zuri is a Sahel researcher.