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Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Peacekeeping in Mali
Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Peacekeeping in Mali
Report 210 / Africa

Mali: Reform or Relapse

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s current legitimacy and a strong international presence give Mali a unique opportunity to engage in serious reforms and inclusive dialogue. However, the window for change is narrow and dangerous political habits are resurfacing.

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Executive Summary

A year after the beginning of the French intervention in Mali, constitutional order and territorial integrity have been restored. However, the north remains a hotbed of intercommunal tensions and localised violence as both French and UN forces struggle to consolidate security gains. Expectations for president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) run very high. He is supposed to help elaborate consensus for the future of the northern regions as well as implement reforms to strengthen state institutions. It is time for his government to act beyond declarations of intent. An easy mistake would be to revamp, in the short term, the clientelist system that brought former regimes to a standstill. While the president cannot overhaul the state in a few months, the urgent need to stabilise the situation should not detract from implementing meaningful governance reforms and a truly inclusive dialogue on the future of the country. The opportunity to do so should not be missed. 

2013 ended with renewed tensions across the north. Reported incidents include armed banditry, new jihadi attacks, intercommunal violence and frequent clashes between Malian forces and local armed groups. So far these have not led to massive violence but seeds of a more devastating conflict are being planted. Peaceful coexistence between communities remains a distant dream. So far, insecurity has prevented the restoration of state authority and the delivery of humanitarian aid in the north. As a consequence, popular resentment against the government is high, as evidenced by a series of protests in several northern towns, especially Gao. Though the legislative vote was almost incident-free, the situation is worrying, especially in Kidal, in the extreme north, where two French journalists were killed on 2 November and the army fired on civilian protesters on 29 November.

The government has been slow to restore basic services in the north as Malian authorities lack resources to do so. Moreover, they have lost the confidence of most inhabitants of these regions, though many of them do not back armed groups’ separatist or autonomist plans. To bridge the gap between the government and the population, the newly started rehabilitation programs should focus primarily on providing concrete services. While redeploying in the north, Malian authorities cannot afford to repeat past, unfulfilled promises of change.  

After the rather quick success of the French military Serval Operation, international intervention is finding it difficult to consolidate its gains in the longer run. France, which is now also involved in the Central African Republic, is not ready to finance, on its own, a long-term stabilisation program. The UN force (MINUSMA) has been complementing French efforts to stabilise Mali since July 2013, but an insufficient number of peacekeepers and lack of adequate means cast doubt on its capacities to carry out its mandate alone. More broadly, while security in the Sahel is a regional issue, progress in building regional cooperation has been slow and mutual distrust remains high between Mali’s neighbours. 

The series of national and regional conferences on decentralisation and the future of the north, held in late 2013, is a positive step toward national dialogue. It could possibly lead to more than a showdown between the government and the armed groups. For that to happen, however, the meetings should be more inclusive, as critics suggest, and result in prompt, tangible actions. For instance, the overdue transfer of state resources to local authorities must be implemented. The regional forums, set as follow-ups to national meetings, should be community-led and not another way to impose Bamako’s top-down decisions. Otherwise, the government’s efforts over the past months will be no more than a communication strategy without any impact on the ground. 

So far, northern armed groups have refused to attend these meetings, which they say are government-led initiatives with little room for a true dialogue. Despite the recent announcement of their imminent merger in a bid to strengthen their position vis-à-vis Bamako, they are divided over the opportunity to restore links with the government. For its part, the latter seems to have returned to the old clientelist system used by previous regimes to control the north. In the legislative elections, President IBK’s party backed several candidates from or close to the armed groups. The government is rekindling clientelist links with Tuareg and Arab leaders with the aim to divide and gradually weaken the armed groups. This policy is likely to bring short-term stability at the expense of long-term cohesion and inclusiveness, vital for peace and development in the troubled north. In addition, it has deepened tensions between armed groups, thus increasing the risk of new splinter groups taking up arms. 

In accordance with the June 2013 preliminary agreement signed in Ouagadougou, inclusive peace talks should take place 60 days after the formation of the new cabinet. This deadline expired at the beginning of November 2013. Contacts between the government and armed groups are still taking place but through informal channels and in an increasingly tense atmosphere. The main bone of contention is the future of combatants. The current uncertainty could threaten the ceasefire. The international community should use its influence and convince the actors that they must respect the provisions of the Ouagadougou agreement. The armed groups must accept disarmament and the full return of the Malian administration in Kidal, which could initially work with MINUSMA to maintain law and order. As for the government, it must show more flexibility and understand that national conferences are not an alternative to truly inclusive talks with all the northern communities, including armed groups. 

Finally, the focus on the northern region should not overshadow the need to lay better foundations both for the state and for governance. As Crisis Group previously mentioned, the crisis in the north revealed serious dysfunctions that affect the country as a whole. Malian democracy, hailed as a regional example, collapsed suddenly. The country’s new leadership and international partners agree that meaningful reforms are required to break with the past. Some believe that these reforms are too early, too soon for a state still reeling from the crisis. However, it is important not to miss the unique opportunity of implementing an ambitious reform on governance and economic development, supported by a well-coordinated international response. At the very least, bad habits of the past should not resurface.


To ensure security throughout the territory and better protect the populations

To the Malian government:

  1. Ensure that the redeployment of the state in the north focuses on resumption and improvement of services (judicial, educational and health) and not only on restoration of the symbols of central authority.
  2. Restore trust between state representatives and northern populations, particularly in Kidal, by:
    1. investigating all potential abuses committed by armed forces against civilians and trying those individuals involved;
    2. setting up the international investigation committee prescribed by Article 18 of the Ouagadougou agreement as soon as possible;
    3. ensuring the professionalism and probity of the armed forces deployed in the north, in particular by using trained police forces, rather than the army, to maintain law and order; and
    4. putting an end to the use of community-based armed groups to restore security in the north.

To armed groups in the north:

  1. Respect strictly their confinement into barracks as stipulated by the Ouagadougou agreement, or otherwise accept co-responsibility for incidents happening in localities where they still operate.
  2. Clarify and update their political demands.

To the Security Council and countries contributing troops: 

  1. Increase without delay MINUSMA’s human and logistic resources, especially airborne capacity, until reaching full capacity.


  1. Fulfil its civilian protection mandate while remaining neutral to avoid being perceived as a state proxy, especially in the north. 
  2. Reinforce significantly its presence in the north, especially in towns where security incidents have been reported, and strengthen its patrol capacities, in conjunction with Malian forces, to secure main roads.
  3. Secure the return of refugees, including in pastoral areas, through an increased presence outside of urban centres. 

To the French authorities:

  1. Maintain a rapid reaction contingent and intelligence gathering capacities on Malian soil to support the government and MINUSMA. 

To the African Union, Sahel, West and North African states, the UN special envoy for the Sahel and special representative of the European Union for the Sahel: 

  1. Help revive regional cooperation for security and economic development, by supporting consultation and decision-making mechanisms to defuse tensions between the countries involved, such as the African Union-backed initiative that regularly gathers heads of intelligence services of the region. 

To promote peace and reconciliation

To the Malian government:

  1. Capitalise on the dialogue initiated since the Ouagadougou agreement by:
    1. opening inclusive peace talks with representatives of northern communities, including the armed groups that signed the agreement; 
    2. opening, as soon as possible, discussions on disarmament and the future of combatants;
    3. showing flexibility in organising negotiations so as to hold meetings outside Bamako, including in major northern cities; and
    4. refraining from setting decentralisation as the only acceptable basis for negotiations, being open to other institutional arrangements, and implementing measures to facilitate dialogue.
  2. Pursue and strengthen a sustainable national reconciliation policy by:
    1. making sure the dialogue is held at the grassroots level rather than imposed by the state, and setting up regional and local forums as follow-up measures to the recent national conferences;
    2. showing determination to continue discussions and to implement the recommendations of these forums, by linking them directly to a political decision-making process; and
    3. clarifying the mission and functioning of the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adding to its prerogatives a fact-finding mission on crimes committed since 1963.

To MINUSMA, ECOWAS, witnesses to the Ouagadougou Agreement (AU, EU and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and the French government:

  1. Continue to facilitate negotiations maintaining a neutral position as between the government and armed groups. 

To initiate a meaningful reform of the state and governance

To the Malian government: 

  1. Show capacity to implement long-lasting state reforms through immediate, tangible actions mainly by:
    1. continuing, in the short-term, to enforce discipline and a strict respect of hierarchy within the armed forces and undertaking a long-term reform of the security sector in collaboration with the EU training mission in Mali (EUTM); 
    2. implementing short-term measures to restore public services in the north and throughout the country;  
    3. implementing, in the longer term, the main recommendations of the general meetings on decentralisation, steering clear of the pitfalls of an ill-prepared decentralisation;
    4. facilitating, without delay, judicial action against corruption, and quickly highlighting the first results of such action; and 
    5. putting in place a longer-term policy to restore the capacities and independence of the justice system. 

To Mali’s partners and donors:

  1. Review fully the failures of past aid policies, taking into account their own responsibilities as well as those of Malian leaders.
  2. Coordinate their actions, especially through the creation of frequent donor forums to define an aid policy tailored to the country’s limited absorption capacities. 
  3. Put in place mechanisms to ensure a better monitoring of aid disbursement and to significantly reduce embezzlement.
  4. Help the government set priorities and plan decisions while focusing on tangible actions to restore public services and economic development across the country and not only in regional capitals.
Open Letter / Africa

Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Peacekeeping in Mali

To address growing violence in Mali that is undermining the Algeria-brokered peace accord, the UN Security Council should in June renew the mandate of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) with stronger political and civil affairs components and a greater role for the peacekeepers in local reconciliation.


Only weeks away from the official end of the two-year “interim period” defined in the June 2015 peace agreement, much of Mali remains unstable and a threat to regional stability. Implementation of the Algeria-brokered agreement consumes considerable diplomatic energy for little impact on the ground. Armed groups are more numerous, they clash more frequently with Malian and international forces, and violence has spread to Central Mali. The UN Security Council should reorient the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), whose mandate it will renew in June, to help prevent the agreement’s collapse, particularly by strengthening its political and civil affairs components and giving the mission a greater role in local reconciliation.

The challenges confronting MINUSMA have evolved since the Security Council first authorised its deployment in April 2013. The balance of power among Malian parties in the north remains in flux, generating local competition. The main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), a principal signatory to the peace agreement, has fractured; new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, have emerged. These new groups, whose strength lies in local tribal alliances, in principle are committed to respect the peace agreement but are not considered signatories and therefore struggle to secure access to peace dividends. They will remain a potential nuisance as long as they are outside the peace process; the best option would be to integrate them into one of the existing signatory coalitions.

Much of the fighting in the North is over control of trafficking routes. This hampers the peace deal’s implementation as traffickers sponsor armed groups of all stripes, including within the two coalitions – the CMA and its rival, the Platform – that signed the peace accord in Bamako. Mixed patrols as envisaged in the peace agreement, comprising Malian army, pro-government armed groups and former rebels, will struggle to curb insecurity as long as militias and key northern politicians depend on trafficking. These mixed units should have started 60 days after the signing of the peace agreement but it took eighteen months to launch the first in Gao, the Mécanisme opérationnel de Coordination (MOC), which then suffered a traumatic suicide attack on 18 January 2017 before even starting its first patrol. No other MOC has been active in other northern regions.

The state remains largely absent across the north. While its return to Kidal, currently under the control of the CMA, is symbolically important for the government, its presence in rural areas is as much a priority. Jihadist groups are consolidating control in the vacuum, in some areas providing basic public goods, like local security and conflict resolution to nomadic communities. The Malian jihadist landscape also is evolving, with a new coalition that includes al-Qaeda-linked groups competing with a small faction that has declared itself part of the Islamic State. Iyad ag-Ghaly, a former Tuareg rebel who now leads the al-Qaeda-linked coalition, has outlined his strategy as attacking international forces in cities while extending influence over a wider territory by gaining popular support. The ensuing challenge for the state is to foster “nomadic public services” across the immense and sparsely populated territory – a long-term project although one for which the government could start laying foundations.

The state’s weakness is particularly worrying in light of rising insecurity in Central Mali, a region long neglected but largely outside the peace process. Violence is rooted in local tensions among communities over resources and in the dangerous growth of self-defence militias and banditry. But a jihadist uprising also is in the making in the region of Mopti and Ségou, where militants are capitalising on local disputes and the state’s absence and lack of legitimacy.

Though collaboration between regional and Western powers has produced results, notably the peace agreement itself, diverging interests between them is sucking oxygen from its implementation. Though MINUSMA’s diplomacy around the peace process is active and valuable, without greater international coherence it yields little concrete impact on the ground. Algeria’s leadership was invaluable in negotiating the deal but its partners perceive its role since then as less decisive. Algeria could more firmly assume its lead by establishing a permanent presence in Bamako.

Multiple forces are attempting to bring security to the north. Already, the juxtaposition of MINUSMA, the French “Barkhane” counter-terrorism operation, Malian security forces, the various armed groups – the peace agreement’s signatories and others – makes for a busy security picture. The benefits of introducing yet another force, which is envisioned to be formed by the G-5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) and/or the smaller G-3, comprising Burkinabe, Nigerien and Malian forces, are unclear. So too is the role either force would play; as a result, their deployment risks aggravating what amounts to a security traffic jam.

MINUSMA itself is struggling against complex threats and is now the UN’s most perilous mission worldwide. Troop increases in themselves would not be game changers. The mission will remain a target for jihadists or other armed actors whose interests it disturbs, possibly including traffickers, which will only reinforce its tendency to retreat to heavily protected forts in urban areas.

The forthcoming mandate renewal offers the Security Council an opportunity to adjust the mission’s role to these new challenges. Council members should consider the following:

  1. The Security Council should task MINUSMA, the only actor in the international mediation team with a significant presence in the north, to facilitate regional reconciliation forums, potentially with one in Kidal, another in Gao and a third for Timbuktu and Taoudenit regions. These local forums would complement the Algiers process – in whose framework they would need to be incorporated – decentralise its implementation and locally consolidate any gains. Such bottom-up approaches could help calm local tensions, like the rivalry between the Tuareg Iforas and Imrad tribes in Kidal, which fuel violence. They also might contribute to fashioning local solutions to prevent the growth of radical groups in rural areas and to lowering armed violence, including when it pertains to the smuggling economy. It will be critical to reinforce the mission’s political and civil affairs components, including deploying officials with expertise in local reconciliation to Central and Northern Mali.
  2. The Security Council also should reinforce MINUSMA’s good offices mandate. Strengthening relevant language in the renewal could help bolster the mission’s role in the international mediation team. In turn, that team should help develop a revised calendar for the agreement’s interim period after it officially ends, possibly extending it for a short period of time.
  3. As Security Council members discuss MINUSMA’s troop numbers and equipment, they should not lose sight of the core issue: a security context that has dramatically changed since its deployment. Expelled from towns, jihadists have gone rural and extended into Central Mali. While MINUSMA’s core focus must remain political and while it cannot directly fight jihadists, it can and should help prevent their expansion by supporting the state’s presence in areas at risk – even while recognising that the state bears primary responsibility for extending its own authority. The mission, particularly its civilian component, also should become more mobile, taking into account security constraints, and increase its presence in long neglected rural areas of North and Central Mali.
  4. In Central Mali, which is already in MINUSMA’s mandate but still awaits reinforcement, the mission should learn from its experience in the north. Instead of concentrating forces in urban military camps, it should emphasise mobility and dedicate its resources to facilitating the work of its civilian components. European and other advanced force contributors should ensure that the mission fields the necessary military resources to make this possible. To increase its mobility, MINUSMA should consider reducing the size of, or even closing, some bases especially in locations in which the mission has had limited impact such as Tessalit or Ansongo. This would allow MINUSMA to reduce the force contingent currently dedicated to protecting UN facilities in fixed locations and increase the number of its mobile elements. In other words, a more robust MINUSMA need not necessarily entail additional troops, but rather better equipped and more mobile contingents.
  5. The Security Council also should consider MINUSMA’s relationship to other military forces, particularly in light of potential G-5 or G-3 deployments. Given that key MINUSMA contingents are from G-5 states, discussions over respective roles among MINUSMA, the G-5 and the African Union (AU) are essential. Options will hinge on the role, strength, funding modality and composition of such a force, all of which currently are under negotiation. For now, however, the UN should work closely with the AU, which is reviewing plans for the force. This discussion is especially important as MINUSMA’s mandate renewal will take place at a time when the new U.S. administration is pressing for review of all major UN peace operations.

A sanctions regime for Mali, which some Security Council members have proposed, should be viewed with caution. Any such regime would need to be balanced and its purpose clear. The threat of sanctions during earlier negotiations yielded little return. The fragmentation and fluidity of armed groups would complicate targeted sanctions: groups from all sides, including pro-government groups, have ties to figures in smuggling and jihadist networks. Without a green light from the Malian government, some Council members would be reluctant to approve sanctions, which would taint the regime as partial.

In this context, a visit from UN Secretary-General António Guterres to Mali would be particularly useful. It could boost the mission’s morale, serve as an opportunity to explain its revised mandate to Malian parties and help convince them that passivity of the Malian political elite and its lack of political will presently represent the greatest threats to the peace process. Such a high level visit also could encourage Boubakar Keïta, Mali’s president, to publicly demonstrate greater personal involvement in support of the peace process.

The Security Council’s renewal of MINUSMA’s mandate should reflect the fresh challenges the mission confronts and the Malian environment in which it operates. Although the Algiers peace process has stalled, neither Bamako nor the region shows much appetite for a major course correction. This limits options. But by strengthening MINUSMA’s civilian components, reinforcing its good offices role, tasking it with local reconciliation and reviewing its relationship with other security forces in Northern Mali, the Council would better position the UN to support the peace agreement’s implementation and prevent its collapse.


Jean-Marie Guéhenno
President and CEO
International Crisis Group