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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
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat
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


Commentary / Africa

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

With jihadists and armed groups exploiting political and security vacuums across the Sahel, Mali and neighbouring states will continue to face insecurity. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to rethink international development strategies and to support local government initiatives that combat radicalisation.


This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening Cracks in Mali’s Peace Process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad Sans Frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian Peace Process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting Jihadists’ Cross-border Spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.