What Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa after Mali Shutters Its Mission?
What Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa after Mali Shutters Its Mission?
UN soldiers from South Africa and Tanzania follow a jungle warfare training by the Brazilian army in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Beni, DRC, December 2021 CRISIS GROUP / Nicolas Delaunay
Q&A / Global 13 minutes

What Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa after Mali Shutters Its Mission?

At Bamako’s request, the UN Security Council has begun drawing down the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan and Daniel Forti explore the implications for blue helmet missions elsewhere on the continent.


What happened?

In June, to the surprise of most UN Security Council members, Mali’s government called on the Council to pull UN peacekeepers out of the country “without delay”. Some diplomats briefly considered options for keeping the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in place, but most greeted the news with a resignation verging on fatalism. Although the precise timing of Bamako’s demand was unexpected, the Malian government had been frank about its loss of trust in the UN. But the move also reflected the fact that many members of the Council sense that an era of large, complex UN blue helmet missions in Africa is drawing to an end.

This era of peacekeeping dates back to the late 1990s, when the Security Council began authorising a series of UN missions to help end civil wars and support peace processes throughout Africa. Sizeable UN forces deployed in places from Sierra Leone to Sudan. By 2010, the organisation was overseeing more than 70,000 military and police personnel all over the continent. Despite many setbacks, this generation of UN missions helped end insurgencies, backstop elections and build peace in countries including Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The missions were a success story for the UN, providing a sharp contrast to the earlier 1990s, when a prior generation of peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda and Somalia had ended in failure.

Most of these post-1990s UN missions shut down some years ago, but a few remain in place. Alongside MINUSMA in Mali, which started a six-month drawdown on 1 July, these include operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. Together, these “big four” missions still field more than 60,000 troops. MINUSMA, with just over 13,000 troops and police as of May, is the smallest of the quartet. Each mission faces political and security problems specific to the country where it is based, but all of them share the pathologies and pitfalls typical of large-scale stabilisation operations. Each has struggled to protect civilians in areas where its contingents are deployed. The missions have also lost political leverage, while enduring relations with host governments that are at best strained, and at worst hostile.

The Malian government is hardly the first to oust blue helmet forces or other missions unceremoniously.

The Malian government is hardly the first to oust blue helmet forces or other missions unceremoniously from the territory it rules. The first to do so was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government in Egypt, which insisted that the UN quit the Sinai on the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Burundi, Eritrea, Chad and Sudan have all demanded that UN missions close down over the last two decades. But Mali’s move came at a moment when UN officials and Security Council diplomats are debating the state of UN peace operations in the whole of Africa. The outcomes of these debates look set to shape the future of multilateral crisis management.

Why have MINUSMA and other major UN peace operations been struggling?

MINUSMA has endured gruelling security conditions since it first deployed in 2013. Jihadist groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have waged a long campaign of hit-and-run attacks on the mission’s bases and convoys, as well as on civilians. Over 300 blue helmets have died serving in Mali, handing MINUSMA the unwelcome ranking of UN peacekeeping’s deadliest mission. 

Relations between the mission and governments in Bamako have long been troubled. Malian authorities have repeatedly argued that the UN should use greater force in fighting anti-government armed groups. Ties between the mission and Mali’s government frayed further after a military coup in May 2021 (the second putsch within a calendar year). Since then, Mali’s political leaders have inched closer to Russia, while distancing themselves from Western and regional partners, notably France, which until then had been a key ally in the battle with jihadist forces. It expelled French and European troops leading counter-terrorism efforts in the country and invited the Russian private military company Wagner to replace them. Early in 2023, Mali also denounced France’s role as steward of MINUSMA’s affairs at the Security Council. 

UN contingents often lack the situational awareness, military resources and willingness to take risks required to prevent attacks on the people they are supposed to shield.

While many of the causes of the falling-out are peculiar to Mali, the issues plaguing MINUSMA surface time and again in the rest of the “big four” missions. The most obvious of these is peacekeepers’ failure to project sufficient force to deter or halt violence against civilians. Although protecting civilians is a standard element of peacekeeping mandates, UN contingents often lack the situational awareness, military resources and willingness to take risks required to prevent attacks on the people they are supposed to shield. In 2022, disillusioned citizens in the eastern DRC launched a series of protests accusing the UN stabilisation mission there, MONUSCO, of failure to fight rebel groups. Some of these demonstrations turned violent, with both civilian and UN fatalities. 

Similar charges are laid against the UN force in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, where militia groups tell Crisis Group that they generally disregard the mission when attacking their rivals, as peacekeepers rarely intervene. UNMISS units also faced accusations in June of failing to put down an outbreak of fighting inside the UN-led compound sheltering over 37,000 displaced persons. The UN stabilisation in mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA, has long struggled to protect civilians outside the capital Bangui from large-scale attacks, due simply to poor performance. Although its presence in the country is a deterrent to some armed groups that might otherwise attack civilians, the mission no longer mounts major offensives against insurgents.

All four missions have seen their leverage over host governments wane. The UN is often a convenient scapegoat for politicians struggling with complex domestic challenges. During the 2022 protests in the DRC, Crisis Group found evidence that “Congolese politicians … were jockeying for position by presenting themselves as protectors of local interests against foreign interlopers”. While dumping blame on the UN, political figures have also increasingly cut the organisation out of national peace processes and transitional arrangements. Peacekeepers have had to tailor their operations to sustain or regain political good-will. UNMISS has, for example, succeeded in fostering better relations with the government (formally, the “transitional authorities”) in South Sudan through gestures such as seeking approval before deploying troops to deal with flare-ups of violence, although its deference tends to reduce its ability to respond flexibly and swiftly to events.

Perhaps the most glaring evidence of the way UN forces have been sidelined is the willingness of host governments to turn to other security partners. In 2017, well ahead of Mali, authorities in the Central African Republic invited into their country the Wagner Group – a private military company with deep ties to the Russian state (despite their clash in June). Wagner personnel have at times conducted operations in the same areas as MINUSCA, but at others have physically threatened UN officials. The Central African government also invited Rwanda to deploy a bilateral force, adding another powerful foreign presence to the country’s security and political mix. Similarly, in 2022, the Congolese government requested that a coalition of East African countries deploy a peace enforcement mission in the eastern DRC to combat armed groups that the UN has failed to quash, with little idea of how the two international missions would cooperate. Unsatisfied with the initial results, Kinshasa has since turned to a combination of private military contractors and forces from its Southern African counterparts to escalate operations in the east.

UN officials have become increasingly frank about the limits of what their stabilisation missions can achieve.

To a greater or lesser degree, all the “big four” UN peace operations find themselves playing a diminished role in the conflicts they were dispatched to calm. UN officials have become increasingly frank about the limits of what their stabilisation missions can achieve. Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, noted that current blue helmet missions cannot reach “the ultimate goal of peacekeeping” – enabling and crafting successful peace processes – and must instead focus on “intermediate” goals, such as protecting civilians and securing humanitarian aid. Too often, as noted above, UN forces’ struggle to achieve even these lesser goals. 

Are divisions on the Security Council to blame for the challenges that peacekeeping missions are facing?

To a degree. Some UN officials and observers blame the Security Council, deeply divided over Russia’s war on Ukraine, for failing to offer UN peace operations enough political backing and strategic guidance. In the early years of the 21st century, Council members paid close attention to the performance of missions, visiting host countries regularly. More often than not, their approach to supervising these missions was fairly collegial. As recently as five or six years ago, geopolitical divisions had little effect on debates about renewing mission mandates (although a few, such as that of the joint African Union-UN mission in Darfur, were more contentious). As Crisis Group noted in 2019, France often argued more with the U.S. over MINUSMA in the Council – which Washington always viewed as ineffectual and too expensive – than it did with China or Russia.

Council dynamics have changed in recent years, but at least until Mali’s call for MINUSMA’s withdrawal, the major powers deliberately avoided outright breakdown over peacekeeping issues in New York. Even so, Moscow has increasingly taken the side of politicians in Bangui and Bamako against the Council’s Western diplomats. These divisions are most pronounced whenever discussions on human rights or support for state security forces bring to the fore contrasts between UN blue helmets and Wagner personnel. Russia has also joined its Chinese and African counterparts in New York in criticising UN sanctions and arms embargoes against the governments that host these peacekeeping missions. There has been a trend – which has accelerated since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine – for these two powers to abstain on resolutions concerning peace operations, complaining that the U.S. and its allies lack respect for the views of host governments in drafting these texts. The Chinese and Russians, however, have thus far refrained from using their vetoes to kill these mandates.

While Russia did not have to wield its veto over MINUSMA explicitly, other Council members assume that it knew of – and possibly encouraged – Mali’s decision to end the mission. If they are right, it would be an alarming sign that Moscow is willing to play a disruptive role in the Council on issues beyond Ukraine. Even China, which has about 400 troops serving in Mali, appears to have been surprised by Bamako’s decision. While it is too early to say whether Russia’s tacit support for closing down MINUSMA is a turning point in UN peacekeeping, the Security Council is not well placed to provide the political support for its missions in the face of wary host governments that its most troubled peacekeeping operations need.

Will other African countries follow suit and force the closure of UN peace operations?

Most likely not. Certainly, gossip in New York has gravitated toward the question of whether Mali’s rejection of MINUSMA could inspire other states to follow suit. But the repercussions so far appear to be limited. In the case of the DRC, the Congolese government had already indicated that it wants to see MONUSCO leave shortly after national elections take place in late 2023. While officials in Kinshasa, whose suspicions of MONUSCO are similar to the doubts of their peers in Bamako about MINUSMA, have urged the UN to accelerate its exit, the mission’s drawdown has been on the cards since late 2020. Although the Central African foreign minister, Sylvie Baïpo-Temon, spoke positively of the UN during a recent Council briefing on MINUSCA, the mission has not been immune to confrontations with government security forces. Nonetheless, UN diplomats suggested to Crisis Group that authorities in Bangui are unlikely to follow Bamako’s example in the immediate future. 

Finally, in South Sudan, which does not have a relationship with Wagner, there has been no indication that the transitional authorities are close to pushing UNMISS out the door, especially considering their reliance on the mission’s extensive logistics network and the protection it provides for several humanitarian organisations. The UN is also set to support national elections in both South Sudan (scheduled for 2024) and the Central African Republic (2025), and it is unlikely these countries would want to expel these missions before then.

If the short-term effects of Mali’s decision are limited, its medium-term effects could be greater. New York’s tepid reaction to Bamako’s June decision suggests that the Security Council, at least in its current state, is unlikely to oppose host states that are determined to shutter a mission. At a minimum, it appears that governments can further hinder UN operations on the ground without expecting international blowback. Equally, Council members’ general pessimism about the value of peacekeeping – at least as regards the model of peacekeeping used in the “big four” African countries – is only likely to increase.

One bleak scenario in Mali, however, could make both host governments and Council diplomats rethink their assumptions. If, as many Council members including France predict, MINUSMA’s exit leads to a surge of violence in Mali and neighbouring countries, all parties may be forced to become more attentive to the risks of abruptly closing a mission and wary of taking such a decision elsewhere.

Will the closure of MINUSMA have other effects on the UN?

Whatever the political implications of MINUSMA’s exit, its closure will complicate UN peacekeeping’s cash flows. In 2019, the UN began pooling all of its missions’ cash balances in a single pot to alleviate peacekeeping’s liquidity crisis. This mechanism allowed missions with cash shortfalls – caused by member states either delaying or missing their payments to the annual peacekeeping budget – to borrow from other missions. Recently, MINUSMA has held one of the strongest cash positions, and in the 2021-2022 fiscal year alone four missions borrowed from MINUSMA. The mission’s closure will make it more difficult for the UN to sustain operations in missions with cash shortfalls.

MINUSMA’s closure will fuel discussions in New York about the need for the UN to look for – and potentially pay for – alternatives to blue helmet operations in Africa.

At a more strategic level, MINUSMA’s closure will fuel discussions in New York about the need for the UN to look for – and potentially pay for – alternatives to blue helmet operations in Africa. The Security Council has long debated the idea that the UN could establish a new funding mechanism to finance a percentage of the costs of peace operations authorised or managed by the African Union (AU), similar to the system for financing UN-led missions (this mechanism involves using “assessed contributions”, an obligatory levy on member states based on their economic weight). UN Secretary-General António Guterres has strongly endorsed this idea, calling in 2022 for international support for a new African-led peace enforcement operation in the Sahel to tackle jihadist threats. In the wake of Bamako’s termination of MINUSMA, some Council members have speculated that a mission of this type might at some stage be needed to address insecurity in Mali.

The three African members of the Security Council (Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique) have been lobbying hard for an agreement on UN-AU funding in 2023. The U.S., in contrast to its position under the Trump administration, has signalled that it is keen to see such a deal succeed, in line with its broader efforts to secure support in Africa as it engages in strategic competition with China and Russia. Ghana, which is coordinating the African efforts in New York, has indicated that it could bring a resolution authorising new funding arrangements to a vote in the Council as soon as September or October. Council members still need to resolve knotty differences about the financial and oversight aspects of this arrangement, and it may be hard to nail down the fine print of an agreement. But the spectre of more chaos in the Sahel will likely strengthen Africa’s arguments for why the Council should reach an agreement as quickly as possible.

Does this mean the end of peacekeeping as we know it?

Yes and no. While the end of MINUSMA will not precipitate the collapse of other UN missions, it points the way toward the end of an era for large-scale blue helmet missions in Africa. With MONUSCO also slated to close in the near future, the UN’s military footprint on the continent will be markedly smaller compared to just a few years ago. If the Security Council is able to agree on a funding mechanism for AU-authorised peace enforcement operations, the space for the UN to deploy blue helmet forces will shrink further, although the UN could play a useful role providing logistical and technical support to these new African-led missions. Even without such a funding mechanism, it appears likely that regional coalitions and other players (whether ad-hoc or bi-lateral deployments, Wagner, or other private groups) will play a more prominent role.

That said, it remains important to draw a line between the end of this generation of UN peacekeeping in Africa and UN peace operations as a whole. Peacekeeping is a multifaceted enterprise. In the past, the UN played major roles in other regions – including Asia, Central America and Europe – where it has a little or no footprint today. By contrast, the UN has maintained a cluster of peacekeeping missions in the Middle East dating back to the Cold War that appear likely to continue regardless of events in Africa. In addition, the UN has experimented with new mission models in recent years, such as its relatively small and successful post-civil war verification mission in Colombia, that involve far fewer personnel and resources than large scale stabilisation efforts. 

An era of UN peacekeeping may be ending little by little in Africa, hastened by Mali’s decision. But in an era of rising conflicts and geopolitical uncertainty, the organisation will likely face new and unpredictable calls for help.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research

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