Ensuring MINUSMA’s Smooth Departure from Mali
Ensuring MINUSMA’s Smooth Departure from Mali
New APCs for the MINUSMA military contingent are being convoyed from Gao to Kidal, Mali February 16, 2017. Each month MINUSMA organizes logistic convoys involving hundreds of civilians and military vehicles to supply remote UN bases in northern Mali. MINUSMA/Sylvain Liechti handout via REUTERS
Commentary / Africa 14 minutes

Ensuring MINUSMA’s Smooth Departure from Mali

On 16 June, Bamako asked the UN Security Council to withdraw the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Jean-Hervé Jézéquel and Ibrahim Maïga look at the reasons behind the Malian authorities’ decision as well as its consequences.

How did the Malian government arrive at the point of demanding the immediate withdrawal of a mission comprising more than 13,000 peacekeepers?

The government’s decision on 16 June to request the withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) caught most observers off guard, even if rumours to that effect had been brewing in some corners. Just two days earlier, the government had issued a memorandum in response to the UN Secretary-General’s quarterly report on the situation in Mali. This memorandum criticised the UN mission, particularly its investigations into Malian security forces’ misconduct, but it did not hint at such an abrupt outcome.

The withdrawal request is the culmination of a process that began almost two years ago. Following the coup d’état in May 2021, the transitional authorities severed ties with France and aligned themselves with Russia, in particular the private security company Wagner. The latter, founded in 2014 by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, is said to have deployed between 1,000 and 2,000 mercenaries in Mali in exchange for financial compensation and possibly access to gold mines. Bamako has always denied that Wagner is present in the country, maintaining that the Russians in Mali are merely instructors engaged in intergovernmental cooperation. The authorities then gradually discarded the stabilisation system for the Sahel in which Paris had played a central role since 2013. This system brought together various partners from the Sahel and elsewhere. Its objective was to stabilise Mali and the surrounding region, yet it struggled to curb the expansion of jihadist groups in northern and central Mali, notably the Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) coalition and the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS Sahel).

Publication of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the March 2022 Moura massacre, a few weeks before the vote on the mission’s renewal, undermined a primary argument in favour of extending MINUSMA’s presence. Despite its struggle to demonstrate its effectiveness, MINUSMA had maintained that its continued presence would serve as a deterrent to severe violence targeting civilians. But the UN investigation, conducted in collaboration with the MINUSMA Human Rights Division, accused the Malian armed forces and their Russian partners (referred to as “foreign military personnel” by MINUSMA) of participating in the mass execution of several hundred civilians during sweep operations in the town of Moura, in the centre of the country.

The Malian authorities vehemently deny these accusations, but they did not publish the conclusions of an independent investigation conducted by the Malian judiciary. They also denounced the UN inquiry as an instance of “espionage” aimed at undermining Bamako’s decision to align itself with Russia. In the wake of the report’s publication, the U.S. criticised Russia’s alleged use of Mali to bypass restrictions on the importation of arms that Moscow needs for its war against Ukraine. Furthermore, in January 2023, Washington designated Wagner as a transnational criminal organisation due to its role in Ukraine.

The Moura incident, an unprecedented tragedy in Mali, has weakened the position of those advocating for MINUSMA as one of the last channels for dialogue with the transitional authorities. The damning report on the Malian army, and the U.S. sanctions against two senior Malian officers, have intensified tensions between Bamako and the mission. The prospect of this report leading to legal action or targeted sanctions is also a concern for Mali’s leaders.

Most observers anticipated that MINUSMA’s mandate would be renewed.

Despite these tensions, which themselves contributed to the mission’s weakening, most observers anticipated that MINUSMA’s mandate would be renewed, primarily due to fears of a security vacuum and the lack of a better alternative. MINUSMA does not have the means to resolve the Malian crisis, but it has provided a military presence in urban areas and resources that many deemed too valuable for Bamako to forgo.

The week before the Security Council meeting, Russian President Putin and Malian President Assimi Goïta spoke on the telephone. While their discussion very likely touched upon MINUSMA’s future, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which it may have influenced Mali’s decision. During the Security Council meeting on 16 June, Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, called for the mission’s immediate withdrawal. He highlighted that “the ten years of MINUSMA’s presence ... have failed to provide adequate responses to the security situation in Mali”. He went so far as to accuse the mission of being “part of the problem and fuelling intercommunal tensions”. 

What might be the consequences of MINUSMA’s departure?

The departure of MINUSMA, even if conducted gradually, could exacerbate an already difficult security situation. The mission is mainly deployed in urban centres, most of which, besides Bamako, are north of the Niger river. It has nine bases in towns in the north of the country, compared with two in the centre. Although these urban areas are not the primary targets of jihadist groups, MINUSMA’s presence has played a role in diminishing their potential influence there.

No Malian town has suffered the fate of Djibo, in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where the population has faced a jihadist blockade for over a year. The withdrawal of peacekeepers may prompt jihadists to reassess their strategy and lay siege to urban centres. The Malian authorities nonetheless appear to believe that Mali’s armed forces, with the support of their Russian allies, can maintain control, as they did after the French Barkhane force departed in 2022. But the government has yet to reveal its plan for filling the vacuum left by MINUSMA.

MINUSMA’s departure will also result in the loss of valuable governance and humanitarian aid resources for Mali.

MINUSMA’s departure will also result in the loss of valuable governance and humanitarian aid resources for Mali. In recent years, MINUSMA’s air assets – 63 aircraft, including sixteen planes as of 2022 – have played a crucial role in maintaining connections between the capital and the northern regions. The mission facilitated the travel of government representatives to these areas and gave humanitarian workers access to regions that were previously cut off or under strong jihadist influence, such as the town of Ménaka. Despite efforts to equip and strengthen the Malian army, and the launch of a private Malian airline serving the interior in 2020, travel between Bamako and the northern regions is likely to become more challenging, while journeys by road remain long and risky.

Furthermore, MINUSMA generates thousands of jobs and funds dozens of stabilisation projects, even if these represent only a fraction of its budget. The loss of these economic opportunities will particularly hurt regions that are already weakened by the decade-long crisis. If the Malian authorities fail to make investments to compensate for the UN mission’s departure, Bamako’s relations with populations in the north could become strained.

MINUSMA’s withdrawal could also further weaken the peace process under way since the signing of the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement by the Malian government, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (the main coalition of former rebel groups) and the Platform of Algiers (a conglomerate of pro-government groups). Just days after the government announced its decision to request the mission’s withdrawal, the signatory movements grouped within the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development declared that the request was a “fatal blow” to the agreement. The peace process has been at a standstill for months due to disagreements between the state and armed groups. Against this backdrop, many of Mali’s partners and observers are increasingly concerned that the agreement could unravel in the coming months.

There is an increasing likelihood of hostilities resuming between the government and the signatory groups involved in the peace process. Although the Malian authorities publicly maintain their commitment to the process, they have also said that they want to revisit its terms. Privately, many Malian officials express strong reservations about an agreement that was largely imposed on them in 2015 by mediators from the broad assembly of countries and international organisations, led by Algeria, that promoted the peace negotiations. Since MINUSMA facilitated contact with the signatory parties and organised the agreement’s monitoring committee sessions, its departure is sure to weaken the capacity for international mediation. Algeria, as the lead international mediator, remains committed to the process but does not engage in day-to-day mediation, a role which could be valuable given the signatory armed groups’ entrenched positions. Moreover, the withdrawal of UN troops from northern towns will create a worrying standoff. On one side is the Malian army, eager to avenge what it perceives as indignities suffered at the hands of separatist groups in 2012 as well as its defeat in Kidal in 2014. On the other side are the signatory armed groups, who have grown accustomed to managing their territory without Bamako.

The expiration of MINUSMA’s mandate will have significant implications for the protection of civilians. The UN force has had limited results in this area, as it has struggled to move around rural areas where most of the atrocities against civilians occur. For civilians, however, MINUSMA was a form of protection, albeit an imperfect one. The mission notably documented abuses by international and national forces, from the French bombing of Bounty village in 2021 to the Malian army and Wagner killings in Moura. As such, it has played an essential role in limiting, to an extent, the violence associated with counter-insurgency strategies.

As Bamako distances itself from certain Western and African partners, it risks relying solely on military solutions that, by themselves, cannot bring stability to the country.

Finally, as Bamako distances itself from certain Western and African partners, it risks relying solely on military solutions that, by themselves, cannot bring stability to the country. It is difficult to envision how Mali will finance its stabilisation strategy for the central regions, which was launched in March to coordinate national and international efforts in Mopti, Ségou, San, Bandiagara and Douentza. The estimated cost of the action plan is $644 million, a sum that the government will struggle to raise independently. Such a multidimensional effort is necessary to complement the predominantly military actions undertaken by the Malian authorities and their Russian partners. 

How is the Security Council likely to respond to Mali’s request?

The Security Council has good reason to maintain MINUSMA’s operations, if only to protect what remains of the peace agreement and prevent worsening violence against civilians. But opposing Mali’s request would be counterproductive for the Council.

The Council should not seek to punish Mali for requesting MINUSMA’s withdrawal, for example by speeding up its departure without handing over equipment. At one stage, this separation might have been avoidable, but now it is a reality, and all parties must act responsibly. Any attempt to keep the mission in place could backfire on both Mali and the UN.

The delicate task now facing Security Council members is to decide on a concrete response to Mali’s request.

The delicate task now facing Security Council members is to decide on a concrete response to Mali’s request. Intense negotiations about this issue are expected to begin in late June, as the Council prepares to vote on a new mandate for the mission. They are set to continue during the withdrawal process.

Much uncertainty surrounds the form and substance of the next mandate. Some Council members, such as the U.S., have taken note of Mali’s withdrawal of consent and appear to be calling for an orderly drawdown. France, the penholder for Council resolutions on Mali, after having very briefly considered extending the mission’s mandate, now also accepts Bamako’s request. Other members, however, continue to hope for a change of heart in Mali or for a consensus within the Council to stall Mali’s request. Given the divisions within the Council and the Malian elites’ insistence on MINUSMA’s withdrawal, both of these hopes seem faint. On 23 June, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop wrote to the Security Council clarifying Mali’s request for the Council to adopt “a resolution exclusively on the details of MINUSMA’s plan for immediate withdrawal”. Any attempt to ignore this request or push for a U-turn could lead to a backlash against the mission and pose a security risk to UN personnel, particularly in the event of demonstrations or blocked access to bases. Large sections of the Malian population mistrust the UN mission, particularly in Bamako, where crowds need little encouragement to protest the UN presence.

The Security Council may be unable to reach an agreement during the vote on the resolution in late June. The necessary majority – nine of the fifteen members – may be lacking. Or a permanent member, such as Russia, could veto a resolution that does not explicitly address the Malian request for MINUSMA’s withdrawal. Without a mandate, the mission would be in limbo, its activities halted and its personnel potentially at risk.

To avoid such an outcome, the Security Council should respond to the withdrawal request. Foreign Minister Diop has introduced the possibility of dialogue by stating that his government “remains ready to cooperate with the United Nations on [the mission’s withdrawal]”. Organising the departure of personnel and the handover of military bases will be complicated – it will likely take at least several months. The parties concerned should resist the temptation, as expressed by some on both sides, to organise a rapid exit, and instead agree on a phased departure. Mutual agreement on the withdrawal will be essential to ensure the safety of personnel and material.

What are the challenges of these negotiations, apart from the withdrawal timetable?

The risks of tensions and blunders are real, but major recriminations can still be avoided. The parties must commit to compromise, with the knowledge that they each have much to lose if the situation gets out of hand. As mentioned above, it is not in the Council’s interest to punish Mali; the country remains a member of the UN system and could change its position after the 2024 elections. The Malian authorities, meanwhile, should avoid antagonising MINUSMA once the principle of withdrawal has been settled in the forthcoming mandate. Mali has asked for the mission’s departure, but, as a member country, it should avoid damaging its relations with the UN system, which offers various types of support beyond the stabilisation mission.

MINUSMA’s departure will not end the UN presence in Mali altogether.

MINUSMA’s departure will not end the UN presence in Mali altogether. Civilian agencies, such as the UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme and others, have a key role to play, especially given the complex humanitarian situation. Bamako can benefit greatly from remaining on friendly terms with the UN, so that the agencies that are still in Mali can remain there and – if the security situation permits – keep running support programs in areas where MINUSMA is no longer present. With Bamako’s consent, the UN could strengthen its civilian agencies. For example, the UN could support humanitarian flights and improve coordination among its agencies.

MINUSMA has not only provided stabilisation programs and peacekeeping. With varying degrees of success, it has also sought to support the political transition, as well as resolve misunderstandings and keep lines of communication open with the signatories of the 2015 peace agreement on an almost daily basis. The Council could establish a good offices mission for this purpose. Bamako, however, is unlikely to accept. Such an initiative was already contained in the proposals made following MINUSMA’s internal review in January. Mali rejected the idea outright, since it had little to gain in return for the Council’s continued oversight of its internal affairs. Alternatively, Algeria could be a day-to-day mediator using additional diplomatic channels. This option would also depend on Bamako’s good-will and interest in persevering with a faltering peace process.

The stakes of negotiations over MINUSMA’s withdrawal are much higher than they appear. These negotiations are not simply about setting a timetable for a departure that saves face for all parties. They will also affect the alliances and support that Mali will continue to receive from the UN agencies that remain in the country. More broadly, these negotiations will shape the future of Bamako’s relations with its international partners. Despite being strained, these relationships are not broken.

Mali’s authorities have called for MINUSMA’s withdrawal after having already pushed for the departure of the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane and the European military task force Takuba, and having pulled out of the G5 Sahel joint force. The authorities have taken radical decisions to demonstrate that they are in full control of their country’s future and, in particular, of its counter-insurgency strategies. But they may find that they are still dependent on outsiders, namely their Russian military partners. The reliability of Bamako’s new ally appears uncertain amid the tensions between the Wagner Group and the Russian government. Although Mali clearly needed to bring an end to a stabilisation system that had shown its weaknesses, Mali’s authorities will need to rebalance its new partnerships in order to avoid becoming isolated or dependent on a single ally. Otherwise, Bamako might jeopardise its relations with partners whose support remains essential. Security Council members should work to ensure that negotiations on MINUSMA’s withdrawal have the consent of all parties. None of Mali’s international partners stand to gain by severing ties with a country whose future and stability will affect the entire subregion.


Project Director, Sahel
Senior Adviser, Sahel

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