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Amid popular opposition, is the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali doomed?

German and UN's flags carried by a German soldier in Mali.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) supports the transitional authorities of Mali in the stabilization of the country. After nine years in Mali the Yérèwolo movement demands its withdrawal. AFP

On 29 June, the UN Security Council decided to renew the mandate of the United Nations’ peacekeeping initiative, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma), for another year. Established in April 2013, the 13,000-soldiers strong mission had set out to thwart the Tuareg rebellion began the previous year, strengthen state authority in central Mali and protect civilians. Nine years on, it is not clear these objectives have been met.

Mali’s pro-junta, pro-Russia movement

The pan-Africanist and pro-Russian movement “Yèrèwolo, debout sur les remparts” (Standing on the Ramparts) is aware of these weaknesses and may be about to make the Security Council regret its decision. Indeed, not even a month after the renewal, Yèrèwolo’s influential spokesman Adama Ben Diarra, who is also a member of the legislative body of the Malian transition – the National Transitional Council – turned up at the Minusma headquarters to hand over a letter to its officials urging them to leave Mali before 22 September, the commemorative date of Mali’s Independence. On 5 August 2022, the movement held a meeting in Bamako hammering home their demands.

These developments would not have held much importance, nor retained our attention, had the Yèrèwolo movement (which could be translated from the country’s lingua franca, Bambara, as “worthy sons”) not appeared to have successfully campaigned against French military presence in Mali. This dynamic has given rise to what many have called “anti-French sentiment”, which precipitated the end of the French-led military initiatives designed to fight Salafi-Jihadism in Mali, operation Barkhane (began in 2014, including 5,100 soldiers) and Task Force Takuba (began in 2020, including 900 soldiers). As a result, Franco-Malian relations have deteriorated sharply.

This begs the question: in the face of popular opposition, and the constraints imposed on it by the Malian government, was it reasonable to renew Minusma’s mandate? Or is the UN peacekeeping mission about to fall prey to Yèrèwolo in the same way French military operations have?

Moscow’s influence in Mali

It is important to remember that Yèrèwolo was formed in 2019 with the explicit aim of pushing France out of Mali and making way for Russia. Since the Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019 in Sochi, it has reportedly received funds to support Russian propaganda in the country.

In particular, it sought to do this by organising regular anti-French (and pro-Russian) demonstrations. As early as January 2019, Diarra submitted a petition with an alleged 9 million signatures to the Russian embassy in Mali, calling for increased military cooperation between his country and Russia. During the demonstrations he organised, he also sold the attractive idea that the Russians were the only ones who could end the war in Mali within six months.

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At the time, Yèrèwolo’s demands – which were somewhat utopian – were not taken seriously enough. The question remains whether the junta’s current alliance with Russia reflects a strategic desire to reorient the partnership in the field of security and defence, or whether it resulted from pressure from the street at a time when popular support was the only political resource available to the Malian junta in the face of a national political class and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) that were hostile to keeping the military in power.

Is the government pushing Western partners out of Mali?

Following the “coup within a coup” of 24 May 2021, it appeared the junta would only be able to formalise its military partnership with Russia by pushing the now cumbersome France out of Mali.

The transitional government sought to reach that goal through a spate of unfriendly acts toward France, among which: the expulsion of the French ambassador, the expulsion of French journalists, the banning of a German cargo ship carrying Takuba soldiers from flying over Malian territory, the expulsion of the Danish contingent that also came as part of Takuba and the banning of French radio (RFI) and television (France 24) channels accused of being instruments of propaganda against the junta.

By then, it was clear to France and its European partners Barkhane and Takuba could no longer proceed. Like them, Minusma appears to have become a cumbersome partner that the Malian transitional government wants to rid itself of.

The question of human rights

In part, the “undesirability” of Minusma stems from the Malian government’s little regard for human rights and international law. The junta appears indeed to have taken a leaf from Russia’s playbook here, after its military strategy turned increasingly offensive from 2021 under the influence of Russian soldiers, be they mercenaries or regular army instructors. Witness reports have further confirmed the two partners are operating together on the ground, resulting in a change of doctrine that we are still in the course of defining.

Read more: Inside Mali’s coup within a coup

For example, we know Malian soldiers no longer wait passively in their camps in a defensive stance for the jihadists to come and attack them. In several cases, they have launched operations to flush out the jihadists, such as the Maliko, Kèlètigui, and Farabougou Kalafia ones. The military authorities have referred to such operation as a “montée en puissance” (“rise in power”) of the Malian armed forces (Forces Armées Maliennes, i.e. FAMA). These often result in a high bloodshed among individuals the Malian military will present as jihadists, but who Minusma and human rights organisations label as civilians.

A man holds a sign during a protest in Mali that reads 'Minusma get out'
Protest against the French and UN armed forces based in Mali. The protest was organised by the ‘Yerewolo, debout sur les remparts’ movement in Bamako on January 10, 2020. Hundreds of Malians marched in Bamako demanding the withdrawal of foreign armed forces, in particular the French operation ‘Barkhane’. AFP

In such situations, it is incumbent on Minusma to undertake investigations into possible human rights and international law breaches, which the junta systematically opposes in cases where the army that is involved. Moreover, the government has denied Minusma the permission to patrol certain localities and, since the arrival of the Russians, imposed a large no-fly zone. This means the UN force cannot fly its planes without asking for permission, thereby hampering its operations.

The junta went so far as to expel the Minusma spokesperson on 20 July 2022, for comments he had made a few days earlier on Twitter about Mali’s arrest of 49 Ivorian soldiers. Four days later, the foreign military ordered the suspension of “all rotations of Minusma military and police contingents, including those already scheduled or announced”.

More recently, in August 2022, despite “intense negotiations between the German and Malian defence ministers”, the Malian government once again refused to allow the Bundeswehr to fly a “strong mountain infantry unit” into northern Mali to protect the previously Barkhane-controlled Gao airport. This latest action led the German government to suspend the Bundeswehr mission in Mali on 13 August 2022.

According to French journalist Wassim Nasr, the Malian government has gone so far as to instruct Minusma not to publicly communicate about the aid it provides to FAMA, in particular the evacuation of war wounded.

Such hostility toward Minusma is hardly a surprise. During the UN Security Council discussions on the renewal of the mandate, Mali’s Ambassador to the UN, Issa Konfourou, was very clear that his: “government could not guarantee the freedom of movement of the peacekeepers who travel around the country to investigate human rights violations… Mali would not allow the renewed mission to fulfil its mandate”.

Could Mali forego Minusma?

At any rate, a premature and disorderly withdrawal of Minusma would have a negative impact on the lives of many Malians living in the areas where it is deployed. Indeed research we have conducted show that while a majority of residents believe that the peacekeeping force is ineffective in protecting civilians, they do find it useful in its involvement in socio-economic and development projects.

For example, quick-impact projects for vulnerable groups, but above all professional integration programmes for young people, prevent locals from being tempted to join armed groups in return for payment. Through these actions, Minusma fulfils functions that the Malian state alone does not seem to be able to provide in the short term.

In conclusion, I believe it made no sense to renew the mission without first obtaining a guarantee from Mali that it would work closely with Minusma. Now that the UN Security Council has failed to do so, the future of the mission looks very precarious indeed. Considering the arguments described above, two main hypotheses emerge: either the Malian transitional government wishes to terminate Minusma, or its strategy consists in turning Minusma into something that is altogether tamer, less pernickety about human rights and international law issues. Ideally, it would empty it of Westerners and replace them with African troops.

Beyond Yèrèwolo’s influence, more research is needed into who is ultimately seeking to weaken or oust Minusma. Are such decisions by the transitional government sovereign or dictated from outside, notably by the new Russian partner?

Considering how relations with Western partners deteriorated with the arrival of Russian individuals who were alternately presented by the junta government as military instructors, alternately by the international community as Wagner mercenaries, the second option appears only too real a possibility.

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