Analysis: What’s next for Mali after MINUSMA withdrawal?

The UN peacekeeping mission is set to fully exit the West African country by December 31.

MINUSMA has suffered more than 300 fatalities, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping operation in the world [Reuters]

The United Nations Security Council has voted to end its decade-long peacekeeping mission in Mali after a request from its military government to withdraw the troops.

“The government of Mali calls for the withdrawal without delay of MINUSMA,” Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop had said in June, stressing that Bamako “is willing to cooperate with the United Nations on this issue”.

Friday’s unanimous decision by the 15-member council to adopt a French-drafted resolution not to renew the mandate once it ended on June 30 has been welcomed by Bamako.

MINUSMA, or the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission, “has certainly not achieved its fundamental goal of supporting the efforts of the government in securing the country”, Issa Konfourou, Mali’s ambassador to the UN, said after the vote.

“Nevertheless, the people and the government of Mali will like to applaud its contribution in other areas, in particular in the area of humanitarian and social assistance,” he added.

Although their mandate is over, the UN forces will be allowed to withdraw from Mali through December 31.

Until then, the peacekeepers are allowed with the permission of the government to respond to the “imminent threat of violence to civilians” and to help in the delivery of humanitarian aid.

“The government of Mali will be vigilant in ensuring compliance with this engagement,” Konfourou said.

Why Mali wants troops out

MINUSMA was established by the Security Council in 2013 as an uprising in northern Mali by armed groups linked to al-Qaeda spiralled out of control.

The mission was comprised of 17,430 personnel.

The UN troops were welcomed by Malians who hoped that the foreign soldiers would be able to help the Malian military drive back the rebels who had captured large swathes of land in the north.

Ten years on, however, the peacekeepers are leaving unceremoniously with the instability far from resolved.

Thousands of people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in the violence.

MINUSMA has also suffered more than 300 fatalities, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping operation. With a budget of $1.2bn, MINUSMA is also the UN’s most expensive mission.

Despite this, Mali’s government has accused the mission of worsening the situation, leaving people distrustful of the UN in general.

“MINUSMA seems to have become part of the problem by fuelling community tensions exacerbated by extremely serious allegations which are highly detrimental to peace, reconciliation and national cohesion in Mali,” Diop said.

MINUSMA has repeatedly complained that restrictions on troop and aircraft movements prevented it from fulfilling its mandate.

But the political climate also helped to undermine the mission, analysts said.

In August 2020, a coup pushed out elected President Ibrahim Bubacar Keita as frustration with his government’s inability to curtail the rebels reached a breaking point.

A second military takeover in May 2021 and the lack of a definite timeline for a return to civilian rule infuriated former colonial power France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which instituted sanctions.

Bamako insinuated that Paris was pressuring its neighbours in the ECOWAS bloc to take a hardline stance, and the situation deteriorated.

Meanwhile, Mali increasingly relied on “military instructors” from Russia as France and the UN condemned alleged extrajudicial killings by operatives of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, with which Mali signed a deal in 2021.

In one incident in the central Malian town of Moura last year, white gunmen suspected to be Wagner mercenaries are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians, aided by the Malian military.

Wagner and Mali deny the accusations.

The presence of the mercenaries has drawn strong condemnation from Western countries, who argued that the presence of the Wagner Group threatens Mali’s stability. Moscow and Bamako continue to insist that the Russian fighters are merely trainers helping local soldiers combat rebel groups.

On Friday, Washington again accused Wagner, which is headed by Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, of collaborating with Mali to facilitate the UN mission’s exit.

“We know that senior Malian officials worked directly with Yevgeny Prigozhin employees to inform the UN secretary general that Mali had revoked consent for the MINUSMA mission,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

What’s the government’s plan?

With MINUSMA troops exiting the country only months after French forces did so, analysts said the withdrawals could profoundly impact the country.

“[They] will undermine prospects for keeping alive the 2015 peace agreement between the government and the Tuareg separatists who had rebelled in the north but then settled for decentralisation within a united Mali,” Paul Melly, a researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

MINUSMA, he said, has provided basic public services and administration in some areas where government officials or humanitarian agencies found it difficult to operate

“It will leave many communities across the north of the country with reduced protection from the risk of jihadist attacks, and it will undermine the basic public administration and welfare and humanitarian programmes that the UN has been supporting,” he said.

Bamako has said it is able to guarantee the safety of its citizens wherever they may be in the vast landlocked country but has given no details on how it intends to do so.

“I would like to reassure you of the full engagement of the government of Mali to continue working tirelessly to fulfill its primary mission of protecting the civilian population and their property over all our national territory,” Konfourou said.

Analysts speculate that the military government may be relying on Wagner, which “does not have the military resources of the UN nor the same commitment to community mediation, human rights and ‘hearts and minds’ initiatives”, according to Melly.

Dire humanitarian situation

As the debate rages on, the humanitarian situation in the country could worsen in the coming months, analysts and aid agencies warned.

One in four Malians is already at risk of starvation due to insecurity and the impact of climate change. According to the UN, at least 7.5 million people in a country of 22 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

“The humanitarian situation will probably get worse,” Melly said. “We may see more displaced populations and greater problems in ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of aid to vulnerable people.”

Source: Al Jazeera