ISS TODAY OP-ED
As Minusma exits Mali questions remain on regional leaders’ ability to address security challenges
The UN mission’s withdrawal opens the door for assertive Ecowas and AU action on security in the Sahel.
On 30 June the United Nations (UN) Security Council voted unanimously to end the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) as of 31 December 2023. The vote follows a request by Mali’s transitional government for the mission to be withdrawn ‘without delay.’
Minusma was deployed in July 2013. Northern Mali had been occupied by armed groups in 2012, and was liberated by the Franco-African military intervention launched in January 2013.
In May 2022 Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel and soon after that, the French-led Barkhane and Takuba forces departed the country. The end of Minusma marks another step in dismantling the international security response to the crisis in Mali and the Sahel.
Cracks appeared between Bamako and Paris as early as January 2013 over the liberation of Kidal. But the active deconstruction of bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms was triggered by Mali’s realignment with Russia after the West African country’s second coup in May 2021, and the ensuing diplomatic crisis with France. Mali’s decision to explore new military alliances reflects a dissatisfaction with the partnerships forged over the past decade. Lessons must be learnt from this.
Diplomatic and geopolitical tensions — exacerbated by the polarisation between the West and Russia over the Ukraine war — have also tested Mali’s regional partnerships. Relations with the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and G5 Sahel were most affected. Mali’s transitional authorities perceive both bodies as being under French influence.
France’s leading role in Minusma’s initial political and military set-up and its position as the penholder on the Malian situation at the UN Security Council have fed successive Malian governments’ suspicion about the mission.
As a result, the transitional authorities have denounced the politicisation of human rights issues by Western powers, after civilian deaths and abuses occurred during operations carried out by the Malian Armed Forces since 2022. This is in addition to the limitations of Minusma’s military mandate, which mainly provided for stabilisation operations and didn’t meet the country’s counter-terrorism objectives.
However, Mali’s demand for the withdrawal of Minusma carries significant political, security and humanitarian risks for the country and the region. Although the government seems confident in its ability to assume full control post-Minusma, a clearly defined alternative strategy is needed.
At this stage, enhanced military cooperation with Russia and bilateral collaboration with some immediate neighbours seem to be at the heart of Mali’s strategy. However, the authorities must remember that solutions from outside Africa that entail financial or technical dependency come with external constraints that could affect their durability and effectiveness.
Minusma’s withdrawal and the cross-border nature of the risks facing the Sahel and West Africa also call on the African Union (AU) and Ecowas to play a greater role in supporting Mali’s government efforts.
These African organisations must draw lessons from their interventions when the crisis started. They effectively steered political dialogue between Malian actors in the early days, and mobilised troops to recover the country’s occupied regions. But they were sidelined in the organisation and management of the political and military response in 2013. Amid a leadership struggle, the UN Security Council favoured Minusma over the African-led International Support Mission to Mali.
Most importantly, the AU and Ecowas must listen to the needs expressed by Mali, despite its suspension from these organisations.
Support from the AU, through its Mission for Mali and the Sahel (Misahel), should prioritise a political approach aimed at stabilising the situation in the short term. Misahel does, however, need the necessary financial and human resources for the task.
Ecowas can offer an appropriate framework for tackling regional challenges. Its member states have advocated for a political approach to transitional regimes, and a security response that supports the Accra Initiative — a coalition of West African countries aimed at preventing terrorism spreading from the Sahel.
Regarding Mali’s internal political and security challenges, the AU and Ecowas should muster the necessary diplomatic resources to support the international mediation led by Algeria. The goal would be to relaunch the implementation of the peace agreement. Algeria’s election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in January will facilitate African efforts in this direction.
In consultation with the countries concerned, the AU and Ecowas should facilitate the resumption of Mali’s dialogue at the highest level. This could restore confidence between central Sahel states and revitalise their regional security cooperation. A framework for exchanging experiences and improving counter-terrorism responses should be considered.
A holistic approach will be vital. In addition to military interventions, non-military measures such as incentivising combatants to disengage from violent extremist groups are needed. Groups can also be weakened by targeting their supply and funding chains, and delivering essential public services to vulnerable areas.
The withdrawal of Minusma paves the way for more assertive African leadership in addressing the Sahel’s insecurity. It provides an opportunity to constructively redefine multilateral relations in a region that has seen damaging institutional rivalries between the UN, AU, Ecowas, G5 Sahel and, to a lesser extent, the Accra Initiative. It also enables Ecowas and the AU to implement African solutions.
National and multilateral players should act on the lessons learnt from 10 years of intervention in the Sahel. The region is at a crossroads and will find it hard to withstand the shock of another decade of instability. DM
Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, Sahel Project Manager, Djiby Sow, Senior Researcher and Hassane Koné, Senior Researcher, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel Basin and Lake Chad.
This article is published with the support of the Irish, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch governments and the Bosch Foundation.
First published by ISS Today.