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Minusma’s withdrawal from Mali: contributions and limitations

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By El-Ghassim Wane

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) departed from Mali at the end of December 2023.

Given the circumstances in which Minusma exited – a request by the host in June 2023 for a withdrawal ‘without delay’ – as well as the subsequent security and political developments in the country, it is no surprise that a number of observers concluded that the Mission had failed. Some went even further, predicting if not the demise, at least a long-term decline of large United Nations multidimensional peacekeeping operations.

Beyond the question of how to define success in such a complex environment, these views are problematic on several levels. Firstly, they implicitly posit that a peacekeeping operation can fully deliver on its mandate independent of what a host government and parties to a peace process do or not do.

By that logic, they overlook a basic reality of peacekeeping, which, in actual fact, is a contract between the international community, represented by the United Nations, and the country where it is deployed. If the fundamentals of the contract are not fulfilled, prospects for success inevitably decrease.

Secondly, they fail to properly acknowledge the impact of external constraints, in this case the difficult and changing regional and global environments over which the Mission and the United Nations at large had limited influence.

Thirdly, they do no justice to the work carried out on the ground under extraordinarily difficult conditions, including the pervasiveness of asymmetric threats, the size of the area of operation and inadequate resourcing, as well as undeclared caveats by some troop- and police-contributing countries, serious ground and air restrictions by the authorities, and dis- and misinformation, all of which prevented the Mission from fully bridging the gap between what it was allowed to do and what it could actually deliver.

In spite of those challenges, Minusma, in its decade-long presence in Mali, can be credited with many achievements. From a security point of view, the Mission managed to stabilise key urban centres in the North – an underreported result. To better appreciate its magnitude, one has to keep in mind the situation in places such as Gao, Goundam, Kidal, and Timbuktu in 2012/13 or, to take a more recent period, Aguelhok in 2021.

By the time the Mission withdrew, all these locations had largely stabilised, displaced populations had returned, fostering social cohesion and the resumption of economic activities, and some State representatives had resumed their duties. In Central Mali, several instances can be pointed to that show the Mission added value.

These include the regular patrols conducted along the so-called Route du Poisson, a critical infrastructure for the livelihood of local populations, which connects Sevare to Bandiagara and, further on, to neighbouring countries; the establishment of a temporary operating base in Ogossagou (TOB), in the Bankass Circle, in 2020, following the massacres perpetrated that year and in 2019, bringing to an end that cycle of violence; and the patrols conducted in the Douentza area which, to a certain extent, secured local populations and their livelihoods.

Overall, and in collaboration with relevant State structures, the Mission, directly or indirectly, facilitated the conclusion of more than 30 local peace agreements.

Physical protection represented only one facet of what the Mission attempted to do to further its Protection of Civilians mandate. Here again the Centre provides telling examples. Reconciliation efforts in Ogossagou among local communities furthered stabilisation. These efforts were subsequently extended to other areas of the Bankass Circle, with the Ogossagou TOB serving as a staging ground for patrols and political work further afield.

Similar results were achieved in the Koro Circle, where, following local peace agreements signed in September 2020 in Madougou and Dioungani and social cohesion initiatives, violence fell drastically in the communes that were the most affected by insecurity. Overall, and in collaboration with relevant State structures, the Mission, directly or indirectly, facilitated the conclusion of more than 30 local peace agreements.

Support for the implementation of the peace and reconciliation agreement arising from the Algiers process constituted Minusma’s first strategic priority. Minusma’s presence and collaborative work with Barkhane ensured overall compliance with the security arrangements, including the ceasefire.

Some advances were made regarding other security provisions of the agreement, notably DDR with the establishment of four reconstituted battalions deployed in Kidal, Menaka, Gao and Timbuktu; the establishment of interim civilian authority; and the completion, with Minusma’s support, of the work of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

More generally, the Mission architecture – the establishment of several regional offices – and the infrastructure and logistical capabilities that came with its deployment helped to connect the North with the rest of the country.

Following the coup d’état of August 2020, Minusma’s mandate was expanded to include support of the transition to constitutional rule, notably the holding of elections. In that context, the Mission provided multifaceted support, covering technical, logistical, financial and political aspects.

The Mission played a pivotal role in facilitating an agreement between Mali and ECOWAS on the extension of the transition timeline after the Malian authorities failed to uphold their initial commitment to restore civilian rule by early 2022, as a consequence of which sanctions were imposed by the regional organisation.

On human rights, sustained efforts were made in terms of capacity-building for Malian institutions, including the armed and security forces, other State institutions, and civil society, even though these attracted little attention from the media and other observers.

Understandably, given the scale of violations happening on the ground and the overall international environment, focus was instead on the investigation, documentation and reporting aspects of the mandate. While the Mission managed to conduct several investigations that informed its reports on the matter and political engagement with the authorities, it faced increasing constraints.

The government restricted access and strongly challenged findings, claiming that human rights were being instrumentalised in the pursuit of other agendas – a phenomenon that, unfortunately, is by no means unique to the Malian context, even though the scope varies from country to country.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the hundreds of projects of varied scope carried out by Minusma in support of local populations and authorities, as well as several government entities. As part of its mandate to support the restoration of State authority, the Mission facilitated the rehabilitation of administrative infrastructure as well as the provision of basic services and assisted judicial and penitentiary institutions in a variety of ways.

It contributed to rebuilding Mali’s aerial infrastructure, which was necessary for the conduct of its operations. It also facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including by securing critical landing strips used by humanitarian agencies.

None of the achievements highlighted above can obscure the fact that the security situation in Mali had steadily deteriorated since 2016. This was compounded by serious governance deficiencies, creating widespread discontent among the population and resulting eventually in the coup d’Etat of August 2020. The May 2021 overthrow by the military of the transition President and Prime Minister brought in additional challenges.

Key provisions of the peace agreement remained unimplemented. As documented by Minusma, human rights violations became more widespread, involving a variety of actors ranging from terrorist groups and self-defence militias to government forces and their partners in the context of counterterrorism operations.

That said, it is reasonable to argue that the presence of Minusma and other international forces enabled the State structures to cope, to some extent, with the challenges confronting them at a time of extreme stress, not to speak of the many tangible benefits brought to local populations.

… [I]t is reasonable to argue that the presence of Minusma and other international forces enabled the State structures to cope, to some extent, with the challenges confronting them at a time of extreme stress, not to speak of the many tangible benefits brought to local populations.

Minusma, the deadliest United Nations peacekeeping mission, was, in many ways, a unique experiment. Because of the asymmetric threat environment in which it operated, the Mission was at the forefront of several innovations to protect its personnel, installations, and operations.

Steps taken in this regard included physical security enhancements to fortify the Mission’s integrated camps, airfield security, and the extensive use of technology (access control systems, sense and warning systems, perimeter intrusion detection systems, and the tactical use of UAVs). To improve medical support, Minusma had to ‘think outside the box’.

More specifically, it established a Patient Evacuation Co-ordination Centre (PECC) centralising specialised personnel for quick and better decision-making, employed commercial stand-alone aero-medical evacuation teams (AMET) and medically-equipped Aero-Medical Evacuation/Search & Rescue (AME/SAR) helicopters, as well as mobile damage control surgical teams, all of which helped address the 10-1-2 challenges confronting peacekeepers when performing mandate activities outside camps (on patrols, in convoys, and in TOB).

Additionally, the Mission rolled out Telemedicine in some of its remote locations, to support rapid and accurate diagnosis and treatment in emergency situations prior to transfer of peacekeepers to healthcare facilities. Given Mali’s situation as a landlocked country and the size of its territory, the Mission had to develop well-honed logistics systems, accompanied by the deployment of combat convoy escort units – a first in peacekeeping.

One lesson that the experience in Mali has abundantly made clear is that political partnership between the United Nations and African actors (regional and subregional organisations and relevant individual countries) is paramount.

It will never be emphasised enough that peacekeeping is fundamentally a political endeavour and that the situation in Mali is first and foremost a political and governance crisis for which a purely security response is woefully inadequate.

Concretely, this means that the United Nations and the African actors should consult more closely with each other and align their strategies, ensure that their efforts are mutually supportive, and maximise their ability to influence the course of events, including by leveraging the rich normative framework developed by the AU and its regional groupings on governance, human rights, peace and security and putting in place requisite co-ordination mechanisms both in the field and between respective headquarters.

Such enhanced collaboration should also involve support to United Nations peacekeeping missions as they confront practical challenges that impair their efficacy, for instance impediments to the freedom of movement.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Minusma showed the particular resilience of United Nations peacekeeping and its ability to adjust to circumstances and manage complex logistical operations – the successful withdrawal of the Mission within the stipulated timeframe, despite the severe constraints it faced, bear testimony to that.

The Mission’s experience also further demonstrated how critical the following two political ingredients are for the attainment of the set objectives: strategic coherence between the host and the peacekeeping mission, keeping in mind that the latter can only operate within the framework of its mandate as determined by the Security Council, and a broad consensus among the relevant international actors.

There are plenty of lessons to draw from this experience, which, if properly captured and applied, will no doubt contribute to the ongoing initiatives on the future of peacekeeping and assist member states as they consider the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace.

El-Ghassim Wane served as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of Minusma from May 2021 to December 2023.

This article was first published at ACCORD