Ten years after establishing the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the future of the mission and its 15,000 military and police officers is more uncertain than ever. The peace operation, authorized in the wake of the January 2013 Franco-African military intervention by a then-united Security Council behind the French “penholder,” is now logically called into question in a context of mistrust between Mali’s traditional partners and the country’s new authorities.
When renewing its mandate in June 2023, the Security Council will consider three main options submitted by the United Nations Secretary General in an internal review published this past January. These options are an increase in the number of peacekeepers, a reconfiguration with constant numbers, or a transition towards a “political mission” without troops.
Mali, now governed by a military junta supported by Russia –in Bamako and in New York – no longer wants France as the “penholder” of the resolutions. Instead, it demands a MINUSMA “à la carte” and raises its voice in the face of armed movements which are reorganizing in the North. Even if the mission continues to serve some of the divergent interests of the host State, permanent members of the Council, and the UN bureaucracy, it nevertheless risks becoming the collateral victim of new power rivalries.
MINUSMA’s January 2023 Internal Review
The first option would imply an increase in the number of peacekeepers. However, the Malian authorities already indicated they are “not convinced by the relevance” of such an increase which they had already opposed in 2021. A second option would be to reconfigure the mission by keeping the current strength but closing bases in the Timbuktu and Kidal regions to redirect peacekeepers to Ménaka and Ansongo. A third, more radical option is also being considered: replacing the peacekeeping mission with a “political mission” therefore without any peacekeeper nor presence outside the capital.
These three options are not new. They largely reflect the dilemmas the UN faced when designing MINUSMA in March 2013 and then during a 2018 independent strategic review, which created controversy by dividing France and the United States. The latter questioned the relevance of the peacekeeping model in the face of terrorism and pushed for an exit strategy for the mission.
The 2023 context, however, is very different. The French anti-terrorist “parallel force” left Mali last summer. A new force made of 1,000 to 2,000 men from the private military company (PMC) Wagner and Russian instructors has arrived and operates mainly in the center of the country. At the same time, the Malian authorities’ pressure on MINUSMA has intensified over the past year.
The Risk of an “à la carte” Mission
While the question of host state consent is uncertain, it is unlikely that the Malian transitional authorities will request, in the short term, the departure of MINUSMA. Indeed, they continue to derive several benefits from it, such as the transport of members of the Malian defence and security forces to northern Mali. Moreover, in a December 4, 2022 note submitted to MINUSMA’s internal review, the Malian authorities requested that the mission “give top priority to the security dimension of its mandate” and to “support on logistics, fuel, food ration, medical evacuations and intelligence to the FAMa [Malian armed forces].” They also demand that the mission refrains from what they describe as “politicizing and instrumentalizing the human rights issue.”
Mali’s demand that MINUSMA be “more offensive” is not new. It had already led the Security Council to ask the mission to “adopt a more proactive and robust approach” in June 2016. But the main consequence of this has been to create new expectations that peacekeepers were unable to meet when they were already dedicating most of their capabilities to self-protection. As António Guterres recalled in 2018, “a peacekeeping operation is not an army, or a counter-terrorist force, or a humanitarian agency. It is a tool to create the space for a nationally owned political solution.”
Beyond the inflammatory rhetoric, the scenario favoured by Bamako seems to be that MINUSMA remains present, with unchanged numbers, and continues its regular flights to the North of the country – which allow Malian administrators to go to these regions, but that it intensifies its support to constructing and rehabilitating infrastructure, including for the Malian military. In contrast, the Malian junta appears to count on a divided Security Council to prevent MINUSMA from investigating human rights violations. It also certainly expects that divisions of the “international community” will allow the (new) transition timetable agreed on in July 2022 (which scheduled a presidential election in February 2024) to slide again.
The Status Quo, the Worst Option Except for All the Others?
The mission faces many frustrations, and the UN Secretary-General himself acknowledged that “the status quo is not an option.” Therefore, a MINUSMA with unchanged troop ceiling but somewhat reconfigured could suit themajority for good and not-so-good reasons. The mission “has helped deter insurgents from taking over cities and larger towns,” even if its record on protection of civilians and stabilization is mixed. The securing of secondary towns and certain major roads by MINUSMA is certainly considered helpful by the FAMa and the PMC Wagner, who can thus concentrate their efforts elsewhere, even if insecurity persists and attacks are getting closer to the capital Bamako.
Without UN bases and regular flights, the presence of the Malian state in the North and Mali’s territorial integrity risk being quickly called into question. The result would be an even greater destabilization of the subregion. It is difficult to see, then, what could be the contribution of a “political mission” in Bamako that would be of no real operational use to the host State nor would have political leverage over it. Bamako would likely accuse the UN of “abandonment in mid-air,” and civilian populations would be left to their own faith (even more than they already are).
The experience of the Central African Republic (CAR) has shown that the presence of the PMC Wagner poses challenges to peacekeepers at both the tactical and strategic levels and to the protection of civilians but that a “deconfliction,” although complicated, is still possible. Western capitals will undoubtedly ask themselves whether or not MINUSMA’s presence could help curb Russian influence and keep an eye on Wagner’s activities, which is already diversifying elsewhere. However, some will wonder whether this justifies a one billion euros a year operation.
In addition, peacekeeping has been contracting since 2016, with the closure of UN missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Darfur, Haiti and perhaps soon in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The only new operations launched by the UN since Mali and the CAR in 2013 are “political missions” (Colombia, Yemen, Sudan). Given the current polarization of the Security Council, a new major operation is unlikely; and closing MINUSMA would mean a blow to UN peacekeeping, particularly since, with no new operation in sight, it would not be possible to “recycle” either civilian employees or military contingents.
Is MINUSMA Able to Handle the Increased Pressure from the Malian Authorities?
If MINUSMA is extended again in June 2023, the question will be whether it will be able to handle the increased pressure from the Malian authorities. The arrival of Russia and the PMC Wagner in Mali in late 2021 led to an escalation in tensions between the transitional government and France that led to the end of Operation Barkhane and the suspension of French development assistance. At the same time, the deliveries of Russian military equipment – including radar-guided surface-to-air missiles the American civil aviation agency (FAA) expressed concerns about – and Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones reinforce a military stabilization approach rather than the more political one advocated by the UN.
In January 2022, the ruling military junta had forced MINUSMA to halt flights for several days, then imposed major no-fly zones (that covered nearly half the country) for UN aircraft in central Mali and the region South of Ménaka. Yet these are the areas where the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) operate and civilian populations are most threatened. MINUSMA flights have since resumed but now require 48 to 72 hours notice. During the last quarter of 2022, the UN reported that “237 MINUSMA flight requests have been either denied or received no response from Malian authorities,” who deplore the fact that the mission “despite the commitments made, does not share the information and data collected by the drones.”
The rift between the mission and the Malian host state widened further when, on March 22, 2022, a Malian attack helicopter fired six rockets toward British peacekeepers south of Gao. Moreover, the host state does not allow MINUSMA human rights investigators to visit the site of the alleged massacre of several hundred civilians in late March 2022 in Moura (central Mali) during a joint Wagner-FAMa military operation. The Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIRPA) of the FAMa claims that it has “neutralized” 203 jihadists and has shared many communiqués, suggesting an intensification of its anti-terrorist operations with impressive but not verifiable figures. On February 5, 2023, the Malian government finally expelled the director of the MINUSMA’s human rights division, days after he violently denigrated the speech of a Malian human rights defender before the Security Council. On March 23, 2023 the UN reported that in 2022, civilian deaths were up by 54 percent, and recorded at least 90 human rights violations by FAMa, representing 26 percent of the total documented violence.
Russia’s and China’s positions at the Security Council meetings also support the Malian transitional authorities. The Russian Foreign Ministry even congratulated Mali on an “important victory” against terrorism and described as “disinformation” the allegations about the massacre of civilians by the FAMa and the involvement of Russian mercenaries. However, the Malian authorities continue to deny their presence, claiming they receive “state-to-state” support. Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Bamako on February 7, 2023, consecrates this new security partnership.
Malian transitional authorities, while denying having “taken any restrictive measures specifically targeting the Mission” and calling for “better coordination for MINUSMA’s actions with the Malian State” recently blocked more UN flights and supply convoys, no longer issue visas to the UN Panel of Experts on Mali Sanctions and have turned away foreign journalists. Even if MINUSMA prefers to play appeasement and to emphasize coordinated patrols with the FAMa (81 during the last quarter, according to the January 2023 report of the Secretary General of the United Nations), many within the UN fear a scenario à la Darfur or Eritrea of decline of a peacekeeping mission “by a thousand cuts” if the host country consent continues to erode.
Troop-Contributing Countries Lose Patience
While these incidents are increasing, this affects the rotation of troops from some troop-contributing countries to MINUSMA. In June 2022, Mali’s Foreign Minister strongly opposed the French offer to “continue its air support to MINUSMA” after the departure of the French Barkhane force. The latter constituted an essential reassurance for many peacekeepers as the UN mission lacks attack helicopters.
On July 10, 2022, Malian authorities arrested on arrival at the airport a rotation of 49 Ivorian soldiers who had come to support the German MINUSMA contingent, calling them “mercenaries” and imprisoning them. In addition, the MINUSMA spokesman was expelled, accused of posting “unacceptable information” on Twitter about the case. Mali has then suspended all rotations until a “coordination meeting” is held to “facilitate the coordination and regulation of rotation” of UN contingents.
Sweden’s announcements of the withdrawal of its last contingent of 180 peacekeepers, motivated by Bamako’s use of Wagner, the early end of the 260 British and 319 Jordanian peacekeepers’ operations, as well as planned withdrawal of the 1,078 Egyptian troops, will likely be the end of the “mobile intervention force” based in Gao . Côte d’Ivoire also intends to gradually withdraw its 862 soldiers and police by the summer of 2023 and so does Benin (258). Finally, the German government is also considering the withdrawal of its 1,000 soldiers no later than May 2024.
These cascading departures represent a quarter of the force, which it will not be easy for the UN to replace, even if it has undertaken initiatives including with so-called “traditional” contributors such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The 2015 Peace Agreement, a Very Unstable Foundation for the UN Presence
At the end of December 2022, the armed movements that had signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali resulting from the June 2015 Algiers Process announced the suspension of their participation in the bodies implementing and monitoring the Agreement “until a meeting is held with international mediation and on neutral ground.” At the end of January 2023, these groups also announced their withdrawal from the commission responsible for drafting the country’s new Constitution, which was supposed to officialize the end of the transition period.
The armed movements gathered under the new label of the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD, made up of the Coordination of Azawad Movements – CMA – joined by the two branches of the Platform of Algiers of June 14, 2014, and the Coordination of Inclusivity Movements). They accused the transitional authorities of lacking the will to implement the agreement. The CSP-PSD also criticizes the Malian authorities’ inertia in the face of the ISGS offensive that has caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of displacements.
In April 2022, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali, El-Ghassim Wane, reported to the Security Council that “no tangible progress was made in the peace process” and that “the past three months were marked by worrying actions and rhetoric, not in line with the spirit of the Agreement.” The words of the transition Prime Minister Choguel Maïga on the need for an “intelligent and consensual rereading of the peace agreement,” in which he sees the seeds of a partition of Mali, have been particularly controversial.
Hopes of reviving the process with the decision-level meeting held in Bamako in August 2022 and Algeria’s efforts (whose President received CMA representatives on February 26) were short-lived. In a letter to the leader of the International Mediation, which leaked on March 1, 2023, the Malian Minister of National Reconciliation denounces violations of the 2015 peace agreement by former CMA rebels whom he accuses of “increasingly clear collusion with terrorist groups.”
Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum
The Malian transitional authorities have instituted a “National Day of Regained Sovereignty” on January 14, 2023, in memory of the great mobilization against the “illegal, illegitimate and inhumane [ECOWAS] sanctions,” and they promote a Mali Kura (the new Mali) and a Mali Fanga (warrior). They seem primarily concerned with basing their legitimacy on patriotic sentiment and ensuring the loyalty of armed forces whose hierarchy has just been reshuffled.
At the same time, the CSP-PSD armed movements are strengthening their military coordination on the ground through joint patrols and the announcement of the fusion of the CMA movements in Kidal in early February. They could even coordinate their efforts with those of the head of the JNIM, Iyad Ag Ghaly, against a strengthened ISGS today, but also perhaps to face the FAMa and their supporters from the PMC Wagner tomorrow.
One cannot exclude that the Malian authorities would be tempted by a new military adventurism in northern Mali, as the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta did in May 2014 in Kidal. Such adventurism took place less than a year after the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) started supporting the FAMa. But it is not certain that their Russian ally – which is also holding diplomatic meetings with CMA representatives in Bamako – is ready to follow them. Although the PMC Wagner has not reduced its manpower in Mali, it is already facing difficulties in central Mali and Ukraine. Its powerful neighbour, Algeria, which will sit on the Security Council in 2024-2025, will also not let such a scenario unfold, given the consequences it could have on southern Algeria. While MINUSMA’s main strategic priority remains “to support the implementation of the  Agreement by the Malian parties,” a resumption of clashes, the final abandonment of the Algiers Agreement and a de facto North-South partition would call into question the primary purpose of MINUSMA.
Towards a Geopolitical Endgame
The year 2022 has been marked by increased polarization in the Security Council following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In this context, MINUSMA seems pushed to the background and paying the price for its relation – perceived or real – with the French stabilization strategy since 2013. At the end of June 2022, the UN extended the mission’s mandate for another year, but, for the first time, Russia and China abstained rather than voted in favour, and the Council can no longer produce a joint statement on Mali for the press.
France insists that “the Malian transitional authorities must also uphold their responsibilities,” and the United States is alarmed by violations against civilians, including those committed by “armed terrorist groups, the Malian Armed Forces and the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.” Russia accuses Western powers of using MINUSMA “to damage the reputation” of the Malian transitional Government because they “are displeased with their independent approach to foreign policy.”
MINUSMA, which has its every action scrutinized, has no choice but to learn to live with a divided Security Council and a difficult host State. It must try to preserve the necessary impartiality in implementing an ambiguous mandate resulting from compromises between powers. It should also help counter “disinformation campaigns” aimed at the mission. The head of MINUSMA, El Ghassim Wane, also visited London, Paris and Moscow at the end of 2022 to try to ensure the continued support of the permanent members of the Council.
The difficulty lies in not lending oneself to accusations of being the vector of an informational war waged against one or the other, without becoming irrelevant or only a service provider for a junta in power, nor becoming an accomplice of the latter by turning a blind eye on certain actions. The mission is almost impossible.
Time for MINUSMA Lessons
MINUSMA will have tested the ability of a UN operation to last in an environment affected by terrorism, with mixed results. The UN and its contingents have shown unsuspected resilience, despite 168 peacekeepers killed and 692 wounded. MINUSMA has adapted by training its troops (especially regarding the risks of improvised explosive devices) and acquiring technology, sensors and specialized units, even if it also means a relative “bunkerization” that limits its ability to protect civilian populations while protecting itself.
African contingents have been at the forefront and have paid the heaviest price. But the significant participation of Western contingents in MINUSMA has also helped modernize peacekeeping with new capabilities and advance issues such as medical support and the use of intelligence in peace operations.
The necessary adaptation of peacekeeping to contemporary conflicts is not, however, just a question of military capabilities and posture. MINUSMA has also shown the inherent limitations of stabilization mandates focused on state-building when the central state’s presence and legitimacy are contested in conflict contexts that are both more fragmented (by local dynamics and conflicts) and regionalized.
Practicing the “primacy of politics” in conflict resolution is difficult for a peace operation when the parties to the conflict themselves do not believe in implementing a peace agreement signed under duress. The mission is even more complicated when the Security Council is not united behind common political objectives, and external actors favour military stabilization approaches.
This de facto situation and ambiguous mandates and relations with anti-terrorist “parallel forces” (Serval then Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force) have also tended to reduce the political space in which MINUSMA operates. As a result, the impartiality of the United Nations is often eroded without these fighting forces offering any real leverage to facilitate the implementation of the mandate.
Even if it continues to serve some of the divergent interests of the host State and permanent members of the Council, MINUSMA risks becoming a collateral victim of the new power rivalries. Therefore, the UN must seriously consider an exit strategy, which could involve an African force with a Security Council mandate under Chapter VII and predictable funding, an option that Antonio Guterres has advocated. Closing MINUSMA would undoubtedly turn the page of large multidimensional stabilization operations at a time the UN increasingly faces both the risk of political marginalization and challenges to the liberal norms it has traditionally promoted.
 The “penholder” system is an informal arrangement whereby one or more members of the Security Council (serving as a “drafter”) initiate and chair the process of drafting outputs such as resolutions.
 This is only recently, after more than six months, and thanks to Togolese mediation, that those soldiers were finally released (while being officially convicted, the release being the result of a presidential pardon).
 Durant this meeting, The parties had agreed to’Integration of 26,000 ex-combatants in two phases into the national defence and security forces and the’public administration. More andn parallel, the Malian authorities have launched the “special recruitment” of 2 000 young people from the northern and central regions in the Malian armed forces outside the framework of the’agreement.