June 21, 2023

IntelBrief: Malian Junta Seeks to Eject UN Peacekeeping Force

Photo via MINUSMA

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Mali’s military junta has demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission from Mali (MINUSMA), thereby removing all peacekeeping forces from the country.
  • There have been increasing restrictions for MINUSMA in both air and ground operations, becoming notable with the increased presence of the Russian private military company known as the Wagner Group, which deployed to Mali in 2021.
  • Without MINUSMA’s capabilities to identify threats, protect civilians, and foster any progress on political agreements, many of the warring parties are more likely to be able to operate with near impunity and little impetus for dialogue, creating further danger for civilians.
  • Without a UN mission, Wagner’s presence will likely grow beyond the 800-1,000 personnel currently on the ground in Mali and risk further displacing Western influence and access.

Mali’s military junta has demanded the withdrawal of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission from Mali (MINUSMA), thereby removing all peacekeeping forces from the country. Last week, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop informed a meeting of the UN Security Council that “a crisis of confidence between Malian authorities and MINUSMA” meant that UN forces needed to depart the country immediately. The UN Security Council has until the end of the month to extend MINUSMA’s mandate, but since peacekeepers technically require the consent of the host nation, the mission’s departure now seems imminent, barring any last-minute reversals. Should the Security Council vote to extend the mandate in spite of Mali’s demand, Russia’s ability to veto the outcome casts doubt on its likelihood, given the close links between the Russian private military company (PMC) known as the Wagner Group and the current Malian government.

UN peacekeeping missions have also struggled with the issue of consent in the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Responding to pressure from regional powers, Mali voted on a constitutional referendum on June 18 and will hold presidential elections in February 2024. The stakes of the upcoming election are high, especially as spillover violence from Mali continues to impact neighboring countries throughout the Sahel, including Burkina Faso and Niger. A range of violent non-state armed groups has also become active in the northern parts of Togo and Benin, sparking concerns of a domino effect stretching all the way to other parts of coastal West Africa.

MINUSMA peacekeepers have been active in Mali since 2013 when they were deployed following the Tuareg rebellion. Fighting has continued apace, and conflict dynamics in the country remain highly complex. Since the Wagner Group deployed to Mali in 2021, MINUSMA has been restricted in both air and ground operations. Moreover, the heavy-handed approach favored by Wagner has further destabilized the country, with civilians killed and wounded, pushing new recruits into the arms of groups linked to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, including Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin and Islamic State Greater Sahara. While Wagner personnel deploy to fragile states ostensibly in response to instability, the actions of its forces breed further unrest, which Wagner then uses to justify an extended presence. There is growing concern that the United States and its Western allies, especially France, are ceding large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa to Russian influence. In countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and CAR, Russian disinformation is ubiquitous as Russia seeks to win hearts and minds throughout the Global South.

With 13 thousand troops, MINUMSA has been essential in protecting cities in northern Mali, including Gao and Timbuktu. MINUSMA forces are mandated to perform a range of duties – including protection of civilians, supporting political and peace processes – and serve critical functions, including safeguarding internally displaced persons camps, offering medical support, and mediation support, for example. Without the intelligence assessment capability, the Mission brought to bear, there is a greater likelihood that many of the warring parties will be able to operate with near impunity. Over the course of its deployment, at least 168 MINUSMA peacekeepers have been killed, according to the UN in February, although a recent Al Jazeera report places that figure at over 300 deaths. As it stands, MINUSMA is the UN’s deadliest ongoing mission. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden have all withdrawn their contributing soldiers to MINUSMA, while France ended its own military mission to Mali, Operation Barkhane, as well.

The ruling junta and MINUSMA have clashed over the role of UN forces in the country, with the Malian government pushing for the UN to more actively combat terrorist groups, while Security Council members that decide MINUSMA’s mandate – as well as key stakeholders like troop-contributing countries – have favored a mandate focused on the protection of civilians. Without a UN presence, Wagner’s presence could grow beyond the estimated 800 to 1,000 personnel it currently has on the ground in Mali. Part of the fallout between UN forces and the government in Bamako, which tightened its grip on power following successive military coups in 2020 and 2021, is a result of the recent report into the Moura massacre in March 2022, which claimed that 500 civilians were slaughtered. Wagner forces have been implicated in this crime, as well as in the deaths of many other civilians in Mali. Nevertheless, Wagner remains an attractive option for dictators and authoritarian leaders, particularly since the PMC shows no concern about potential human rights abuses carried out by its partners and will conduct counterinsurgency operations in exchange for access to mining rights, where its forces can profit from gold, diamonds, and other precious resources. For predatory governments, Wagner’s variable success in countering terrorism and addressing conditions conducive to terrorism appear to matter less than ensuring that the group can guarantee those governments’ political (and sometimes physical) survival, as well as to and guarantee those governments receive profits and financial rewards from their extractive and commercial enterprises.