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Mali's MINUSMA peacekeeping mission: A foreseeable disaster

July 4, 2023

Pressured by the Malian military junta, the UN Security Council has decided to withdraw all MINUSMA peacekeepers by the end of this year. What are the consequences?

Ivorian soldiers of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA

Last week, the UN Security Council decided to withdraw approximately 13,000 MINUSMA peacekeepers at the explicit request of the Malian military government. The move  will have an impact on Mali, the Sahel region, and the countries that deployed the soldiers, including Germany.

Mali's relations with many of its most important partners had been deteriorating since the miltary coup of May 2021, which was led by then-transitional Vice President, Colonel Assimi Goita, and drew international criticism. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions on Bamako. Relations with France reached a low point. Paris had sent troops to Mali after the security crisis following the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, to help combat terrorism especially in the central and northern regions of the country, but soon was pressured by the new Malian leadership to withdraw its forces.

Colonel Assimi Goita in military uniform, surrounded by soldiers
Mali's junta leader, Colonel Assimi Goita: The military coup in May 2021 under his leadership drew international criticismImage: Fatoma Coulibaly/REUTERS

Given the swift increase in diplomatic tensions, the end of MINUSMA was only a matter of time. The Malian government took to accusing the UN peacekeepers of failing their mission. MINUSMA, in turn, complained about a lack of support, and even accused the military junta of hindering peacekeeping operations.

Bamako openly pursued military cooperation with Russia, which sent Wagner Group mercenaries and military trainers to the country. Mali's leaders have stated that they intend to ensure their own security.

'A matter of national sovereignty'

"I consider it normal for Mali's government to assert its sovereignty in security matters. No one can dispute Mali's right in this regard, because Mali is an independent state," said Sahel expert Abdoulaye Sounaye from the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. Sounaye, who also teaches at Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey, told DW that Mali had nevertheless proven incapable of ensuring the security of its citizens. This was especially true in the north, where Russian Wagner Group mercenaries operate. The withdrawal of MINUSMA did not bode well for security in Mali and neighboring Sahel countries. "There is a big risk that the military situation will escalate," he said.

Political scientist Niagale Bagayoko
Political scientist Niagale Bagayoko: 'The Mali crisis cannot be solved with Wagner mercenaries'Image: Benjamin Reverdit

Niagale Bagayoko, a French Sahel expert with Malian roots, said the withdrawal was a result of the "exceedingly strained" Malian-French relations: "The decision of the Malian military leadership is directly related to the ruined relationship with France." Bagayoko explained that Mali had been positioning itself for some time as a state that wanted to distance itself from its former colonial power, France. The withdrawal of the French and the MINUSMA mission also showed that it was growing more difficult to solve conflicts and wars on the African continent. Hiring Russian mercenaries would not help towards that end, she concluded.

Between approval and skepticism

Malians have mixed feeling regarding the policy of the military. "I am very satisfied with the decision of our government. I believe the mandate of the peacekeeping forces has rightfully expired. The arrival of foreign soldiers in the country did not improve the situation," a woman in Bamako told DW. A passerby added: "The attacks by jihadists in the center and north of the country did not stop, despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of international troops. There were continuous incidents, casualties, and injuries. It is good that the mandate of the peacekeeping forces was not extended."

But other Bamako residents feared that the withdrawal of MINUSMA could have disadvantages for the population. "What will happen to all the projects and aid initiatives organized by MINUSMA in the center and north of Mali? What will become of the people there, when the international troops withdraw? This greatly worries me," a citizen said.

Aerial view of downtown Bamako
Mali's capital Bamako: The population has mixed feelings regarding the withdrawal of MINUSMA Image: Nicolas Remene/Le Pictorium/imago images

Security likely to deteriorate

It is a worry shared by Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel office of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bamako. "In the north and center, I have met many people who appreciate MINUSMA. Thousands found employment through the mission, which is also very active in the civilian sector, for instance, providing vocational training for the unemployed," said Laessing, who has been in Bamako since November 2021. He was only able to travel in the country, particularly to the unstable north, because of the presence of peacekeepers. "MINUSMA worked with women, built wells, and engaged in healthcare initiatives. It had a wide range of projects that substituted for the state in regions where the state is relatively weak," he said.

The withdrawal of the peacekeepers will also impact on the work of aid and development organizations that relied on the protection provided by the UN mission. The security situation for the civilian population is certain to deteriorate, Laessing told DW.

According to the expert, the Malian government will attempt to fill the vacuum left by MINUSMA with the help of its Russian partners. "The army has made significant acquisitions: new helicopters, jets, and other weapons. They will now try to replace MINUSMA. The armed groups, the jihadists, will certainly also try to exploit the vacuum for themselves," he said.

Will an orderly withdrawal succeed?

More than 13,000 soldiers and police officers, along with their equipment — ranging from helicopters to armored vehicles — need to be organized and withdrawn. Among them are around 1,100 German soldiers, whose deployment to Mali will now end earlier than planned. According to Laessing, this should not pose a major problem for the Bundeswehr.

Military vehicles flying German flags accompanied by soldiers wearing blue berets
Around 1,100 soldiers from the German Bundeswehr must leave Mali by the end of 2023Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

In late May, the German parliament extended the MINUSMA mandate one last time. But it also voted on a withdrawal mandate by the end of May 2024. This date will now have to be brought forward by a couple of months.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock described the end of MINUSMA as "bitter news for the people in Mali, who were given protection and hope by the mission." She explained on Twitter that the military government had made it increasingly impossible to contribute to the security of civilians in Mali.

Thousands of Malians have been killed in conflicts throughout the country. In recent months, over 300 peacekeeping soldiers lost their lives in Mali. Europe will not forget any time soon that the ruling military junta, aligned with Russian Wagner mercenaries, effectively expelled the humanitarian mission from the country. The assessment of MINUSMA and the consequences of its premature ending has only just started.

Malians brandish a 'Thank you, Wagne' poster during a demonstration in Bamako
Malians with a 'Thank you, Wagner' poster in February 2022Image: Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images

Mahamadou Kane (Bamako), Brahima Tounkara, and Frejus Quenum contributed to this article.

This article was corrected on July 4, 2023, to specify Assimi Goita's current rank as Colonel.

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl