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Analysis: The Deteriorating Security Situation in Mali
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and other global actors are facing an increasingly unstable situation in the Sahel region. This comes amid a rise in violent extremist organization (VEO) activity in Mali, which serves as the primary base for the Al-Qaeda branch in West and North Africa (JNIM) as well as the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
In August 2022, the UN’s independent expert on the human rights situation in Mali, Alioune Tine stated that the security situation in the country had deteriorated drastically. This came in response to multiple ISGS and JNIM attacks against the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) as well as numerous human rights violations by FAMA and their Russian mercenary cohorts in the central region of the country. The most notable of these incidents was the Moura massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 300 civilians.
MINUSMA, the Worsening Security Situation, and Deployment of Wagner
Many factors have contributed to the deteriorating security situation in Mali but the greatest of these was the deployment of Russian Wagner mercenaries. This resulted in the hastened withdrawal of the French Operation Barkhane and the European Takuba Task Force between 2021 and 2022: these were the main counterterrorism operations in the country. The deployment of Wagner also forced several countries to withdraw from MINUSMA for fear of accidental confrontations with the Russian mercenaries, especially as Operation Barkhane had been offering air support to the UN mission.
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The UK contingent of MINUSMA, which had been providing crucial long-range reconnaissance patrols, announced its withdrawal from the mission on November 14, 2022. Egypt, which is one of the mission’s largest contributors with 1,035 troops, announced that it will also suspend its participation in response to rising improvised explosive device (IED) and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks in the Kidal region. Côte d'Ivoire, which contributes 900 troops to the mission, has announced that it will withdraw its support by May 2024 and Germany announced that it would do the same on November 22.
Benin has expressed its intention to withdraw its 450 troops by November 2023 and other participants have made similar announcements.
In addition to rising attacks by non-state actors, the Malian political regime has become increasingly unstable. The country has seen two military coups led by the same junta in 2020 and 2021, respectively and these coupled with a prolonged transition back to democracy have contributed to the withdrawal of several European contingents from MINUSMA. Moreover, the armed political groups who had joined the Malian government as signatories of the 2015 Algiers Peace Accord pulled out of the peace talks on December 22, 2022.
MINUSMA will hold an internal review of its peacekeeping mission in January 2023. This comes after the previous renewal of the mission on June 29, 2022, amid reluctance among participants due to a perceived lack of commitment by the Malian government. The primary concern over the Malian government is that it has contracted the services of the Wagner Group despite repeated warnings from MINUSMA’s European participants.
Wagner now occupies the camps that had previously hosted the French and European forces. The mercenary group has also been deployed to the Gao region in close proximity to a large MINUSMA base that hosts British and German troops. Details on Wagner’s mission in the country are vague with German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht quoted asking, “What are the tasks of the Russian troops that have shown up directly next to our camp? Are they only supporting Malian soldiers with equipment and training? Or do the Russians influence the operation of Gao airport?” Other concerns over the Malian government’s commitment to MINUSMA include its suspension of the mission’s peacekeeping rotations between July and August 2022 as well as its suspension of MINUSMA’s flyover rights for all purposes other than medical needs.
The MINUSMA mandate is non-offensive and its troops are focused on monitoring the implementation of the 2015 Algiers accord. The mandate also tasks the mission with the securitization of towns and villages as well as responding to threats to civilians. Despite this limited mandate, the mission has been able to provide security to large settlements and the main transit routes in Mali’s northern regions, deterring jihadis from taking over strategic locations.
MISUMSA is mainly active in Mali’s northern regions of Gao, Menaka, Timbuktu, and Kidal, which had also previously been secured by the armed signatories of the Algiers accord. However, the minimal presence of FAMA coupled with the withdrawal of the French and European operations and multiple MINUSMA contingents has created a regional security vacuum that has left little resistance to the rising presence of JNIM and ISGS.
The previous Algiers Accord signatories agreed to cooperate to provide a Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) in 2021 and this included the installation of security checkpoints for counter-offensive actions. However, this has proven insufficient against the intensified attacks in the region, especially from ISGS.
A deputy spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that MINUSMA was discussing the possibility of filling the gap left by the withdrawal of several contingents with several other countries. However, a long-term security vacuum is inevitable if it fails to do so as the Tuareg and Arab political groups operating in the region will likely be unable to hold off against the onslaught of JNIM and ISGS fighters. This was the case in 2013 when the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa took over the city of Gao.
Although the Malian air force could help to secure the northern regions, it has thus far shown a reluctance to use its newly acquired Russian air crafts to deter the expansion of ISGS in Menaka and Gao. Although the air force has also received the latest generation of Turkish surveillance and combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it is been reluctant to use these in any region other than around the capital of Bamako.
The option of replacing MINUSMA with African forces was also suggested by the UN Secretary-General in May 2022. However, this seems unlikely amid tensions between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and President Assimi Goita over the postponement of Malian elections. These tensions were further aggravated by the imprisonment of the 46 Ivorian troops who had landed in Bamako on July 10, 2022, for being suspected mercenaries. This allegation has since been denied by the Ivorian government, which has stated that the troops were sent to provide support to MINUSMA’s German contingent. Guterres has stated that the termination of the Mali mission would risk the country’s collapse. However, Chad, a primary contributor to MINUSMA has announced its intent to increase its troop presence in Mali and this has been welcomed by the Malian government.
The withdrawal of MINUSMA’s European forces in northern Mali and the possible termination of the mission will likely lead to increased Russian influence in the region as the Malian government relies more heavily on Wagner mercenaries. Moreover, Wagner’s success in this mission is by no means guaranteed and this could potentially lead to further destabilization of Mali and the broader Sahel region.