On July 10th, 48 troops from Ivory Coast were arrested by Malian authorities when they arrived at the airport in Bamako. The Ivorians claim that their troops were sent to Mali to reinforce the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in the region. The military government in Mali, however, claims that the troops arrested were mercenaries sent to overthrow their regime.
On the surface, it looks as if there was a breakdown in communications between the Ivorian government, the Malian government, and MINUSMA. However, there appears to be an ulterior motive at play here: Mali does not want MINUSMA to remain in the country any longer. In an effort to break the impasse over the arrest of the soldiers, Faure Gnassingbé the President of Togo has offered to mediate in this dispute. As of this writing, there are negotiations ongoing but an available date regarding the release of the Ivorian soldiers.
The arrests came two weeks after the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2640 (2022) which renewed the mandate for MINUSMA for another year. The UNSC voiced its concerns over increasing allegations of violations of international law by the Malian Defense and Security Forces. This had upset the Malians to the point where they felt that they needed to take action. Thus, arresting the Ivorians appears to be the first step to removing MINUSMA from the country. Another view is that this action was taken to encourage the Ivorians to return former ministers of the previous civilian government to Mali to face charges such as forgery.
And this was not the only such move undertaken by the Malian authorities. On July 14th the government announced that it was temporarily suspending troop rotations by the UN peacekeeping mission. The timing of this decision less than a week after the arrest of the Ivorians is noteworthy.
The question now is how the military government in Mali can compel MINUSMA to leave the country. There is a precedent that may provide some insight. Earlier this year the French-led counterinsurgency Operation Barkhane, which was in the country for a decade, began an “orderly” withdrawal from Mali. The troop withdrawal was preceded by allegations from the French that members of the junta in Mali were obstructing their forces’ operations in the country, followed by a demand from the Malian government that France withdraws its troops “without delay”. Mali’s current government is also withdrawing from the G5 Sahel Alliance. This decision has not gone over well with Mali’s neighbors as it leaves a gaping hole in the regional strategy against militant groups. Also on July 20th, the junta expelled the MINUSMA spokesman over a tweet he sent regarding the Ivorian soldiers being held prisoner.
One must also ask whether the Malians are both willing and capable of going it alone after expelling French forces, following allegations of being mistreated by the French. Or are they seeking new partners such as Russia to achieve their goals? When the Security Council approved extending the mandate for MINUSMA by a year, Russia abstained from voting on the Resolution. It is reasonable to ask if the presence of Russian PMC Wagner Group and its alleged role in atrocities being committed in Mali had anything to do with Russia’s abstention. Whatever the motive is, it appears that the government in Mali wants a solution that breaks with international norms and offers the results that they seek.
Signs point to a country that is at risk of spinning out of control, while it also considers itself to be used and abused by its traditional allies. Suspending the deployments of UN peacekeepers is a signal that the country is losing faith in multilateral institutions as well—in this case, one with whom it has a long relationship. It is looking like Mali sees Russia as an alternative in protecting its self-interests.
Some of these actions are raising the scrutiny of certain UN bodies at the moment. The current leadership does not care for the increased attention, and the proposed elections in February 2024 appear to be the only way out of this cycle.