The deafening sound of vuvuzelas almost drowns out the speeches of members of the pro-Russian collective Yerewolo-Debout on the margins, gathered to demand Minusma’s departure. On 28 April, the amphitheatre of the Palais de la Culture in Bamako filled up to join the movement led by Adama Ben Diarra, known as Ben the Brain. Amidst Russian flags and “Down with Minusma” banners, a blue helmet is burning.
Launched in April 2013 and extended every year, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) is due to renew its mandate on 30 June with the approval of the Security Council. However, for several weeks, the question of its extension has been on everyone’s lips, from Bamako to Kidal via Mopti.
“Are you for or against Minusma’s departure?” Everyone has their own opinion, which is often clear-cut. “It continues to maintain the war in Mali and supports the terrorists,” says Sidiki Kouyaté, a member of the Yerewolo movement. “We expect the authorities to take their responsibilities and not renew its mandate,” says another member.
More than 1,000km away, in Gao, the discourse is more nuanced. While some people there are also calling for the departure of the UN mission, seeing it as “an NGO and not a stabilisation mission,” the majority want it to be renewed, according to a civil society representative from the city of Askia: “Minusma finances projects, rehabilitates social services, provides transport and employment for young people. The population wants it to stay”.
Composed of 13,289 soldiers and 1,920 police officers, Minusma’s priorities are to “support the implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali (the Algiers Agreement, signed in 2015) and the full realisation of the political transition,” but also to “support the stabilisation and re-establishment of state authority in the centre of the country.”
In the north of the country, which is plagued by insecurity, where various armed groups – jihadists or not – have control, the presence of the United Nations ensures a certain level of stability. “Since its arrival, Minusma has been working with the population and the authorities to restore basic social services and has supported the popularisation of the Algiers Agreement. A premature departure could have enormous consequences,” said Kidal’s civil society on 1 May, calling on the towns of Gao, Timbuktu, Ménaka and Taoudéni to “remain mobilised.”
Provider of jobs
Another feared consequence of a possible Minusma departure is the weakening of the local economy in northern Mali. “What will become of us as parents if Minusma leaves?” asks a woman on local television. “If the government wants Minusma to leave, it should give us reasons and take care of our children by providing them with work,” she says, adding that the departure of French soldiers from the Barkhane operation in August 2022 has already left between 400 and 450 people unemployed.
Minusma’s criticisms focused on presence duration, effectiveness, and results (or lack thereof), which resemble the accusations that pushed the French forces to leave Mali. Another argument for its detractors: “Minusma is a French fabrication,” read the statements of the Yerewolo movement. “With the departure of Barkhane and the recent terrorist attacks, we hear more and more conspiracy theories,” says the Gao civil society representative, who regrets the lack of security results from the peacekeepers.
In a statement signed on 29 April, Gao civil society recalled the context of counter-terrorism in which the UN mission is operating and asks that this dimension be included in its mandate. “It seems appropriate and realistic for us to review the mandate of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) to make it more robust and adapted to the current security context of the country,” it stated.
On this point, all seem to agree. In the internal review of the mission published in January, the Malian government asked that Minusma “change its static posture, get out of the camps and opt for offensive actions and patrols.” But as UN Secretary-General António Guterres reminded us, “a peacekeeping operation is neither an army nor an anti-terrorist force […] but a tool to create space for a national political solution.”
Responsible for transporting and redeploying security forces, supplying them with fuel and medical evacuations, Minusma offers flights where the roads, riddled with improvised explosive devices, have become impassable. “If Mali remains a united country, it is thanks to Minusma planes that fly from Bamako-Gao-Kidal-Timbuktu, serving as an interface between the North and the South,” says a Gao resident.
Withdrawal of quotas
Since its rapprochement with Russia, Mali has restricted its airspace, drastically limiting the UN mission’s room for manoeuvre. The refusal to authorise drone overflights had already led Berlin to suspend the commitment of 1,200 of its soldiers in August 2022, a source of tension with the member states, particularly Germany.
On 4 May, the government of Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, visibly fed up, confirmed the departure of its troops by May 2024. This is one more withdrawal after that of the British, the Swedes, the Egyptians, the Beninese, and the Ivoirians.
“The announcements of the withdrawal of many contingents, which represent 20% of the force, should alert us to the seriousness of the situation,” said Nicolas de Rivière, France’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to the Security Council on 12 April. While recalling the importance of Minusma’s role, he added that it remains “an imperfect tool” for which we must be more “demanding” so that it can “carry out its tasks without hindrance.”
A Minusma without peacekeepers?
Will Minusma survive without the full cooperation of the Malian authorities? Three proposals are on the table in New York: to increase the number of troops by 2,000 or 3,680, to reconfigure the mission towards less logistical activities and more support and protection of civilians, or to transform it into a special political mission to support Bamako in its process of dialogue and national reconciliation – all without UN Peacekeepers.
In his last statements on the subject, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga assured that a departure of Minusma “was not on the agenda,” everything else suggests that it will be forced to reinvent itself. The question of its renewal was put to a vote in the Security Council in June, with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions: China and Russia.
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