At least 40 civilians killed in Sudan’s Nyala
The United Nations (UN) is currently undergoing a six-month withdrawal process from Mali, an action referred to as “unprecedented” by Secretary-General António Guterres. This exit comes at the request of Mali’s military junta, which has hired mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group to battle an Islamic insurgency. The backdrop of this situation is a rising tide of violence in the North African nation, with recent attacks by al-Qaida-linked insurgents in northern Mali resulting in the deaths of 49 civilians and 15 government soldiers. In response to these attacks, the Malian government declared three days of national mourning.
The Escalating Crisis in Mali
According to a report by the UN, al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked groups have nearly doubled their territories in Mali within the past year. The increasing influence of these extremist factions is attributed to a weak government and a stalled peace deal from 2015. The current situation in Mali mirrors events from 2012 when a military coup was followed by the emergence of an Islamic state in the north by rebel groups. Although these rebels were later ousted by a French-led operation, they relocated to central Mali, where they have remained active.
The Role of the Wagner Group and the UN’s Withdrawal
The situation was further complicated in 2020 when Mali’s then-president was overthrown in a coup led by an army colonel who established ties with Russia’s military and the Wagner mercenary group. This has led to the blockade of Timbuktu by armed groups, causing the displacement of over 30,000 residents. The UN’s withdrawal from Mali involves the pullout of its 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, which has been in place since 2013 and has been deemed the most dangerous UN mission globally, with over 300 personnel killed. This rising instability in Mali has contributed to increasing volatility in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Consequences of the UN’s Withdrawal
The UN’s withdrawal from Mali raises concerns about the security of the Malian people. MINUSMA has played a significant role in protecting civilians through patrols, convoys, and static and temporary bases. With the UN’s departure, the risks to civilians will increase, not just from other armed actors, but also from the mission’s own actions resulting from inadequate coordination with local actors and reprisals against civilians who collaborated with the UN. Additionally, the security crisis may be exacerbated by the Wagner Group mercenaries. There are concerns that the UN’s departure could worsen the precarious security situation and encourage widespread terrorism. More Malians will likely be domestically displaced, potentially leading to a refugee crisis.
Mali’s Future Amid the UN’s Departure
The UN’s withdrawal from Mali raises questions about the future of peacekeeping mandates in armed conflict. Despite signed peace agreements, conflicts have become more complex, which prompts the need for reconsidering the approach to peacekeeping. The duty to protect is often reactive, and root causes of disputes are rarely addressed. However, if UN diplomacy fails to persuade a government to postpone its expulsion, the UN Security Council should force Mali and its allies into a stalemate, prompting a quick transition to civilian control.
Although peace enforcement can have immediate or short-term positive consequences, conflict management and prevention require a more nuanced and situation-specific approach. The results of the Mali mission, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives and over 100 peacekeepers, suggest that the decision to switch missions during an armed conflict was hasty. The future of Mali is uncertain, and the instability has regional ramifications in the Sahel, as violent extremism could spill over into neighboring countries. The UN and international partners must remain focused on Africa, considering both the short-term and long-term implications of the UN’s departure from Mali.
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