Waiting for Blue Helmets? Prospects for a UN Mission to Mali – By Isaline Bergamaschi

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon meets Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore (UN photo library).

International actors have dealt with the crisis in Mali in many ways. In a recent brief, Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni (Institute of Security Studies Dakar) listed its four phases. The first responses were regional (with the ECOWAS mediation) and African (AU after June) producing limited results due to lack of financial resources, ability to provide concrete support in reaction to the crisis, and issues raised about the legitimacy and the intentions of some African Presidents involved in the mediation. The third phase of international intervention began on 11 January 2013 with operation Serval, a French military intervention in response to new attacks from armed groups in the North and an announcement by ECOWAS that African troops would not be ready to back up the Malian army before September 2013. The fourth phase now revolves around debates over a possible UN peace mission to Mali, which will likely be approved in the coming days or weeks.

Here we provide some insights and contextual elements by looking at the situation in Mali one year after the coup, the possible protocol for such a mission, and the challenges that it will inevitably face.

The situation in Mali

The military operation supported by France was spectacularly quick and successful in freeing Northern cities previously occupied by armed groups. 2,000 Chadians soldiers, too, hunted down insurgents in the mountains of Adrar where they had retreated.

However, many obstacles and sources of uncertainty remain. Armed groups avoided direct confrontation with the French army and are seemingly re-organizing in other countries. French authorities claim that hundreds of rebels have died in the past months. Kidal is still under partial control of the MNLA and its new branch, the MIA, and other cities are not fully secured. In the past months, insurgent elements have launched gun attacks in Timbuktu and Gao, and have carried out suicide bombings – a novelty in Malian history.

Politically, the interim government finally adopted a roadmap for the transition and the organisation of elections in July 2013. For many, this date is unrealistic, since the electoral register is neither up-to-date nor consensual, and since almost 500,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries. A National Commission for Dialogue and Reconciliation has been set up but is largely contested – both in Bamako and in the North – for its cost, mandate and composition.

During the “˜liberation’ process, many acts of extortion and illegal killing were reported. Tensions between communities are also on the rise. Captain Sanogo, who orchestrated the coup in March 2012, still enjoys some power and control over the civilian transitional government. He was appointed President of the Military Committee for Armed Forces Monitoring and Reform on February 15th – part of an attempt by President Traoré to provide him an honourable political exit while taking him out of the military barracks of Kati and limiting his role to a military one. This strategy seems to have borne fruit, since Sanogo committed not to run for president in the next election. Regardless, he remains influential and occasionally intervenes in civilian matters; for example, in March, he commanded the arrest of the director of Le Republicain after the newspaper published a letter detailing some of the military’s grievances with him.

Unprecedented consensus

Mahamadou Issoufou, President of Niger, argued that the operation in Mali was “the most popular of all French interventions in Africa.  Interim authorities framed the action by a former colonial power as inevitable and justified it on behalf of national sovereignty, unity and “territorial integrity”. After new attacks against Sevaré and Mopti in early January, they argued that if the rebels were to pass the last military base in the North, located in Mopti, they would find no armed resistance should they wish to head to the South and establish an Islamic Republic in Bamako.

The media showed Northern populations cheering and waving French flags upon the arrival of French and Malian soldiers. This is of course the result of the communication strategy of French authorities (Malian and French journalists were denied free access to Northern Mali during that phase). But a majority of Malians do truly welcome French troops. This can be attributed to the traumatic de facto partition of the country, exhaustion caused by months of occupation of the North, and disappointment with political leaders.

From a legal perspective, the French ambiguously justified their intervention by citing UN resolution 2085 (which allowed the deployment of an African force in Mali) and article 51 of the UN Charter (the principle of legitimate defense). Although interim authorities did not enjoy full democratic legitimacy, the principle of the consent of parties seemed to have been fulfilled, given the fact that President Traoré asked the French for their support. The French intervention was well received by African heads of State, regional organisations and the “˜international community’.

Within the UN there is an “unusual consensus” according to policy-makers. The fact that the government of Mali asked for international support is important, as members recognize that providing this help is part of the organisation’s duty. The fact that France has taken the lead both diplomatically and militarily is also considered an advantage. For the UK and the US, a multilateral intervention would enable them “to fight terrorism” in the Sahel while avoiding the material and symbolic costs of direct engagement. The United States, despite the Obama administration’s tendency towards multilateralism, has insisted on the organisation of elections as soon as possible and a carefully prepared and well-thought out mission plan. China and Russia have been remarkably supportive. In contrast with the situation in Syria, Mali seems to provide these two members of the Security Council an opportunity to be in agreement with other member nations and to play the multilateral game.

On the contrary, UN experts and the Secretary-general have displayed caution and tried to include as many guarantees as possible to avoid strategic and operational errors. In this they are addressing primarily two main audiences: Malian authorities and constituencies and members of the Security Council.

Malian Expectations

Malian expectations regarding a UN mission are very high – maybe even too high for the Secretary-general’s taste. The dominant international narrative on the Malian crisis allowed the government in Bamako to present itself as a victim of foreign Islamist terrorists. Their position is that the North must be liberated as soon as possible to (re)establish “un Mali un et laí¯que” (a united and secular Mali). Transitional authorities seem less eager to think critically about the conditions – corruption in (and between) the North and the South, the crisis of governance and the State – which made the crisis possible.

Malian interim authorities initially hoped that a UN force would undertake combat operations against armed groups and/or finish what the French had started. Since then, Ban Ki-Moon has tried to lower these expectations and clarify what the UN could and could not do. In late November 2012, he warned about the perils of a badly-prepared intervention, and that the UN “is not best placed to directly tackle the security threat posed by terrorists and affiliated groups.”[1] The report was greeted with indignation and misunderstanding by Bamako. After the start of operation Serval, Ban Ki-Moon indicated that “a dramatic shift in the posture of the organization would have a further negative impact on its ability to implement essential mandates in the humanitarian, development and human rights”. In his latest report released on 26 March 2013, Ban Ki-Moon insisted on the “need for national dialogue and reconciliation”[2]. He declared that the type of action needed to secure Northern Mali “falls well outside the scope of the United Nations peacekeeping doctrine” and that the organisation cannot “absorb the numbers of casualties that could be incurred through combat operations”.

From Misma to Minuma: Pending Questions and Challenges

Discussions at the UN seem to point to the deployment of a UN mission in Mali. The idea is for a multilateral force to ensure stability and security in the North now that the symbolic retreat of French troops has started (the number of French soldiers on the ground is expected to fall from 4,000 to 1,500 by the end of this year). President Deby has announced the retreat of the 2000 Chadian soldiers as well .

Misma currently counts 6,300 soldiers from Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and other African countries. The UN estimated that over 11,000 are needed for the prospective new mission called Minuma. Therefore, several questions and challenges remain, three of which are developed below:

1. The mission’s strategy and objectives

In his report on the situation in Mali released on the 26th of March, Ban-Ki-Moon identified two options for the way forward. In the first option, “the United Nations would continue its political and development activities under a strengthened political mission.” Option 2 proposes a multi-dimensional integrated stabilisation mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that would operate alongside a parallel force that would “conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations and provide specialist support beyond the scope of the United Nations’ mandate and capability.” During an initial discussion in consultations held on 27 March, there was widespread support among members for option 2.

However, experts warn that whilst previous UN missions have pursued complex, multi- dimensional objectives, it would be the first time that the blue helmets have confronted terrorist elements more or less directly linked to groups like Al-Qaeda.

Also, should the recent and ground-breaking establishment of an intervention brigade to prevent the expansion of armed groups in the DRC  create a precedent for Mali, the UN mission could have a double identity, both humanitarian and offensive, and could create confusion amongst populations – opening the way for attacks against blue helmets by insurgents.

2. Financial and human resources are not secured

A support fund of $10 billion has been set up for Misma when ECOWAS demanded $450. In addition, 5,000 troops would be needed to reach the SG’s objective. Convincing European countries to contribute in a time of crisis will be difficult. Mauritania promised 1,800 troops and, given their previous support, it is likely that other African countries will join. However, the training and professional abilities of some African contingents have been questioned. Furthermore, although not a problem specific to Mali, coordinating troops from various countries with distinct experiences, professional cultures and working languages is always a challenge for UN missions. The integration of African troops already posted in Mali into a multilateral mission with a new mandate must be carefully planned and orchestrated.

On the other hand, the Malian army remains poorly equipped and trained, and is divided between the Red berets of the presidential guard and pro-putch Green berets who fought against each other again in early February 2013. A European training programme directed at Malian soldiers has started. As the number of actors and initiatives proliferate, greater coherence and coordination will be essential.

3. Legitimacy – after the honeymoon

International intervention has been well-accepted in Mali so far. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that, according to an opinion survey carried out by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation between 13th- 20th February 2013, blue helmets are less welcome than French or American soldiers: whereas 78% of interviewees (384 people were interviewed in the districts of Bamako) find a US military presence in the region positive or very positive, and 76% approve of a French military presence, only 31% of interviewees find the presence of a UN force positive prior to the full liberation of the North, and 19% after this liberation.

This could be because some Malian citizens know and trust bigger powers more than an unknown multilateral coalition. Some may also be are aware of the limits of former UN missions in other African countries. Also, while UN representatives and the Malian government are currently still in the honeymoon stage, this could change with the mission’s implementation and potentially erode popular support.

Let us also not forget that until French military intervention in early January 2013, pro-sovereignty arguments – against international intervention – promoted by Captain Sanogo and the putchist camp, found a broad echo in Malian society. These could reappear. Alter-globalist Aminata Traoré or Oumar Mariko’s political opposition are trying to articulate criticisms against external, imperialistic intervention in the political realm. The fact that the international community is intruding by designing the post-conflict scenario (pushing for quick elections, the establishment of the Commission for Dialogue and Reconciliation, or negotiations with “rebels”) is more frequently highlighted in the national press now than three months ago.

Isaline Bergamaschi is Assistant Professor at Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, Colombia.

[1] http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2012/894 p.20 – 22

[2] http://www.globalr2p.org/media/files/secgen-report-on-mali-26-march-1.pdf pp. 6-7 & 13

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One thought on “Waiting for Blue Helmets? Prospects for a UN Mission to Mali – By Isaline Bergamaschi

  1. Pingback: The UN Approves a New Peacekeeping Force, Set for Mali | passblue

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