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UN Withdrawal from Mali: Consequences and Containment Strategies for Peacekeeping

Armored patrol vehicles parked in Burkina Faso UN military base in Timbuktu region at United Nation peacekeeping mission in Mali
Armored patrol vehicles parked in Burkina Faso UN military base in Timbuktu region at United Nation peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The United Nations Multidimensions Integrated Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) will cease its peace operations by January 1, 2024, following termination by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on June 30, 2023. The regrettable departure was initiated by the Malian military’s transitional administration under Col. Assimi Goita, who came to power in 2021 following a coup. Goita holds the UN responsible for failing to bring peace to Mali since its deployment a decade ago.

MINUSMA replaced the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) in 2013, a year after its deployment in 2012Its major objective was to assist Mali in bolstering its security and defense capabilities, support it in protecting communities, implement stabilization projects, and facilitate humanitarian access to northern Mali. In a flamboyant ceremony, AFISMA soldiers ceremonially swapped their hats with UN blue berets, launching the world’s third-largest UN peacekeeping deployment with at least 15,200 peacekeepers.

Consequences of the UN Withdrawal

Malian people’s security is the main concern following the UN's departure. MINUSMA has contributed significantly to protecting civilians despite its difficulties through patrols, convoys, and static and temporary bases. The peacekeepers’ outposts occasionally served as a haven for those displaced by the violent conflict and a location to distribute humanitarian aid. 

Through political discourse and involvement with armed actors and communities, the mission was able to develop local conflict prevention systems, advance protection, and reduce violence within communities. Additionally, the country's promotion and defense of human rights aided the human rights monitoring, reporting, and capacity-building mandate of MINUSMA. However, in light of the UN’s departure, risks to civilians will increase as the mission winds down, 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 precipitated by Wagner Group mercenaries may be aggravated by the UN's departure. Documenting some of the organization's actions in the remote parts of Mali will be difficult, given similar acts of violence and alleged human rights abuses in places like Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and eastern Ukraine. 

The UN's departure could also worsen the precarious security situation and encourage widespread terrorism. Since 2012, political armed factions in northern Mali have engaged in conflict over the control of trafficking routes. These factions include ethnic-based movements, Islamist organizations, and international criminal organizations. The 2015 peace pact is still in effect, yet the factions that signed it still use violence with its departure. The disputing parties are expected to intensify their hostilities. Jihadists could find additional safe havens to attract recruits while increasing attacks against security personnel and civilians as militants shift to rural areas to capitalize on local unrest coupled with an absence of peacekeepers and a lack of a state to protect citizens. 

Relatedly, more Malians will be domestically displaced, and many may look for safety in nearby nations, potentially culminating in a refugee catastrophe. Additionally, seeing as worsening the crisis in Mali would damage the reputation of the UN and the international community; they risk coming under fire for failing to act, as was the case in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This is because even the international organizations that generally assist the UN Peacekeeping efforts will also pack up and leave as they watch from afar how the security situation unfolds.

Lastly, this crisis provides Russia and China with adversarial possibilities against the influence of the West, particularly the United States, in Mali and the Sahel region. While Wagner mercenaries, currently exiled from Russia, replaced the French foreign military, Mali is being used as a test bed for China’s arms sales and private security corporations in Africa. These mercenaries will probably set up camps and autonomous regions for illegal operations in nations like Mali. In response to Mali’s military authorities’ decision to push out elections until 2026, Russia and China intervened in January 2022 to prevent the UN Security Council from imposing additional sanctions against Mali. 

Considerations and Mali’s Future

With the concern that Mali’s instability has regional ramifications in the Sahel, as violent extremism could spill over into Niger, Burkina Faso, and the northern borders of Benin and Côte d’Ivoire, the UN and international partners’ focus should remain on Africa by taking note of short-term and long-term implications.

The UN's withdrawal from Mali raises concerns about whether it is time to review UN peacekeeping mandates in armed conflict. Despite signed peace agreements between disputants, conflicts have grown more complex since after the Second World War. Such situations question the plan of action for transitioning AU peace enforcement missions into UN interim missions. 

The concept of peacekeeping needs to be narrower to achieve sustainable peace and resolve humanitarian crises. This is not meant to imply that intervention is never necessary but rather that the duty to protect is frequently reactive as root causes of such disputes are never addressed. Conflicting parties continue to fight for international engagement only because they stand to gain directly or indirectly from it. 

Suppose UN-level diplomacy is unable to persuade a government to postpone its expulsion. In that case, the UNSC should put Mali and its criminal allies in a position where they are forced to a stalemate, which would prompt a quick transition to civilian control. Sanctions alone appear ineffective since the military regime has developed coping mechanisms via the power conflicts between China, Russia, and the United States to meet its security needs.

Although enforcing peace can have immediate or short-term positive consequences, managing and preventing conflicts calls for a more nuanced and situation-specific approach. The results of the Mali mission, which has claimed thousands of civilian lives and more than 100 peacekeepers dead, suggest that switching missions after just one year during an armed conflict was a hasty decision. The simultaneous overthrow of two civilian governments by two coups further complicates the situation as the junta regime will unlikely allow any further international security force intervention, at least not anytime soon.

Consequently, the UN now has little political leverage to defuse the situation and will need to rely on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU to forge new conflict management mechanisms by first convincing Mali to stop using the rent-seeking Wagner mercenaries that are likely to deplete all the country’s natural resources. It’s past time the UNSC also regulated the usage of mercenaries in peace missions.

The UN should also help to ensure that Russia and China do not overshadow the international community's interests in Mali. It should consider utilizing ECOWAS and the AU to pressure Mali into restoring civilian governance through which it could reclaim its security assistance from nations like the United States. The UN (through its relations with global actors) could consider devising a strategy to fill the void left by French troops. This may occur by collaborating with ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council to entice Mali with indirect security assistance that would aid in breaking away from Wagner mercenaries along with Russian and Chinese influence.

Dr. Ruth Namatovu specializes in international affairs for Africa and is an analyst of peace and security. She pursued her doctorate in international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, with a concentration in international relations and conflict management.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Ruth Namatovu

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more