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Mali: Withdrawals, Deaths Trail UN’s Most Dangerous Peacekeeping Mission

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), considered the deadliest peacekeeping effort, struggles as contributing countries pull out.

Withdrawals by participating countries and persistent attacks have cast a shadow over the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. On Friday, Dec. 16, two Nigerian peacekeepers, including one woman, were killed, and four others were injured in an ambush on a MINUSMA police patrol in the northern town of Timbuktu. 

“The Secretary-General [] extends his deepest condolences to the bereaved families, as well as to the Government and people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He wishes a speedy recovery to the injured,” 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that attacks targeting the peacekeepers may constitute war crimes under international law and called on the Malian authorities to identify and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The UN peacekeeping force replaced the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) in 2013. Since then, the force has played a significant security role. The troubled western country has been plagued by instability and violence, including attacks by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups. 

“The mission’s initial mandate focused on stabilising key population centres and supporting the re-establishment of state authority throughout the country. It also had important provisions for facilitating the implementation of a transitional roadmap, including a national dialogue between Malian authorities and communities in the north,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. 

But the UN mission has become increasingly difficult due to security conditions and deadly attacks on personnel. Between Aug. 22, 2013, and June 9, 2022, a total of 174 MINUSMA personnel were killed in hostile acts.

In October, three peacekeepers were killed and three others seriously injured when their vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device. The team was reportedly on a mine search and detection patrol in the northern town of Tessalit in the Kidal region.

Two Egyptian peacekeepers were killed and one wounded in June when their armoured personnel carrier was hit by an improvised explosive device planted on the road in the Mopti region. They were escorting a civilian convoy on its way from Douentza to Timbuktu when the incident happened.

In April, four peacekeepers were killed and several others wounded in an attack on a base in the northern town of Aguelhok. The contingent was said to have pushed back the attack involving several “heavily armed terrorists”.

The Malian flag is hoisted during the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base from the French to the Malian army in Timbuktu on Dec. 14, 2021. Photo: AFP.

The withdrawals from Mali

A series of factors have combined together to create tension and problems for the UN mission and French intervention in Mali. These include the political environment in the aftermath of the coups and the arrival of Russian mercenaries.

In November, Deutsche Welle reported that the German government was planning to start pulling back troops from Mali in the summer of 2023 and “complete the withdrawal a year later”. 

Similarly, in the same month, Britain announced it was withdrawing its peacekeepers, stating that Mali’s growing reliance on Russian mercenaries was undermining stability. The country’s Armed Forces Minister, James Heappey, reportedly disclosed that the British soldiers stationed there would leave earlier than planned. 

The Ivorian government, in November, also announced a gradual withdrawal of its military and police contingent. The last Ivorian officer is expected to leave by Aug. 2023. According to an official notification, the replacement of units based in Mopti will not take place, “neither will the replacement of headquarters staff and police officers, due to take effect in October and November 2022”.

In August, the French military announced an end to years of operations in the country, which began as Operation Serval and transitioned into Operation Barkhane. “Today at 1 pm Paris time [11:00 GMT], the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the statement said.

The frequent attacks on peacekeepers have also caused disengagement. In July, it was reported that the Egyptian government planned to suspend its MINUSMA operations in response to security risks and safety concerns. The north African member contributes 24 staff officers and about 1,030 troops.

“We confirm that Egypt, through its Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, expressed its concern at the beginning of the week at the increase in attacks against its peacekeepers who escort the convoys supplying our bases in the centre and northern Mali,” said the spokesman of the UN mission, Olivier Salgado. 

In July, the Malian government gave Olivier 72 hours to leave over “tendentious and unacceptable” posts on Twitter. The action also followed the suspension of new rotations of the peacekeepers and the arrest of 49 Ivorian soldiers described as “mercenaries” intent on toppling the military junta. 

In March, Sweden revealed that it was pulling soldiers out of the UN mission in June 2023, a year earlier than planned. “In recent times, conditions have changed in the country, but until our last soldier is home, we continue to conduct operations just as usual,” the Swedish Armed Forces said in a brief quoted by Reuters.

Sweden had earlier disclosed the withdrawal of forces from the European special forces mission code named Takuba. It was established for the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane.

In May, the Republic of Benin likewise said it was terminating military and police contributions in Mali.

Nigeria’s peacekeeping intervention 

Nigeria has similarly downsized its contributions due to the growing internal security crisis and the changes in the aftermath of the disbandment of AFISMA.  The country contributes to MINUSMA through military and police personnel.

In  September, the MINUSMA website reported on the rotation of Nigerian police personnel after 20 months in the country. It stated that elements of the police unit of Nigeria deployed in Timbuktu were returning home. It added that the unit conducted more than 200 day and night patrols with the Malian security forces “in addition to 135 long-range patrols”.

The Nigerian military in November sent 65 medical personnel to support the UN operations in Mali. In December last year, the military concluded the pre-deployment training of 62 medical personnel scheduled for assignment with the peacekeeping force. 

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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