Some, like London, Abidjan and Berlin, have announced their withdrawal, while others have temporarily suspended their operations. Nine years after 13,000 peacekeepers were deployed, are the numbers of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (UNMISMA) melting like snow in the sun?
“It is important to note that the situation in Mali is no different from that of other UN peacekeeping operations: countries join them, others sometimes leave them too. No country stays indefinitely as a contributor,” said UN Secretary-General spokesman Farhan Haq, seemingly playing down the political aspect of the recent announcements.
1000 fewer peacekeepers
Although departures and arrivals of contingents are indeed commonplace, the close announcements of withdrawals and concerns raised by some contributing countries mark a shift in the UN mission’s conduct. Following the British and Ivorian contingents’ early departure, the Minusma, which deployed 11,791 troops in September, has been cut by 249 and 856 peacekeepers respectively, not counting civilian and police personnel. In addition, the Swedish contingent also decided to withdraw a year earlier than planned.
No replacement has been announced, although Haq assures us that “the Mission is assessing the impact of the planned withdrawals on our operations, and [that the UN] is already in discussion with a number of countries to fill any gaps”, such as those caused by the departure of the British troops.
The contingent, which arrived in December 2020 as part of the Long Range Desert Group, carried out long-range reconnaissance missions on the ground for about three weeks and provided the Minusma with access to more remote areas.
But who would want to deploy new troops in the current circumstances?
The Ivorians, on the other hand, operate within three infantry and base security companies, divided between Mopti, in the central part of the country, and Timbuktu, in the north. Given the current context, it is very possible that Abidjan made this decision due to its deteriorating diplomatic relationship with Bamako.
Furthermore, 46 Ivorian soldiers, deployed within Minusma’s framework, according to Côte d’Ivoire, have been detained in Mali for more than four months, as the authorities accused them of wanting to destabilise the country.
Before Côte d’Ivoire and the UK, Egypt – the third largest contributor with just over 1,000 peacekeepers deployed, according to data available on the UN website – had decided to suspend its contingents’ activities.
In total, between Cairo, London, and Abidjan, more than 20 military units, out of a total of 114, have suspended their operations or plan to do so in the short term. Others have followed suit. As a matter of fact, Germany announced their early withdrawal of its 575 soldiers on 22 November.
These departures represent a loss of capacity for the UN mission. Even though the British do not provide logistical support to the other contingents, the Egyptians and Germans do. The former mainly provide escort and security for the convoys while the latter manage the military hospital in Gao. Their potential departure raises fear of a ‘domino effect’ among the European contingents who benefit from Germany’s health services and care for the wounded, unless another country decides to take over. “But who would want to deploy new troops in the current circumstances?” says one researcher.
Tension with host authorities
The specialist points to the “total lack of cooperation from the host government”. This is both politically – following the expulsion of the Minusma spokesman last July – and on the ground, with the establishment of a no-fly zone and the prohibition of access to certain areas for investigators from the Human Rights Division.
As early as August, 15 contributing countries, mainly Western states, expressed their concern about the mission continuing its operations in the current context. Germany, which is currently considering its future in the UN force, was one of the signatories. The reconnaissance drones supplied by Berlin, which ensure patrol security and threat identification, are currently prevented from taking off due to air restrictions, according to our sources. This raises questions about the relevance of continuing to deploy soldiers and equipment in a territory where the room for manoeuvre has been drastically reduced.
Other contributing countries, such as Togo (715 peacekeepers), Chad (1,420), Benin (249) and Burkina Faso (630) could be influenced by their own security situation, at a time when the jihadist threat is spreading throughout the Sahel and towards the Gulf of Guinea countries. Participating in a UN peacekeeping mission may be rewarding for some militaries with limited financial means, but Sahelian and West African governments may have to balance their national needs against the financial windfall of taking part in Minusma.
In June, the UN Security Council will have to determine whether to renew the mandate of its mission in Mali. It may also decide to redefine the terms of the mission, limiting Minusma to civil and political affairs and removing its military component, which is already largely hampered.