The UN Security Council voted unanimously Friday to immediately end its peacekeeping mission in Mali as demanded by the country’s military junta, which has brought in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group to help fight an Islamic insurgency.
Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, has grappled with the insurgency for over a decade. It has seen its relations with the international community become strained in part because the ruling junta brought in the Wagner mercenaries.
The mercenaries have also been engaged in Moscow’s war in Ukraine and were part of a short-lived mutiny against Russia’s military last week led by the Wagner group's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The French-drafted resolution, adopted by a 15-0 vote, terminates the mandate of the peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA as of Friday. It orders the mission to start the withdrawal Saturday of more than 15,000 personnel, to be completed by the end of the year.
US deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis expressed regret at the military government’s decision to abandon the UN mission. He also said that “some domestic actors” in Mali are calling for harassment of peacekeepers and urged the mission to ensure the safe and orderly transfer of UN facilities and equipment to UN-designated places.
“The UN has a responsibility to minimise the risk that its assets fall into the hands of those looking to destabilise Mali, or bring harm to its people, including violent extremist organizations and the Wagner Group,” he said.
British Ambassador Barbara Woodward expressed regret that Mali wanted the peacekeepers to leave at a time when the region is “facing increasing instability and humanitarian needs.”
“And we do not believe the partnership with the Wagner Group will deliver long-term stability or security for the Malian people,” she said.
Meanwhile, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby expressed deep concern at Wagner’s destabilising activities in Africa, especially Mali and Central African Republic.
He told reporters in Washington that US information indicates “the Malian transition government has paid over $200 million to Wagner since late 2021.” Despite the payments, he said, security hasn’t improved and terror attacks and violent crime have increased in central Mali.
Kirby also claimed that “Prighozin helped engineer” the speedy departure of UN peacekeepers “to further Wagner’s interests.”
“We know that senior Malian officials worked directly with Prighozin employees to inform the UN secretary-general that Mali had revoked consent for the MINUSMA mission,” he said.
Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in the West African nation’s northern cities the following year, with the help of a French-led military operation. But they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.
The UN peacekeepers came in a few months later in what has become one of the most dangerous UN missions in the world. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres paid tribute to the 309 MINUSMA personnel who lost their lives “in the service of peace during 10 years the mission was deployed in Mali,” his spokesman said.
Mali has been ruled by a military junta following two coups, starting in 2020, led by Col. Assimi Goita, who now runs the country.
The resolution welcomes Goita’s commitment to organising free and fair presidential elections in February 2024 and ensuring the return to constitutional order in the following months - commitments that DeLaurentis and other council members said the transitional government must keep.
The council’s decision to end the U.N. mission followed a demand by Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop to the Security Council on June 16 that the peacekeepers leave the country, claiming they failed in their mission to restore security. There is “a crisis of confidence between Malian authorities and MINUSMA,” he said.
Following Friday's vote, Diop told national broadcaster ORTM that ""many Malians" had requested the withdrawal and called the peacekeeping mission “a threat to our country.”
He said it wasn't a hasty decision but the result of the government's desire to take charge of its own affairs and the strengthening of its military and security forces.
The United Nations needs the support of governments for its peacekeeping missions to operate.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Anna Evstigneeva told the council Moscow supports the transitional government’s “aspiration to take full responsibility and play the leading role in stabilizing the Malian state.” She said Russia will continue providing comprehensive bilateral support to Mali to normalize the situation in the country.
Mali’s UN ambassador, Issa Konfourou, told the council after the vote that while MINUSMA didn’t achieve its fundamental goal of supporting the government’s efforts to secure the country, the people and the government in Mali would “like to applaud its contribution in other areas,” especially humanitarian and social assistance.
Rida Lyammouri, the senior fellow at the Morocco-based Policy Center for the New South, said that while MINUSMA was not authorised to fight militants, it did provide protection to civilians from the jihadis.
Attacks are most likely to increase now in the areas where UN peacekeepers provided regular patrols since the Malian army remains underequipped to provide adequate protection,” Lyammouri said.
The UN mission also played a critical role in mediating between the Malian government and separatist Tuareg rebels. Ely Dicko, a sociologist at the University of Bamako, said that one of the consequences of the vacuum the peacekeepers will leave may be the resumption of hostilities between the government and the Tuareg rebels.
Daniel Forti, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the withdrawal “is going to be a massive undertaking for the whole UN and for Mali" and both have a lot to lose if it isn't done “in a consensual and united way.”