What Does the Coup in Mali Mean for UN Peacekeepers in the Country?

What Does the Coup in Mali Mean for UN Peacekeepers in the Country?

On August 18th, officers from the Malian armed forces led a coup d’état against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his government. They detained the President, his Prime Minister, and other senior officials, and forced Keïta (known by his initials, IBK) to dissolve the national assembly and resign on national television. The coup followed months of protests in Mali.

Since June, thousands of demonstrators had gathered to voice frustration over economic mismanagement, inadequate public services, allegations of electoral fraud, widespread corruption, and a deteriorating security situation. The coup leaders, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), argued that their actions were necessary to prevent the country’s descent into anarchy and insecurity. Anti-government protesters cheered the soldiers’ progress through the streets of Bamako. 

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres initially condemned the mutiny, calling for constitutional order and the rule of law restored immediately. The UN Security Council followed suit, with member states expressing “deep concern” and urging Malian soldiers to “return to their barracks without delay.” More than a month later, this had not happened, and the international community pivoted toward ‘soft acceptance’ of the coup. Despite a constitutional requirement that new elections be held within 21-40 days of a presidential resignation, it now seems likely that new elections will not take place for at least 18 months, and possibly longer.

By early October, an internationally accepted transitional government had taken office, though one of the coup leaders continues to serve as vice-president. The appointment of a civilian president and prime minister have alleviated some of the international community’s most pressing concerns. However, the coup still raises thorny questions about UN peacekeepers’ role in the country and how (or whether) they should be actively supporting the Malian government.   

The UN will have to decide whether close cooperation with Mali’s new government is the best way to build lasting peace.

What does acceptance of the transitional government mean for MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali? On the one hand, it clarifies which key partners the mission should be dealing with. Host state consent has long been a core tenet of UN peacekeeping, and the mission will – at a minimum – need some degree of buy-in from the new government to function effectively. 

On the other hand, de facto acceptance of the coup creates new dilemmas for peacekeepers. MINUSMA’s current mandate calls for much more than host-state consent. Peacekeepers are tasked with helping to re-establish and extend state authority in Mali. This is one of the mission’s core strategic priorities. In practice, this has involved close cooperation with Malian security forces amid the ongoing conflict. This despite credible evidence that many of them are responsible for serious, repeated human rights violations. MINUSMA also supports the Malian state indirectly by assisting French-led Opération Barkhane and the G5 Sahel Joint Force, both of which aim to root out jihadist insurgents across the region. While MINUSMA does not itself conduct counter-terrorism operations, it enables those activities, both through its mandate and by providing logistical support and sharing intelligence. 

For many, this state-centric approach to peacebuilding has serious flaws. The coup surely disappointed all the external actors, including MINUSMA, who have spent years working to cultivate democratic norms and improve security sector governance in Mali. Yet, according to critics, international efforts to stabilize Mali have focused too much on securing the Malian state against its opponents and too little on inclusive dialogue, social and economic issues, governance, and the rule of law. Previously, proponents of state-centric solutions could at least claim to be supporting a democratically elected government. The recent coup strips away this justification, making it much harder to overlook the drawbacks of close cooperation with the Malian state. 

Monday market in Djenne and the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali
(Ferdinand Reus CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, what next? Thus far, the CNSP and the transitional government seem willing to have blue helmets continue their work in Mali, perhaps anticipating that MINUSMA will help them fend off threats from non-state armed groups. That said, cracks are emerging in the new government’s relationship with Barkhane, and its orientation toward MINUSMA could change as a result. MINUSMA might find favour if it helps the Malian authorities move forward with sensitive priorities, like initiating dialogue with militant groups. At the same time, the mission could ruffle feathers if it takes a firm stand on issues like over-representation of the military in the country’s National Transitional Council. 

For its part, the UN will have to decide whether close cooperation with Mali’s new government is the best way to build lasting peace. Just after the coup, a spokesperson for the Secretary-General insisted that MINUSMA’s work with Malian security and defence forces “must and will continue.” Over the short term, this may seem like the pragmatic solution, especially given that the CNSP seems open to consultation and currently enjoys support among Malians fed up with IBK’s government. Cooperation has also become a more palatable option since the appointment of an interim civilian president and prime minister.

However, over the long term, UN member states, the Secretariat, and other key stakeholders will have to think long and hard about the implications of that decision. This includes the Canadian government, which now faces calls to re-engage in Mali. Locally, direct support for the new government could undermine the UN’s capacity to serve as an honest broker, a credible source of protection for vulnerable civilians, and a plausible advocate for human rights and democratization. It could also set an unfortunate precedent, showing that the UN’s preference for state-centric solutions can withstand even the most blatant challenges to democratic norms. 

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