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On 18 August, Malian soldiers under the command of Colonel Assimi Goita detained several cabinet ministers, including President Ibrahim Boubacar Kaita who resigned shortly thereafter on national television. Although condemned by the international community, the coup was met with celebrations in Bamako, following months of protests. This disparity in sentiment highlights the serious problems besetting UN and EU efforts to support the country.
The international community had little choice in its initial response. Coups have afflicted West African states with remarkable frequency, resulting in agreements in the region to impose sanctions on any military that seizes control. The US similarly is obligated by law not to recognise or financially assist governments formed by coup, though Washington has been less than consistent in adhering to this legislation. Enforcing a transition back to civilian government is in everyone’s interests.
The mood in Paris and among diplomats was one of concern, but not panic. Counterterrorism operations in Mali’s north may be temporarily hampered, but will ultimately continue as before. And therein lies the problem. For if a country’s military can supplant the civilian government, and it has no appreciable impact on the war effort, then it is reasonable to ask whether Malians are really in control.
The UN mandate in Mali, the EU mission and much of the international aid provided is framed in the language of support to the Malian government. But Malians perceive things differently. Among the Bambara majority in the south the government was seen as corrupt and inept, kept afloat by the largesse of the international community, which prefers stability over political change. The UN does not have a good reputation in the north either. Its peacekeepers have taken significant casualties trying to protect civilian communities, but the residents of Timbuktu and its surrounding villages complain that they have been put in a cordon that has stifled their lives and shows no signs of achieving peace.
Malian officers complain that training is didactic, and that foreign troops show little interest in their ideas or experiences. It was symbolic and ironic in equal measure that the US delivered civil–military relations training in March to the very soldiers who toppled the government. French plans to have an agreement among G5 countries to enable the pursuit of militants over one another’s borders may sound like progress for regional cooperation, but it also allows Chad and Burkina Faso to ignore Mali’s sovereignty to conduct violence on its soil, and suggests that the international community has no faith in Mali being able to secure its territory for the foreseeable future.
For anyone who has seen the UN in action, the mismatch between rhetoric and reality is not especially surprising. In 2015, I spent some time in the cavalcade of Mahmoud Dicko, the popular imam who has been a prominent leader in the protests against former President Kaita. The UN had very few contacts with him or the High Islamic Council he then headed. When I asked why, I was told by a senior UN official – as far from the street as one could get, atop the highest building in Bamako – that Mali’s constitution made it a secular country and its people were not particularly religious. It was a statement that typified the gulf between how UN officials and the Malian people understood the situation.
It must be recognised that there is a lot more at stake in Mali than the security of the Sahel. Mali should be a UN success story. The mission there was supported unanimously by the Security Council. The mandate was not hobbled by great power rivalry. There is strong regional cooperation to pursue best practice. And yet, seven years later, Mali is the latest demonstration of the UN’s greatest hits – comprising three letter acronym prescriptions, inexhaustible expressions of concern, and canapé receptions – failing to deliver even the prospect of peace, prosperity or progress.
As the world moves into a new era of great power competition the UN is likely to find international cooperation increasingly scarce. And yet it is precisely in crisis that the UN is turned to, never as the optimal, but usually as the last, desperate resort. The risk to the institution is that the perception of persistent failure for liberal peacebuilding will see states pursue their own solutions. As Russia reaches out across Africa, alternative approaches are increasingly on offer; solutions that show much less regard to human rights.
For the UK therefore continued engagement appears important. The UK remains a major contributor to the UN, and an advocate for the rules-based international system. But engagement in Mali is not a low-risk venture. If the Malian state is unable to re-establish control over its northern territory, if the government remains weak and if the levels of violence appear undiminished, the campaign may see the UN and its methods haemorrhage credibility at a time when it is highly vulnerable.
Continued operations may be possible in spite of the coup, but things should not carry on as though it were business as usual.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.