By Miranda Sieg, Staff Writer

Mali completed parliamentary elections in April despite the twin threats of jihadist violence and the spread of coronavirus, but this signal of stability belies a deteriorating security situation and ongoing humanitarian crisis. These elections, the first in Mali since 2013, were supposed to take place in 2018 but were delayed because of security concerns. The security situation in Mali has not improved in the past two years—it has declined. From 2014 to 2016, Mali saw an average of 243 conflict-related deaths per year. In 2018, that number rose to 1,237, an increase of over 100 percent, higher than the highest death count during the original separatist fighting in 2013. Malian civilians have increasingly suffered from violence and instability, leading to rising refugee numbers. In 2018, the number of refugees  jumped by over 55 percent, to 26,539. It is clear that the 2015 peace agreement and subsequent stabilization projects have not been successful.

The structure of the peace agreement is one of many failed initiatives. The original discussants excluded key security stakeholders because of their status as terrorist or criminal organizations. Without a say in the agreement, groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), Monotheism Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Al-Din have no incentive to abide by the peace agreement terms and have free reign to act as spoilers. Even among those present at the peace talks, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an organization representing a number of northern Malian separatist groups, has only tentatively approved the agreement with plans to sign after further talks, which have not yet occurred.

Besides its limited authors, the peace agreement also fails to mention access to social services, economic opportunities, or justice for crimes committed during and before conflict. This ignores many of the grievances that drive Malians to turn to violence. One salient driving factor is the current government structure. Patronage networks and endemic corruption behind the facade of a model democracy in Mali have led to poor governance and economic mismanagement. Plagued by corruption and clientelism, the Mali government reinforced regional inequalities between the north and the south and entrenched ethnic and socioeconomic privileges across the country. The peace agreement made no effort to change the existing government structure and instead focused on reinforcing and strengthening it by partnering with the government and conducting projects to increase its legitimacy. All of these factors have combined to ensure that the majority of Malians have yet to see any benefits from peace talks, further increasing instability by reducing trust and increasing grievances. The unstable security situation in Mali is contributing to an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis and concomitant inability for peacekeepers and other actors to complete stabilization goals. International implementers and donor organizations should increase their presence in Mali to address weaknesses in the security sector.

Reaching the Ideal Outcome

Though the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been in the country since April 2013, operations have mainly focused on countering violent extremism and implementing the peace accord. MINUSMA and other international stabilization and peacekeeping forces—including the joint French and G5 Sahel counterterrorism Operation Barkhane—originally neglected the protection of civilians. The conflict and related terrorism and counterterrorism efforts have exacerbated historical ethnic tensions, leading to the formation of ethnic militias. Although originally created for community protection, many of these militias have used force to retaliate against real or perceived threats, creating a spiral of violence.

The new MINUSMA commander has created a protection of civilians (POC) campaign to encourage reconciliation between ethnic groups. However, these measures are too little, too late. The UN Security Council (UNSC) renewed MINUSMA through June 2020, but the mission has made little progress. The UNSC may vote to extend the mission again after a report scheduled for next month, but so far the UN is silent on future plans regarding Mali. It is essential to further increase the MINUSMA mandate or to partner with other local and international peacekeeping forces like Operation Barkhane to focus on de-escalating intercommunal violence. An increased MINUSMA presence and a more expansive mandate have proven to de-escalate intercommunal violence in the Mopti region of Mali. A broader mandate should include allowing peacekeepers to act against those who threaten the accord.

Furthermore, pushing forward on the existing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) plan would also help increase the peacekeeping presence in Mali. This plan consists of reconstituting military units by combining government and separatist forces in civilian protection units. So far, separatist signatories to the peace accords have made lists of soldiers eligible for the program, but delays due to arguments over weapons contribution have slowed implementation. The lack of progress in other areas of the peace process have led to an increased lack of trust between contributing partners. MINUSMA and their partners should prioritize DDR as a tool of trust building and to expand the POC presence. One method to increase trust is to create reconstituted police, rather than military units. This approach would ease stakeholder doubts about re-arming former enemies as well as show the benefits of cooperation with the peace agenda to entice currently resistant groups into future cooperation.

Beyond lack of trust between political and military groups in Mali, civilian distrust of the government is one of the main barriers to successful peace. The central Malian government, located in the south of the country, has failed to deliver promised services originally designed to produce peace dividends in the northern areas. The lack of will and continued corruption in government are large contributing factors. However, government excuses that the unstable security situation makes service delivery difficult to achieve also carry some weight.

The current short-term approach has chosen government legitimacy and increased security over long-term stabilization goals like ending corruption and other good governance practices. However, civilians are increasingly vulnerable in Mali, where their safety should be the ultimate priority. As Mali spirals into ethnic violence, showing that peace can be profitable and beneficial is more important than ever. MINUSMA should encourage the Malian government to partner with development and aid organizations to deliver services. Though the central government may be resistant, efforts like this promote legitimacy and security by creating positive, ground-level contact between the government and under-served citizens. Working together with local groups, even those that are suspected of perpetuating violence, would enable the government to open an exchange with previously inaccessible communities.

Miranda Sieg is a second-year Masters Student at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs studying Security, Development and Conflict Resolution. She is primarily focused on education and cross-cultural violence issues in East and Southeast Asia, but has recently developed an interest in post-conflict development and the integration of refugees and at risk migrants. Miranda spent two and a half years studying and working in Japan and traveling extensively in East and Southeast Asia. She currently works for the International Education Program at GW and is a Presidential Management Fellow Finalist and GW UNESCO Fellow.