“We have lost everything,” Sheikh Mohamed, a Tuareg community leader, told me when I met him in a camp in Gao in northern Mali, where families who have run from jihadists languish in tents and depend on handouts.
In September 2022, like hundreds of others, he fled Talataye, a town 90 miles away from Gao, the regional capital, when fighters from the Islamic State group attacked it as part of a new offensive in northern Mali.
Mali is facing a growing Islamist insurgency in some parts of the country. Its government is struggling to restore stability after a decade of civil conflict, including armed strife in 2012. In August 2020 and May 2021, there were two coups. Adding to the instability, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) launched an offensive against Tuareg armed groups and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamaa Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) in the Menaka and Gao regions in March 2022. The groups are competing for control over land and resources in the north of the country. Thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire, with deadly massacres reported in Moura and Gao. The insurgency is exacerbated by abuses attributed to the military and its allied Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group, which, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, entered the fold in December 2021. (The government denies the charges.)
The conflict’s epicenter is in Mali’s north, a remote, vast desert corner of the country that has dropped off the news radar as few journalists are granted visas from Mali’s military government. Even those who make the journey tend to stay in the capital Bamako for security reasons. I also find myself staying in the “bubble” of the capital because venturing outside poses a considerable risk of kidnapping.
When I first arrived in November 2021 to take up my position as head of the Sahel Program of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation and think tank that promotes democratic participation, regional cooperation and the rule of law, it was still possible to visit southern and parts of central Mali, but the security situation has deteriorated since then. In January 2022, my wife and I were able to spend a few hours in Segou, a city 130 miles north of the capital known for its cultural festival held on the banks of the Niger River. When a colleague visited me in March 2023, I decided against another day trip as there had been security incidents — with hindsight, I made the right decision, as a police station in Segou was attacked a few days later.
In January 2023, we planned a small activity in Kayes, a city bordering Senegal, but we didn’t go ahead with it. The main road to the city is notorious for criminal attacks targeting both Malians and foreigners, so my only other option was to take a commercial flight, but local authorities discouraged me from traveling, as there had been several attacks near the city.
Fears are growing among locals and the shrinking expatriate community in Bamako that the capital will soon fall prey to criminals and, eventually, to Islamist insurgents. A German priest disappeared in Bamako in November 2022, apparently kidnapped — nobody wants to talk about it. Several attacks were staged outside Bamako in January 2023, forcing many foreigners to stay indoors since then.
It was a different story a decade ago in 2013, when France, the former colonial power, sent soldiers to push jihadists out of northern Mali, which they had captured the year before.
The jihadists had gone on a rampage, amputating the hands of suspected thieves, destroying ancient manuscripts and banning music as they forcibly implemented strict Islamic law. Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and French troops arrived to stem the jihadists’ advances. Many Malians were optimistic that the international forces would end the conflict in the country.
Indeed, a large U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, in place since the French intervention, has helped stabilize the main cities in the north and center, but its future is uncertain. MINUSMA’s contract expires June 30, and the U.N. Security Council must decide whether to renew it. Almost all Western and several African contingents have left following a dispute with Mali’s military government, which has allied itself with Russia and sought to curtail the mission. Tensions rose between Mali and its regional bodies — the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the European Union — after the military government postponed elections slated for 2022 following the coups.
Diplomats say there are several proposals for MINUSMA’s future on the table at the Security Council. One is to boost the number of peacekeepers, currently at 13,000, by up to 3,000. Some experts argue this is an unrealistic plan, given that so many country contingents have left Mali. Another is to withdraw peacekeepers from some regions, such as the center of the country, where cities such as Mopti are deemed relatively safe due to the MINUSMA presence. A third proposal is even more radical and recommends transforming the mission into a civilian one without peacekeepers. Russia and China are expected to vote for limiting the mission’s reach, particularly when it comes to investigating human rights abuses by government forces and Wagner fighters.
Following repeated accusations of human rights violations, the government does not want the peacekeepers operating in areas where the army and Wagner are fighting jihadists.
“If MINUSMA leaves, Gao and other towns won’t be secure anymore,” said the head of a local NGO who helps the displaced and asked not to be named. “You even have sleeper cells inside Gao scouting the town but not doing much yet. But this can change.”
I wanted to learn more about the situation in northern Mali, but because of the volatile security situation, my only option was to hitch a flight to Gao with MINUSMA, which operates flights to various bases throughout the country. Mali has no national airline, and these flights are one of many “services” the mission offers, filling gaps where the state is absent, so government officials and residents also use U.N. flights.
The airport in Gao was hit in 2016 by a jihadist truck bomb attack. However, it benefits from the U.N.’s base, a “super camp” that surrounds the airport, which is believed to be the safest place in town.
Upon arrival, I walked a few steps to the U.N. reception center in a Portakabin container, where a car was already waiting to drive me to my accommodation. We exited the airport “safe zone” using a 300-yard public road before entering the U.N. camp. During the short commute, I spotted the nearby entrance of a Malian army barracks where it is alleged that some Russians, the country’s new military partners, have moved in.
The super camp is a sprawling mini-city of portable buildings for offices and accommodation. It caters to the MINUSMA staff’s needs, including a state-of-the-art gym, sports courts, shops and a large canteen. There is even a pizza service, a Friday barbecue and a bar. I remember this type of high-security camp from covering conflict zones from Iraq to Libya. The safety and comfort of such a compound creates a kind of parallel reality that contrasts with the insecurity and misery outside it, where it is impossible for foreigners to visit without an escort and armored cars. It’s the kind of place that attracts — apart from U.N. soldiers — well-paid specialists, such as logistics managers and engineers, whose skills are vital to run the camp. The stretch of road from the airport tarmac to the U.N. camp is the only place many of them will see outside the camp.
Soon after arriving, I was given emergency phone numbers and keys to my accommodation (equipped with an en-suite shower); it was challenging to find the container, as all the buildings looked identical. I then had several briefings by senior commanders who gave me an overview of the security situation and the mission’s challenges.
According to the commanders, criminality, insecurity, lawlessness and poor governance have risen in recent years, and large towns like Gao and Timbuktu, where U.N. peacekeepers are based, had maintained some sense of normality until now.
Tens of thousands of civilians — some say well over 100,000 — have been displaced by fighting between ISGS and JNIM, deepening the humanitarian crisis. Gao, alone, has three camps for the displaced. The MINUSMA mandate does not allow peacekeepers to offensively engage militants, although it is permitted to “anticipate, deter and effectively respond to threats to the civilian population.” Nonetheless, the JNIM and ISGS attacks on civilians have continued.
There are fears that, if Mali’s humanitarian and security situations worsen, it could have wider implications in the region. Mali’s neighbor Niger is an important transit route for migrants from other West African nations trying to get to Europe via the Mediterranean. With thousands of migrants attempting to cross the sea in search of a better life, many European countries have poured substantial development aid and military assistance into Mali’s neighbors to ensure better opportunities for their nationals and deter them from migrating to Europe. But these efforts seem bound to fail without defusing the conflict in northern Mali.
My first assignment was to visit a camp for internally displaced persons. Sosso-Koira camp is home to thousands of people who have sought refuge and are living in makeshift tents. Nearly everyone here has a harrowing story to tell, but there was little time to talk to them.
“Our homes were burned and cattle killed by Daesh,” the Tuareg leader Mohamed said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, children were attending school in a nearby tent provided by the U.N., and several women, some carrying children, were fetching water from a tap in front of the school tent.
Beyond providing security, MINUSMA is the biggest employer in the neglected region. There are no other stable jobs or industries; the only alternative is smuggling goods and joining other criminal networks or jihadist groups. While walking around the Gao camp, I bumped into the head of the local staff union, who said the mission employed nearly 6,000 people, including subcontractors.
“They won’t find new jobs here. There are no alternatives,” he said. The French army laid off 600 local staff who are now unemployed and are demanding jobs from MINUSMA.
My camp visit was cut short by the mission’s security adviser after two motorbikes drove by — most likely, they were harmless passersby, but since foreigners are targets for kidnapping, it was safer to avoid the risk. I was glad that the team was security-conscious, although it meant I had less time at the camp.
In Bamako, I walked one day to the bus station to understand how buses still operate from the capital to volatile Gao. One of the station’s managers, who asked not to be named, told me how difficult it is to operate in a conflict zone.
“It’s a very challenging trip for drivers and passengers alike. The roads are in a terrible state with countless potholes,” the manager said, sitting in his cramped office.
After buses pass through Mopti, a major city in the country’s center, jihadists stop buses at roadblocks to ensure their strict rules are observed: Men and women must sit in separate sections, and music and smoking are forbidden.
The manager explained that his company does not sell tickets to foreigners, soldiers or police officers, even if they are off duty and traveling in civilian clothes.
“That would make the bus a target for terrorists,” he said.
Residents in Gao and other cities in the north with U.N. bases have a different perception of MINUSMA from those in Bamako, where government officials often criticize the mission as ineffective.
I have witnessed several pro-government demonstrations in the capital, at which people have demanded that MINUSMA exit, denouncing it as a tool of France and part of a political game amid tensions among the military government, France and other Western countries. But in the north, there is still appreciation for the mission.
France’s withdrawal allowed ISGS to exploit the lack of security and gave it greater freedom to move around. Much like MINUSMA’s peacekeeping mission, the French operation has been criticized as ineffective because it failed to stop the expansion of jihadists from the north into central Mali and neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Niger. There are fears that ISGS will go further south to coastal countries such as Togo and Ivory Coast.
The government, for its part, has launched offensives with the help of Russia, which has supplied fighters, helicopters and jets. When the French troops left, Russia stepped in.
Speculation is rife among political analysts and think tanks that Russia wants to bolster its geopolitical standing in the Sahel region, which has abundant gold and uranium reserves.
But even with the backing of the Russians, the Malian army has failed to make progress beyond some temporary territorial gains. Even worse, the reported brutality of Wagner mercenaries has driven more villagers into the hands of jihadists, who claim to offer protection if their rules are followed.
In any case, a military solution could — at best — only partially resolve Mali’s conflict, which is also driven by poverty, competition over land, and a corrupt and weak state — factors worsened by one of the world’s most significant population growth rates. Women have, on average, five to six children; even industrialized countries would struggle to provide adequate services to support a decent standard of living. Climate change is also undermining the livelihoods of Malians.
Uncertainty over the future of the U.N. mission has left some MINUSMA staff feeling grim, as I learned over beers at the Bavaria bar. After Mali strengthened ties with Russia, it limited flight permissions for U.N. aircraft and ground patrols, a contributing factor in the withdrawal of most Western and several African contingents, leaving Asian and a handful of African nations to supply what peacekeepers remain. So far in 2023, the Malian government has denied nearly 300 MINUSMA flight requests.
Germany is one of the last major Western countries contributing peacekeepers, but it expects to exit by May 2024. Germany’s withdrawal will have far-reaching consequences because it is a large contingent with 1,200 soldiers, and the Germans have played an important role providing the much-needed helicopters for medical evacuations.
“Without Germany, it will be difficult to continue our operations in the current form,” one MINUSMA officer said, pointing to a map of the country’s northeast that was pinned to the wall in his office. “We have more and more intelligence gaps.” The reason: The German and the MINUSMA drones meant to provide a regular situation report for the mission have been grounded because the government does not want MINUSMA to film the Russians. Britain also stopped its long-range patrols gathering intelligence.
Nepal and other countries have pledged to send helicopters to replace the German ones, but the mission will likely have to reduce its activities after the pullout of so many country contingents, as there will not be enough peacekeepers to undertake operations.
Among the proposals for the Security Council to consider, indications are that the Malian government is content for the mission to become a “lame duck,” providing jobs and services that the state cannot.
But with no end in sight to the conflict and a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, a scaled-back mission will be unable to stem the bloodshed.
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