UN peacekeeping reform: There is more to it than money

By Rene Wadlow

The United States holds the one-month rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council for April.  The new US Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, has set for 6 April a special meeting to be devoted to U.N. peacekeeping forces reform. A working paper has been prepared for the meeting setting out the issues and a broad outline of the US position. In keeping with announced budget cuts to the U.N. much of the working paper concerns money and closely related, ending U.N. peacekeeping troops in countries where stability has been largely restored such as Liberia and Haiti.

However, there are countries with U.N. peacekeeping missions where violence continues and weak government structures are unlikely to be able to meet the minimum needs of the people such as South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The recent killing of two UN staff and their Congolese associates in the Congo indicates the continuing disorder and the on-going disintegration of what was already a weak central administration that left large areas of the country outside of government control.  As has been often said, the U.N. peacekeeping forces are of little use when there is no peace to keep. Soldiers are good at keeping people apart; they are less useful in bringing people together and in creating an effective and impartial administration. A useful example of the difficulties of creating an orderly government when none exists is the case of Mali and the 13,000 U.N. force code named MIVUSMA.

In March 2012, the West African state of Mali was effectively divided into two roughly equal half, each half about the size of France.  The northern half was under the control of two rival Touareg groups with additional non-Touareg fighters coming from other Sahel countries and northern Nigeria. The larger Touareg faction was the Mouvement national de liberation de l’Azawand (MNLA). It was larger than its rivals but less well armed.  Its main aim was to create an independent State, to be called Azawad, and the leaders of the MNLA had already declared the formal independence of the Touareg cultural zone of northern Mali as the State of Azawad.

One Touareg rival was the Ansar Dine “defenders of the faith” led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.  Ansar Dine was an Islamist group which said  that it wanted to apply Islamic law to all of Mali. In addition to Ansar Dine, there were at least two other Islamist groups, largely made of non-Malians: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (known by its initials in French AQMI) and Mujao (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). The complicated tribal politics of northern Mali and of neighbouring Sahel areas of southern Algeria, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania  made unity of action difficult.

There had been a flood of weapons coming from Libya.  A portion of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libyan army and militias was made of Touaregs who returned to northern Mali with weapons on Qaddafi’s fall from power. Many of the Touaregs had been recruited by Qaddafi at a time when he hoped to annex northern Chad. When his  interests turned to other things, the Touareg were left to care for themselves as best they could.

Qaddafi had imported a large number of weapons to Libya.  As troubles started in the coastal areas, many of the weapons were moved south in the hope of keeping them out of the hands of the opposition. Many of the weapons and trucks were taken by the Touareg when Qaddafi fell from power. Thus heavily armed and with modern transportation, the Touareg and allies were able to take quickly the cities of the northern half of Mali, such as Timbuktu and Gao.

The crisis in the north led to a military coup in the capital, Bamako, on 22 March, 2012. The military coup was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Sango had been trained by US soldiers but probably not to stage a coup. The military group of young officers took control of government buildings in Bamako claiming that the government of President Amadou Touré was incompetent in the struggle against the Touareg. The military did not try to control the administration which just melted away waiting to see what would happen.

In response to strong negative reactions by the international community and especially West African States, on 7 April, there was a return to a civilian transitional government. However, the government was weak, divided and poorly administered. The army still had influence, and there was repression against journalists and others critical of the army.

The country has been poorly administered since independence in 1960, and economic development has been guided by political considerations. During the French colonial period, from the 1890s to 1960, the French administration was based in Dakar, Senegal, a port on the Atlantic with secondary schools, a university and an educated middle class.  Mali was considered an “outpost” (called French Sudan at the time) and governed by the French military more interested in keeping order than in development.

At independence in 1960, there was an effort to create a Federation of Mali grouping Senegal and Mali.  The effort lasted two months before it broke apart, largely as a result of political rivalries.  Mali quickly became a “one party” government led by Modibo Keita. Since Senegal and its president Leopold Sedar Senghor had close relations with France, Modibo Keita turned toward the Soviet Union and developed an “African socialism”.  While he copied Soviet 5-year Plans on paper, there was little development in reality beyond the traditional food crops consumed locally and some cotton plantations that had been started by the French.  Modibo Keita’s government had few administrators or political figures from the north where resentment grew.

Modibo Keita’s civilian but increasingly authoritarian government was overthrown in 1968 in a military coup led by Moussa Traoré who held power for 23 years until a 1991-1992 transition to civilian rule.  The military were not interested in the economic development of the country, only in getting a percentage of any economic activity, such as housing or road construction largely in the capital Bamako.  All the peasants were exploited and social services neglected. The north of the country was most marginalized.

The military had brought the country to an economic standstill made all the worse by a persistent drought cycle with peak crises in 1973-1974 and 1984-1985.  There was such popular discontent with military rule that in 1991-1992 there was a transition to a civilian government and the election of President Alpha Oumar Konaré. Konaré had been a student at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva where I used to teach. This relit my interest in Mali that I had in the early 1970s when our institute was heavily involved with the UN system and the Swiss government aid programme in working on the impact of the prolonged drought in Mali and its neighbours in the Sahel.

The recent political division of Mali between north and south corresponds to a geographic and demographic reality, even if the division is not complete, there having been migrations, intermarriages etc.  Basically of the 9 or 10 million inhabitants of Mali, about 90 per cent live in the south. Some 50 per cent speak a Mandé language and consider themselves as Bambara, Malinké and Soninké — though ethnicity is always a tricky concept. About 17 to 20 percent of the population are Fulani (Peul in the singular, Fulani in the plural.)  The Fulani are traditionally a nomadic cattle-herding people.

In the northern half of the country, there is 10 per cent of the population. The majority of these are Songhoy who are settled agro-pastoralists, growing rice, wheat and sorghum. Also in the north but a minority in contrast to the Songhoy are the Touareg, some 850,000, originally a nomadic cattle-herding people also found in southern Algeria and Niger.  They refer to themselves as “Kel Tamacheq” — those who speak the Tamacheq language. Touareg was first a derogatory term; however the term Touareg was so widely used that they have taken to using it for themselves.

The Touareg are organized in clans with a strong clanic head. Clans are then grouped into loosely organized tribes or confederations of clans. Originally, the Touareg were the motors of a trans-Sahara slave trade and a good number of the current Touareg are the children of slaves who were too weak to cross the Sahara. There is still a good deal of resentment toward the Touareg for their role in the slave trade which existed into the 1890s when the French military more or less put a stop to the slave trade.

The Touareg do not care to be governed by others, and whenever the ruling government is weak, the Touareg revolt and assert their independence.  Thus there were revolts in 1915-1916 when most of the French military were pulled back to fight in Europe and again in 1941-1942 when the French military largely stayed in Dakar to see how the war would turn out.  In the Independence period, in the early 1970s when the government of Modibo Keita had fallen but the Army was not able to administer the whole country, there were Touareg  revolts, and again in the early 1990s when the military regime was being replaced by the civilian government. In 2012, the regime was again coming to an end, elections were planned for late in 2012.  The administration, never very dynamic, had largely stopped taking any initiatives waiting to see what would come next. The administrative void plus the availability of sophisticated arms and trucks from Libya set the stage for a successful Touareg  revolt.

Moreover, what existed as civilian administration and the Malian military in the north had been badly undermined by the drug trade coming from Latin America. Since cargo and persons coming from Latin America directly to Europe are suspected of being involved in the drug trade, an African stopover has become standard. Planes land in little used airports in Mali or other Sahel areas. The drug cargo is taken by road to ports and then by ship to Europe. Along the way, Malian civil administrators and military are paid to look the other way as the drugs go by.  Since salaries are low and often paid late, not much additional pressure is needed.  Along with drugs, there is an active trade in small arms and in transporting people hoping to go to Europe to find work. “Looking the other way” becomes a habit, and when the Touareg revolt began, both the civil administration and the Army melted away.

While the division of Mali into two half worried many African governments who envisage possible divisions of their own country, there were no real negotiations with the Touareg and their Islamist allies.  There were numerous meetings among the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), of the African Union, of the European Union, and in the UN Security Council but always without representatives of the Touareg. Shortly after the declaration of independence of north Mali as the State of Azawad, I had proposed in April 2012 that rather than two independent states, there should be a federation of north and south Mali.  The proposal was widely circulated to contacts I had in the Malian administration and to the African Union. The proposal suggested the drafting of a new federal constitution and offered the help of the Association of World Citizens as a possible aid in the writing a constitution for a federal system.

However, there was no real government in north Mali, only armed bands that held parts of the three major cities.  The bands had different aims and uncertain leadership. There were no direct negotiations between the representatives of the north and south. The President of Burkina Faso was named as the Ecowas mediator, but in light of the difficulties he did the minimum.

The Touareg, unable to show any improvements in the lives of the people increasingly lost ground and influence to the non-Touareg Islamist groups. The vision of an independent and stable Azawand gave way to a vision of an Islamist Mali spearheaded by Ansar Dine.

Some 300,000 from the north became displaced persons and refugees to neighbouring countries.  The Islamist groups tried to impose their understanding of Islamic law, the Shariah, in all its most narrow and repressive forms. This policy led to the destruction of monuments in Gao and Timbuktu, such as above-ground mausoleums of Sufi religious leaders considered as saints in north Mali.  The mausoleums were thought to provide protection and health to those who prayed there while the Islamists said only God provides protection. Music, smoking, alcohol all were banned.

On 12 October,2012 the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution sponsored by France declaring its readiness to respond to Malian government requests for an international force. The Security Council asked for a detailed plan of action to be submitted in 45 days but did not give its approval for a use of force.  Discussions continued between French authorities and African governments concerning the creation, training and methods of operation of such a multi-State force.  Serious estimates based on past experiences of African forces proposed an eight-month period before such a force could be operational.

It is impossible to know what evaluation the northern Islamist leaders made of these preparations.  They may have wanted to strike before such a force could be created.  They may have over-estimated their own forces based on oversized ambitions and the disorganization of the government of Mali.  Whatever the reasoning, the Islamist forces, estimated at some 3000 men, decided to strike south on 10 January 2013  drive on the capital, Bamako.  The Malian government cried for help.  The French government which has troops and war planes in neighbouring States — all former French colonies —responded on 11 January with planes destroying armed trucks, thus stopping the advance of the Islamists.  French ground troops were then flown to Bamako as a fighting  force.

The well-trained and equipped French troops moved quickly to take the three cities of the north and much of the countryside. The Islamist groups had no desire to fight the more numerous French troops, to which had been added some Malian forces and small groups of soldiers from other West African states. The Islamist forces largely melted into the civilian population. Some of the Islamists who were more armed moved north into mountainous areas to live in caves and secluded areas. They are unable to act except in individual or small group suicide missions and an occasional ambush.

However, in order to avoid what could be taken to be a “neo-colonial” effort, the French troops were largely replaced by U.N. and African Union troops.  Most of the French  troops have remained in other West African Sahel States to counter armed Islamist groups who continue to benefit from the drug trade.

On 18 January 2017, there was a suicide attack with a truck filled with explosives in Gao, northern Mali against a special unit of the Malian army and former rebels who patrol together as a show of reconciliation.  77 soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded. It was the deadliest attack since U.N. peacekeepers have been sent to Mali in 2013.

The attack highlights the continuing instability and the limits of U.N. peacekeeping.  The challenge is still the one that has faced the country since independence:  how to create a competent and devoted administration able to plan and carry out development policies in which northern populations have a real place.  I still believe that a federal, highly decentralized administration would be an appropriate framework, but decentralization is always considered by some in the central administration  as a first step to the disintegration of the State.

Development plans for ecologically-sound development exist, rich from the experiences of the drought cycles. However, they have never been put into practice. There is a need for realistic development planning to be followed by steady action.

There is probably still some role for U.N. peacekeeping forces, but the number and mandate should not be set only by financial considerations.  The real need is for “bridge builders” who can help create links among ethnic-tribal communities and to help meet in a visible way the basic needs of the population.

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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