UN envoy: More insecurity in Mali will have `drastic’ impact

UNITED NATIONS — The new U.N. special envoy for crisis-wracked Mali warned Monday that further insecurity, especially in the country’s center and north, will have “drastic consequences” for the immediate region and beyond, and urged the military-led transitional government to prepare for elections next February.

El-Ghassim Wane told the U.N. Security Council that the West African nation “is at a critical juncture,” calling the situation “challenging, desperate and frustrating.” He said, “there are now more displaced Malians than at the peak of the crisis in June 2013,” many living in very difficult conditions amid disturbing reports of human rights violations.

“The encroachment of violent extremism on many Malian communities presents a serious setback,” he said, including that “many extremist groups violate the rights of women and seek to remove women from the public sphere altogether.”

Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the president of a decade. The power vacuum that was created ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013. A peace agreement was signed in 2015 by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups who seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia.

However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies fighting the insurgency. The extremists, affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State militant group, have moved from the arid north to more populous central Mali since 2015 where their presence has stoked animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the area.

In the latest turmoil, Col. Assimi Goita grabbed power in August 2020 by overthrowing Mali’s democratically elected president. He eventually agreed to a transitional government led by a civilian president and prime minister but on May 24 he ousted those civilian leaders after they announced a Cabinet reshuffle that sidelined two junta supporters without consulting him. Last Friday, Goita was sworn in as president.

Both the African Union and the West African regional group ECOWAS suspended Mali’s membership and reaffirmed that the original transitional timeframe for elections — Feb. 27, 2022 — must be respected. ECOWAS reiterated that the transition president, vice-president and prime minister should not be candidates in the upcoming presidential election.

Wane, the U.N. envoy and head of the more than 18,000-strong strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, said president Goita and prime-minister Choguel Maiga have reassured international partners that they will respect the transitional calendar for elections and that neither would run for office.

He said they also reiterated their commitment to work with the armed movements who signed the 2015 peace agreement and are represented in the new government, “with a view to accelerating the implementation of the agreement.”

“These commitments now need to translate into urgent and concrete actions,” which requires support from all Malian parties, Wane said. “The time has come for Malian leaders to rise above partisan politics and personal interests and work together in earnest to address the crisis in the interest of their country and its future.”

He said this is especially needed now “as the security situation in northern and central Mali remains of utmost concern.” He also called for “immediate action … to initiate critical reforms and lay the groundwork for a credible electoral process.”

Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere of France, Mali’s former colonial power, stressed that “the absolute priority” must be organizing presidential elections on Feb. 27, 2022 where leaders of the transition are barred from participating.

On June 3, France announced it was suspending joint military operations with Malian forces until the junta complies with international demands to restore civilian rule. Last Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France’s military presence fighting Islamic extremism in Africa’s broader Sahel region, including Mali and neighboring countries, would be reduced but gave no timeframe.

France’s Operation Barkhane now has more than 5,000 troops in the Sahel. Macron said Barkhane will formally end and will be replaced by another mission focused on fighting Islamic extremists that relies more on regional partners. He said details will be unveiled at the end of June, including on the number of troops France is keeping in the region.

De Riviere said that in the center of Mali, the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA has only 2,000 peacekeepers and three helicopters available every other week.

“We would therefore like to seriously consider the question of increasing the resources and the troop ceiling,” he said.

But no other member of the 15-nation Security Council expressed support for increasing the troop ceiling, and China and Vietnam said they want to keep the current ceiling.