Mali’s choice of Wagner Group over the United Nations unsettles regional and world leaders

On Friday, the UN Security Council voted on the fate of the peacekeeping mission in Mali, terminating the operation. Mali’s expulsion of the UN peacekeeping mission has raised concerns among regional and international powers regarding the security implications in the region.

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Timbuktu, Mali.

On June 16, the military junta of Mali announced their decision to expel the United Nations’ peacekeeping troops, holding the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) responsible for its failure to address the country’s security challenges.

This mission has been the deadliest among all UN peacekeeping operations worldwide, with a loss of 187 peacekeepers over its 10-year existence. However, it was the military regime of the country, and not the UN, that demanded the departure of the 12,000 international troops, despite the ongoing and worsening security crisis that shows no signs of abating.

Mali has been grappling with an insurgency in its northern and central regions since 2012, and the military justified the removal of the civilian government in 2021 by citing its inability to control the crisis.

Disagreements between Bamako and Western powers over the handling of the conflict have strained their relations over the years. Additionally, Mali’s association with Russia has further complicated its ties with the West. The US and France have accused Russia of exacerbating insecurity in the region through the Wagner Group, a private army with alleged involvement in Mali since last year.

Minusma was initially deployed in 2013 to aid in stabilizing the country following a rebellion led by the Tuareg in the northern region. While the government forces, with assistance from France, initially ousted the rebels from power, they regrouped and established bases in the desert, leading to the emergence of the insurgency. Various armed groups believed to be linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have since become involved.

The mandate of the UN mission was set to expire at the end of June, one that Secretary General Guterres hoped to renew, only to be countered by Mali’s foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, who expressed concerns that Minusma had become part of the problem by fuelling community tensions and undermining peace, reconciliation, and national unity in Mali. The anti-UN sentiment had also grown among the population, as demonstrated by a mass protest in May, demanding the withdrawal of troops due to their inability to protect civilians.

The complete deterioration of relations occurred in May when a UN investigation report on the civilian killings in the village of Moura in central Mali in March 2022 was published despite the junta’s refusal to grant access to Minusma to visit the site. The UN mission successfully reached nearby communities, interviewed survivors, and obtained evidence identifying 238 victims and reported unequivocal findings: the army and allied “foreign” fighters, explicitly referring to Wagner, were responsible for the deaths of over 500 individuals. The report led to fury from Mali’s military junta accusing the UN of spying.

Mali’s announcement to expel Minusma, ahead of the confirmation by the United Nations Security Council vote, coincided with reports of a phone call between junta leader Col Goitta and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which unsettled Western governments.

After the departure of UN peacekeepers, Mali’s reliance on the Russian mercenary group Wagner, estimated to have 1,000 fighters present in the nation, is expected to significantly increase amid growing security issues.

The recent fallout between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, has sparked inquiries into the precise terms governing the deployment of these forces.

According to Acled, a monitoring group, there have been 682 incidents resulting in the loss of 1,576 lives thus far this year.

ECOWAS, the West African organisation of 15 member countries, expressed frustration with the de facto ruler of Mali and the military junta, Col Goïta, for his delays in establishing a timeline for the restoration of democracy. They further denounced the presence of the mercenaries as a peril to the security of the entire region.

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