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At the end of 2020, UK armed forces will join the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali; a reflection of the UK’s growing interest in an increasingly unstable part of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mali faces considerable political, security and governance challenges, compounded by a military coup in August 2020.

Why is the UK interested in Mali?

In 2018 the Government laid out new strategic approach for Sub-Saharan Africa with a specific focus on the Sahel. The UK is increasing diplomatic representation across the region and attending Sahel-related conferences at Ministerial level. The government says by working to stabilise states and tackle the root causes of conflict it is helping to prevent conflict spilling over to neighbouring states. And it is not just neighbouring states the UK is worried about. The UK defence secretary has commented: “What happens over there has a reach over here”.

Joining the UN peacekeeping mission

In DEcepmber 2020, 250 British soldiers will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. The UK will be filling a capability gap in the UN force by providing soldiers specialising in long-range reconnaissance.

However, commentators question the impact the UK can have, given the numbers of personnel involved. There are also security concerns; given the high number of attacks on French forces and UN peacekeepers in Mali, it is unlikely to be as benign as the UK’s most recent major UN peacekeeping mission in Africa, in South Sudan.

What are regional countries doing?

The wider ramifications of insecurity in Mali drive much of the regional and international interest in Mali. Regionally, the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State across the Sahel has caused widespread concern. The Sahel countries have come together as a Group of Five to coordinate development and security policies, and have formed a joint force to improve security along their shared borders (in particular the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger). ECOWAS, the grouping of West African countries, is leading international mediation efforts following the coup.

France, Mali’s former colonial power, has had a counterterrorism military force in Mali since 2013, which now numbers 5,000 strong, and continues to lead European diplomatic efforts. However, Malians openly question France’s motives and have frequently expressed their opposition to the French and wider international military presence.

What prompted the coup in summer 2020?

In June a coalition of opposition forces rallied Malians, frustrated with President Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta’s leadership, to call for his resignation. Mediation efforts by ECOWAS and its envoy, the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, failed to win over the coalition of opposition groups, now called M5-RFP after the first major demonstrations on 5 June. On 18 August, the President resigned after being detained in the capital by soldiers.

What’s next for Mali?

There is a clear divide between the condemnation of the coup by the international community, including the UK, and Malians, who have supported the President’s forced removal from office.

Mali’s political future remain uncertain. The weeks immediately following the coup were taken up with talks over a transitional government. On 21 September the military junta named its own leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, as vice-president of a transition led by a former defence minister Bah Ndaw. Goodluck Jonathan said he is optimistic their inauguration on 25 September “will signal the beginning of the return to normalcy in Mali“. The transition is expected to lead to fresh elections.

The military leadership promised to respect international agreements on fighting jihadists, meaning the continued presence of international forces. 

Context: why is Mali so unstable?

The current crisis in Mali has its roots in the events of 2012, when northern separatists and Islamist armed groups forced government forces out of northern Mali, and the military overthrew the government. Fresh elections in 2013 and a peace accord in 2015 between the government and two northern armed movements brought hope of stability. However, progress in implementing the peace agreement has been patchy, disputes over the results of legislative elections held in April 2020, and growing frustration with the Presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Kéïta since his re-election in 2018 resulted in opposition rallies and his removal from power.

The security situation remains precarious with a myriad of armed groups, including Islamists, northern separatists and newly formed community self-defence groups, among others. Long-standing regional tensions between herder and farmer communities have become deadly, with retaliatory attacks resulting in massacres of civilians and the destruction of villages and vital grain supplies.

The UN estimates about 12.9 million are affected by the crisis in Mali, with 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

About this paper

This paper was first published on 29 April 2020. This update looks first at the UK’s new approach to the Sahel with a particular focus on the military deployment, then the role of regional and international actors, before surveying recent developments, including the coup, in Mali.

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