Does Mali need UN Peacekeepers?

One week ago,  enthusiastic pictures of relieved Malians were all over the headlines. Today with the difficult battle in Gao, the French army may be supported by troops from the UN. In West African Media, the main debate is about how useful this help will be.

Between the AFISMA  and the UN troops, almost 8 000 soldiers could be sent to Mali in order to stabilize the current situation.  Last week, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister asked a peacekeeping force from the UN Security Council. But the Malian government is still undecided about this option. Among the resurgence of violence in cities such as Gao and Kidal, the international community fears an escalation of hostilities in Mali. Last Friday, the first suicide bombings since the French intervention took place in Gao. The concern about a long war is the first priority for the UN Security Council. The increasing number of refugees and the need for humanitarian aid both favor an international intervention, according to Algerian newspaper El Watan.

UN peacekeepers in Somalia. Photo Credit: Flickr, expertinfantry

UN peacekeepers in Somalia. Photo Credit: Flickr, expertinfantry

The UN presence is a tough issue for the local authorities and the Malian army, which is still fighting to win back the north of the country. On a TV debate, Filifing Sacko, a former UN representative, said that the current support from the AFISMA (African-led Iternational Support Mission to Mali) should be reinforced rather than bringing the UN troops. In the beginning of the negociations about intervention in Mali last December, UN and ECOWAS (the West African Economic Community) disagreed about the intervention from AFISMA. While the former was in favor of the peace talk process, the latter put pressure for a military operation. Now that French troops have launched their military action, AFISMA is also playing an important part in the Mali conflict. There is no timeline for military action and the debate is now about  “how best to maintain stability in the country,” reports the Washington Post. Other options such as African forces commanded by AU (African Union) and ECOWAS have also been discussed. Troops from Benin, Ivory Coast and Senegal representing the West African states have arrived in Bamako. According to the Malian Ministry of Defence, at least 5000 West African soldiers will arrive before the end of February.

As historian Mohamedoun Dicko said on the aforementioned TV debate, what worries the Malians is the UN’s arrival before the end of AFISMA’s mission. Examples of other experiences such as Rwanda are still vivid memories of failures for the UN peacekeepers. The mission of the UN and AFISMA are quite different.Whereas AFISMA is engaged in the fighting, UN peacekeepers would provide “a peace guarantee.” “If the fights are not finished, why do we send peacekeepers?” Professor Mohamedoun Dicko asked in the debate. The last concern is that UN peacekeepers are mainly deployed in the capital rather than in more challenging areas such as the borders.

African soldiers were late to arrive after the beginning of Operation Serval. They are now on the frontline of the conflict and for most, the fight is not over.  The other issue is their military capacity. Mauritania is still refusing to send any soldiers despite the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s support for French intervention. On the African Union side, outgoing president Thomas Boni Yayi required the UN to “get moving” on the Malian case.  In other words, he wants them to send UN peacekeepers. So all African forces are not on the same page on this question.

For now, everyone seems to be waiting for the green light from the government of Mali. According to the Malian experts who appeared on the above TV debate, it’s also a question of national integrity. According to French UN ambassador Gerard Araud, most of the peacekeeping contingents will come from African units within AFISMA. Nonetheless, it raises the question of how long and how much Mali will depend upon international aid. For the allAfrica website, we are facing a “Serval dilemma” which expresses the fear of an endless war.

Lilia Blaise

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