Wake-Up Call Needed Despite Progress in Mali: Interview with Bert Koenders
“There’s a lot of good news” from Mali, according to Bert Koenders, special representative of the secretary-general and head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. “After the occupation of the country and after the coup d' état and all the tension, the Malians have taken the initiative in their own hands,” he said in an interview with the Global Observatory.
The high turnout in recent, successful presidential elections and the agreement signed by the government and opposition groups have created the basis for inclusive talks in the country, according to Koenders, whose peacekeeping mission launched in July. “So I would say the first three months of this new peacekeeping operation was in a positive setting, thanks to the cooperation of the international community, but especially thanks to the Malians.”
Today, “the country is much safer than before,” said Koenders. “I think it's clear that after the intervention of the French and African forces, the capacities of some of the jihadist extremist forces have substantially reduced,” he added, referring to al-Qaida-linked groups that had occupied northern parts of the country before French and African interventions in early 2013.
Nonetheless, these groups “are also timing their own efforts and their own activities, and therefore we should remain extremely vigilant,” he said. A suicide attack in Timbuktu, shelling and explosives under a bridge in Gao—these are some of the incidents seen in Mali in recent weeks, and “that means a wake-up call is necessary,” he said.
“It's important that we have an acceleration of our troop generation process,” said Koenders. “On the development side, I think a lot has been promised with a large solidarity of the international community with Mali. But at the same time [there are] immediate needs for humanitarian support.”
Upcoming parliamentary elections in November and December also present complex security and logistical demands. “It is very necessary now to invest in the coming weeks in confidence building, in negotiations, in conflict prevention, and in ensuring that these elections can be held in a peaceful atmosphere,” Koenders said.
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute.
Warren Hoge: My guest today in the Global Observatory is Bert Koenders, special representative of the secretary-general and head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. He is a seasoned international policymaker on development, humanitarian, governance, and conflict management issues, and he has also been the Dutch minister for development cooperation and a member of the Dutch House of Representatives.
Mali, a country that borders on seven others, located in the Sahel, has been going through a convulsive transition that has attracted the world's attention. The country has, in less than two years, experienced a coup d'état; an occupation of a substantial part of the country, first by separatist Tuareg rebels and then by al-Qaida-linked armed groups and jihadists; and a French military intervention. In recent months, though, there had been more positive developments—among them, the creation of MINUSMA—though the threat from terrorists and jihadists remains.
So Bert, take me first through the encouraging developments, and then we'll discuss the substantial challenges that remain. What's the good news?
Bert Koenders: There's a lot of good news. The first good news is that after the occupation of the country and after the coup d' état and all the tension, the Malians have taken the initiative in their own hands. They have largely participated in the presidential elections and have shown that they want to put their mark on the future of Mali. These were elections without major violent incidents, and they were generally perceived by all observer missions as a very positive development for the country.
The second is that the agreement of Ouagadougou was signed by the government and two of the armed opposition groups in the north, which created the basis not only for organizing these elections in the country but also to have intensive, inclusive talks sixty days after the inauguration of the new president. So I would say the first three months of this new peacekeeping operation was in a positive setting, thanks to the cooperation of the international community, but especially thanks to the Malians.
WH: How secure is Mali now from the threat of the return of jihadists? There have been terrorist incidents. Are you worried that they could succeed in stalling the progress that's being made now?
BK: I think it's clear that after the intervention of the French and African forces, the capacities of some of the jihadist extremist forces have been substantially reduced. The country is much safer than before. Security incidents are less, but—and that's the but-side of this answer, and I mentioned that also yesterday to the Security Council—we have seen in the last couple of weeks a shelling of the town of Gao; we have seen a suicide attack in Timbuktu; we have seen explosives under a bridge in a neighborhood of Gao. That means a wake-up call is necessary. These groups are also timing their own efforts and their own activities, and therefore we should remain extremely vigilant. That's also the reason why we have a robust mandate for the peacekeeping force.
WH: Tell me about that mandate, because it does have a situation that I think is unique to peacekeeping forces right now, which is that it acts parallel with the other two forces in Mali—namely, the Malian army and the French. Is that working?
BK: At the moment I think the cooperation, or better said the coordination, between the military forces in the country is going well. We all have our own mandates, but they are not controversial (in the sense they are not seen as positive by the overall majority of the population). Of course, some of the extremist forces might not necessarily like that, but it is for the United Nations a mandate of human security, of protection of civilians. The MNLA, the Haut Conseil, and the groups in the north, the government, the citizens—they want us to be there in order to assist in the protection of civilians. At the same time we're doing negotiations and that's always very interesting. Sometimes one side says that you are partisan for the other and vice versa. But that's the role of facilitator of the UN.
WH: Bert, Mali is a proud and independent country, it was once known as a darling for donors, but in the last couple of years it has suffered intervention from the outside. And yet we're told that the Malians welcomed the French intervention. If that is the case, have they welcomed the United Nations?
BK: Yes they do. In general, people like the fact that there is support for Mali, and not only in the security field but also in the development field, in the protection of human rights, and so on and so forth. That doesn't take away that we have to take this mandate with a lot of humility. The Malians do not like it when the UN forces are everywhere present with cars and big offices and things like that. We have to show modesty; we have to show leadership; we have to be supportive; and we have to realize that there are only Malian solutions to Malian problems.
WH: On Wednesday, you told the Security Council that you needed enablers and you mentioned helicopters as being one of those enablers you needed. Also, I note that the international support for humanitarian emergency aid, I'm told that it's only at about 37 percent of funding right now. What do you need that you are not getting in both of these areas?
BK: Thank you very much for this question. It's always nice to answer something like that. What we need—because we are always tested, there are issues on the ground, we have to show that we are protecting the civilians—it's important that we have an acceleration of our troop generation process. It’s not easy because it's a very difficult terrain, and there are high temperatures—the logistical things are extremely complex. But it's true that we need more enablers, and you mentioned some of those military helicopters, utility helicopters, but also rotary wings, engineers.
To give you an example, if you work in the north, it’s very difficult for the military personnel and civilian personnel, so you need engineers to help with landing possibilities for planes so that people can stay in secure areas, and so on and so forth. So that's why I pleaded for an acceleration of the troop-contributing process.
On the development side, I think a lot has been promised with a large solidarity of the international community with Mali. But at the same time [there are] immediate needs for humanitarian support, for the high levels of malnutrition that we see in some parts of the country, with one in five children being at risk of losing their lives because of malnutrition. We need money for what we call early recovery, and it can be done by reformulating some of the long-term programs to ensure that early recovery programs can be used for it. But also, [we] really [need] to have some increase in humanitarian aid.
There are three markers, I think, for Mali that at least [help] us understand why some of these developments have taken place and the country is not so resilient to resist issues of extremism and drug trafficking, and so on. It's geography, it’s demography, and it's ecology.
On geography it's a very complex country, very large with an underpopulated north and a very densely populated south, living in two different worlds in a difficult regional setting. When you talk about ecology, I think, it's important. It's one of the harshest climates in the world, where we see a process of desertification, which already led in the '80s and '90s—even before that—to the departure of many Tuaregs in order to find a living elsewhere. So if we don't look at these fundamental issues of desertification, then I think we're missing the boat. And the last one is demography: Poverty and growth of population often goes together. [If] you go to Mali [or] Niger, the average amount of children for one woman is almost seven.
So you can imagine that this combined consequence of a difficult geological, geographical situation, high growth rates of the population, and desertification at least complicate the problems of Mali to be resilient against some of these forces—that then might become bigger than they are themselves.
WH: I'm told that there are about a 170,000 refugees in places like Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and that there are about 100,000 IDPs. Are refugees being repatriated, and are IDPs returning as I imagine is the case from the south to the north?
BK: The figures on the IDPs are much more promising than the refugees. There are large amounts of IDPs that are coming back to the north—I think over 100,000 at the moment. And in September alone we saw a large return of refugees from Mauritania—I think it was 1,300. Nevertheless, a lot still has to be done there, and I think one of the crucial ingredients is security in the areas where people return to, as well as justice and social services in those areas. Justice to ensure that people do not take the law into their own hands, and people can safely return. And early recovery is again important to have some social services so that people can return to a place where they can restart their activities.
WH: The elections that were held this summer that resulted in a new president being inaugurated on September 19th are now to be followed by legislative elections. Are you confident that they will take place with the same success and participation levels that you had with the presidential elections?
BK: I would hope so. I think these are elections of proximity—people can elect their own legislators. It will be therefore also more complex security-wise and logistical-wise because, there is not one constituency, there are many more—including in parts of the country where so far no agreement has yet been reached on inclusive peace talks. It is very necessary now to invest in the coming weeks in confidence building, in negotiations, in conflict prevention, and in ensuring that these elections can be held in a peaceful atmosphere.
WH: Well, Bert Koenders, you take on the tough assignments; you were here last year in January as the SRSG for the Côte d'Ivoire, and now from Mali. I'm glad that in all these cases, you come to IPI and tell us what you're doing, why you're doing it, and I invite you to come back. You don’t have to come up with another job or another country. We'd be interested in following what goes on in Mali and I wish you good luck with that.
BK: Well, thank you very much, and thank you for the invitation. It's extremely rewarding for me to be invited to talk to so many people, including yourself.
Originally published in the Global Observatory