Yesterday evening (22 October), Security Council members departed for a visiting mission to Mali and Niger. France and Niger are co-leading the mission, which will take place from today (23 October) to Monday (25 October). This will be the Council's first visiting mission since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The visiting mission has several main objectives. In Mali, Council members aim to assess the progress on Mali's political transition, including preparations for next year's legislative and presidential elections; examine the implementation of Mali's 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement; and evaluate the security crisis in central Mali. A key focus of the Niger leg of the trip will be the Group of Five for the Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S), especially in light of the Secretary-General's 5 October letter to the Council on options to increase support for the FC-G5S.
During the visit to Mali, Council members are likely to remain in Bamako, where they are expected to meet with representatives of the transitional government, the signatory parties to the 2015 peace agreement, the international mediation team to the accord, and of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). They will also meet with civil society organisations---including women and youth organisations---and with representatives of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and other UN entities in Mali.
A major focus of the Mali visit will be the political transition, which was established for an 18-month period after the August 2020 coup d'état that ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The first round of legislative and presidential elections for restoring constitutional order is scheduled for 27 February 2022. But since a second coup d'état on 24 May that ousted the transition's top civilian leaders and made Colonel Assimi Goïta transitional president, Mali appears increasingly unlikely to hold these elections on time. The Secretary-General's latest report on Mali, dated 1 October, expresses "great concern" regarding delays in "preparations for the holding of general elections and the completion of the political transition".
ECOWAS, which negotiated the transition with military authorities in September 2020 and early October 2020, reiterated its demands at a special summit last month that the elections be held "within the non-negotiable deadline of February 2022", and decided that it would impose sanctions on those negatively impacting the transition's completion. Council members have supported ECOWAS' efforts since last year to restore constitutional order, and they are likely to reiterate their expectation during the visiting mission that the elections take place as planned. At the same time, the mission is an opportunity for Council members to consult with interlocutors, including ECOWAS, to gain a better understanding of the feasibility of these elections being organised by February and how the Council can support and reinforce the transition so it can be completed.
The Council also intends to assess the implementation of the 2015 Mali Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and learn more about the steps envisaged by the parties to implement the accord. The security situation, particularly the crisis in central Mali, is another important focus. As noted in the Secretary-General's report, extremist groups are increasing their territorial control--- including through instituting blockades of villages in the central region--- and insecurity continues to spread into southern areas. Council members are likely to seek more information on measures by the authorities to implement a comprehensive politically-led strategy to protect civilians, reduce intercommunal violence, and re-establish state presence, authority and basic services in central Mali.
The terms of reference for the visiting mission note that the Council will discuss the Secretary-General's 16 July report on the progress of MINUSMA's Force Adaptation Plan and recommendations on the mission's force levels and troop and police ceiling---a report that the Council requested, because of the growing insecurity in central Mali, through resolution 2584 of 29 June which renewed MINUSMA's mandate. The Secretary-General's 15 July report proposes increasing MINUSMA's authorised force ceiling by 2,069 uniformed personnel.
The Council began negotiations last month on a draft resolution to raise the force ceiling based on the recommendation. However, these discussions were put on hold as Mali raised objections---apparently over not being consulted on the proposal--- and contended that the additional troops would not make a difference unless they were also given a more robust mandate. For his part, the Secretary-General indicated in his July report that the troop increase will not make a sustained difference unless the Malian authorities develop a political strategy for reinforcing the presence of the state and protecting civilians. The meeting of Council members with the transitional authorities in Mali may be an opportunity to further discuss the issue.
The terms of reference note that the Council intends to assess "human rights challenges and the mechanisms in place to monitor and address these". Council members also aim to examine the broader UN response to address drivers of conflict and wider governance challenges.
This will be the fifth Council visiting mission to Mali since MINUSMA was established in 2013. The Council previously visited the country in February 2014, March 2016, October 2017 (when it also went to Burkina Faso and Mauritania) and March 2019 (when it also went to Burkina Faso). This mission comes amid recent public tensions between Malian authorities and France, since Paris' announcement in June, shortly after the 24 May coup, that it would draw down its 5,100-member regional counter-terrorism force, Operation Barkhane, to about 2,500-3,000 troops. Subsequently, there have been reports that Mali is considering a deal to allow the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, to deploy to the country.
From Mali, Council members will travel to Niamey to hold meetings with Niger's government and the UN Country Team. They are also expected to meet with Major General Oumar Bikimo, the force commander of the FC-G5S, and Eric Tiare, the Executive Secretary of the Group of Five for the Sahel, which comprises Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
During the visit, Council members are expected to exchange views with the Nigerien authorities on the security, humanitarian and development situation in the Sahel. They will discuss efforts to protect refugees and internally displaced persons, and the effects of climate change on the region.
A prominent subject is likely to be support for the FC-G5S, which G5 Sahel countries established in 2017 to fight terrorist and transnational criminal groups in the region. In a letter dated 4 October, the Secretary-General proposes two options to increase support to the FC-G5S. One option is a dedicated UN office to provide logistical support to joint force operations. The Secretary-General said in his letter that he prefers this option--- which he has recommended since 2017---because he considers it as the most effective approach to providing predictable support, including funding, for the FC-G5S.
According to the Secretary-General's letter, this option would entail expanding support currently provided by MINUSMA (life consumables and medical evacuation within Mali's borders) to cover engineering, maintenance, communications and information technology services; cargo transportation; medical supplies; and medical and casualty evacuation in all areas of FC-G5S operations. The office could be funded through UN assessed contributions or donor funding. It could either be designed with a heavier reliance on UN-provided service delivery that entails a greater UN staff footprint, or it could maximize the use of outsourcing, with a lighter UN footprint.
The second option is to establish an "Advisory Office to the G5 Sahel Executive Secretariat". This office would provide technical and expert assistance to enhance the FC-G5S's self-sufficiency by providing advice in the areas of political affairs, human rights, operational planning, and administrative planning, including on modalities for adequate pooling and sharing of resources.
Council members remain divided over the question of how to support the FC-G5S. France and Niger are strong advocates for establishing a UN office that provides logistical support. The UK and US, on the other hand, have strongly opposed the idea. They object to using UN assessed contributions for non-UN missions and are not convinced that such a support office can be more effective than bilateral military support. They have also raised concerns, that some other members appear to share, about establishing a UN operation to support a counter-terrorism operation which could compromise UN peacekeeping principles and put the UN in the position of providing support to the FC-G5S despite its reported human rights violations.
In discussing the FC-G5S, Council members intend to assess the implementation of the UN human rights due diligence policy that establishes standards for receiving UN support. According to the terms of reference, the Council will also reiterate its view that the stabilisation of the Sahel requires an integrated response led by the region's governments, with support from the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), regional organisations and the wider international community.
The Council last visited Niger as part of its March 2017 visiting mission to the Lake Chad basin that also went to Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria.
Upon returning to New York, the Council is scheduled to have a briefing on Mali on 29 October, when the visiting mission's co-leads are expected to present their report on the mission.