(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Negotiations with jihadists? A radical idea gains currency in Mali

    In Mali, which has been wracked by violence and is prone to frequent and deadly jihadist attacks, the once unthinkable is now being asked by observers: is it time to negotiate with the extremists? 


    "Every analysis of the Malian crisis shows that a purely military solution is not possible,” said Ambroise Dakouo of the Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa (ARGA), a think tank. “We cannot be dogmatic. We must be open to dialogue with these groups to find out if conciliation is possible. We must find out what they want and what we can concede.”


    Waves of foreign soldiers, along with Malian government forces, have failed to eradicate the extremist groups that took control of the northern desert in 2012. Large tracts of territory remain lawless despite a 2015 peace deal intended to end the longer-term conflict that has pitted nomadic Tuaregs in the north against the government, based in the south.


    The jihadists, who were not party to that accord, were ousted in 2013 from the northern towns they had captured. But their attacks continue to claim victims and are spreading to the centre of the country, affecting growing portions of the south. Just last week, militants disguised as UN peacekeepers attacked two bases in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu, in northern Mali, killing one peacekeeper and injuring dozens more.



    In a late March incident, suspected jihadists attacked a hotel in central Mali shortly after the prime minister visited. In early April, dozens of suspected jihadists clashed with French and Malian troops near the Niger border.


    Malian officials hope the new G5 Sahel sub-regional force, comprising troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania, can finally make headway against the Islamist militants.


    Read more: A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel


    But influential observers, including several key political and religious figures, have been stepping up their push for an entirely different strategy: negotiations with jihadist groups.


    Tiébilé Dramé is one of them. He is a former foreign minister who helped negotiate the so-called Ouagadougou Accord, which enabled people in areas controlled by armed groups to vote in Mali’s 2013 presidential elections.


    Ali Nouhoum Diallo, a former president of the national assembly, is another. And they are joined by Mahmoud Dicko, the president of the High Islamic Council of Mali and one of the country's most powerful clerics.


    The idea of talking to extremist groups, ruled out so far by the government, has become less and less taboo. A recent opinion poll showed that a slim majority of Malians (55.8 percent) favour such negotiations. The poll by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, conducted in November, tapped Malians in all the regional capitals as well as the District of Bamako.


    The proposal of dialogue is not completely new. It was discussed during the 2017 Conference of National Understanding in Bamako. At the end of the discussions, the participants – about 300 representatives of government, the opposition, armed groups and civil society – called for open meetings to find out what the jihadists really want.


    A year on, the idea appears to be gaining currency, but hard questions remain.


    Who to talk to?


    Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa are the two main extremist figures in Mali. After failing to become leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – the first armed group to begin hostilities against the Malian army in 2012 – Ag Ghaly turned to radicalism and founded Ansar Dine, an al-Qaeda-linked group that sought to establish strict Islamic law in Mali. It operates essentially in the north.


    Koufa, a Fulani preacher from the central Mopti Region, set up the jihadist Macina Liberation Front, which operates in the centre of the country, in 2015.


    Read more: Shifting relationships, growing threats: Who’s who of insurgent groups in the Sahel


    Last March, these two groups, along with the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), announced an alliance under the banner of Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM or GNIM).


    According to Dakouo, of the ARGA think tank, one of the aims of dialogue with the extremists would be to isolate the foreign fighters within their ranks. “We would then have a clear idea of the positions of the jihadist movements that are Malian,’ he said. “Then we would also know that the other groups are not Malian, and that would let us know the true nature of our adversaries.”


    This strategy could also help to end the victimisation of certain ethnic groups, such as the Fulani, often mistakenly assumed to be militant followers of Koufa.


    Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo
    A scene from the UN peacekeepers’ camp after an attack by suspected jihadists in August.

    Are jihadist groups really open to dialogue?


    In May 2017, emissaries of Koufa and Ag Ghaly reportedly approached Ali Nouhoum Diallo and Mahmoud Dicko, the former president of the national assembly and the influential cleric.


    Dicko, the cleric, is well placed to act as an intermediary for these extremist leaders if such approaches are to be renewed, said Professor Kissima Gakou, a criminologist at the University of Bamako who specialises in security issues. “They recognise in him certain values that give him the benefit of the doubt and enable him to interact with them,” he said.


    But Gakou believes the hardline ideology of the extremist groups means they are fundamentally opposed to dialogue. "The problem with jihadists is that they have maximalist (extreme) positions,” he said. “They know they have the power to fight to the last drop of blood... All they have is violence.”


    Read more: Why some Malians join armed groups


    Another obstacle to talks, according to Fahad Ag Mohamed, secretary-general of the pro-government Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group, or GATIA, is the structure of Mali’s extremist groups, which are allied with larger organisations in the wider Sahel region.


    "You cannot negotiate with one without the approval of the others," he said. "If we have to talk with Amadou Koufa, he must have the consent of Iyad (Ag Ghaly), who needs the assent of (AQIM leader Abdel Malek) Droukdel.”


    Ag Mohamed added that he didn’t think these larger groups would let their allies negotiate with the Malian government.


    What to discuss?


    Introducing sharia law across Mali is the jihadists’ long-standing goal.


    Discussions cannot include "sharia, the Islamisation of the country," said Adama Ben Diarra, a spokesman for the Waati Sera movement, which regularly organises demonstrations in support of the national army.


    But ARGA’s Dakouo said the idea that entering into talks implied an acceptance of sharia was wrong and missed the point.


    “Dialogue is a crisis-resolution mechanism," he said. The parameters must be the preservation of "the republican state, justice, and the principles of law".


    The talks should aim to bring the extremist groups into the agreement for peace and reconciliation that was made with the Tuaregs, Dakouo said.


    But Ag Mohamed, secretary-general of the pro-government group, said that particular scenario was impossible. "If you open a process with them, it will be a different process,” he said, referring to the extremists. “It has nothing to do with the agreement signed in 2015."


    Human rights abuses?


    Some extremist groups are accused of serious human rights violations.


    The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) has initiated several lawsuits against some of the Malian extremist groups related to sexual violence, and has filed legal complaints against some of their leaders, including Ag Ghaly.


    "Mali has adopted a national policy of transitional justice," Dakouo noted. He insisted mechanisms could be set up to allow human rights abuses to be handled while dialogue continued. He also stressed that the Malian government and its troops are also accused of violations.


    Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo
    Mahamat Saleh Annadif (centre), Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN peacekeepers in Mali, and Idrissa Maiga (centre right), Prime Minister of the Republic of Mali, visit a Timbuktu peacekeeper camp after an attack last year.

    What about international allies?


    Cross-border aspects of the Malian conflict are also a major consideration. France and the UN are already deeply involved in trying to sort out the country’s crisis, so it would be difficult for Bamako to go it alone by entering into unilateral talks with extremist groups.


    "The issue goes well beyond Mali," said Gakou. "Mali cannot engage in dialogue before convincing all partners of the relevance of its approach. Otherwise, it's a lost cause."


    The international players engaged in Mali have steadfastly refused to enter into negotiations with extremist groups.


    “They are terrorists,” France’s then foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said last year in response to the call by national conference to consider talking to the jihadists. “How do you negotiate with terrorists? This is a fight with no ambiguity.”


    Dakouo, however, insisted that opening dialogue is a promising option – one given legitimacy by the fact attendees at the 2017 conference strongly supported the idea. The government, he said, just needs to "find the right arguments" if it decides to go down that road.

    (Translated from the French by Rory Mulholland)




    Negotiations with jihadists? A radical idea gains currency in Mali
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Shifting relationships, growing threats: Who’s who of insurgent groups in the Sahel

    In the six years since a separatist rebellion broke out in northern Mali in January 2012, armed groups in West Africa’s Sahel region have grown considerably in both number and the complexity of their ever-evolving relationships with one another.

    Some of Mali’s armed groups signed a peace accord in 2015. But implementation of its provisions has been very slow, while insecurity - especially in the central region - continues to deteriorate with the emergence of new jihadist elements, which are also active near the borders in Burkina Faso and Niger.

    Meanwhile, in Nigeria and some of its neighbouring states, Boko Haram is still causing havoc almost a decade after it started its insurgency.

    Here’s a brief overview of the key non-state armed actors in the region:

    Signatories to Mali’s 2015 peace accord


    These comprise two opposing camps:

    Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (The Coordination of Azawad Movements, or CMA)

    A loose coalition of former rebel movements with shared interests, such as self-determination (full independence is no longer on their official agenda). Azawad was the name given to the short-lived and unrecognised state in northern Mali in 2012 by the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). The CMA also includes the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), and the Haut Comité pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA).


    La Plateforme des groupes armées (The Platform of Armed Groups)

    This is a diverse range of nominally pro-government groups, which purport to defend Mali’s territorial sovereignty and sometimes fight alongside the regular army. They also have their own individual interests.

    The Platform comprises the Groupe d’autodéfense touareg Imrad et alliés (Tuareg Imrad Self-defence Group and its Allies, or GATIA), a branch of the MAA, and the Coordination des mouvements et Front patriotique de résistance (Coordination of Movements and Patriotic Resistance Front, or CM-FPR).

    Since the peace accord was signed, clashes have frequently broken out between the two camps, delaying the deal’s implementation, worsening the plight of civilians, and playing into the hands of jihadist groups.

    In 2016, CMA and Platform members were implicated in 174 cases of abuses against civilians, and a further 72 in the first quarter of 2017, according to the human rights division of the UN stabilisation mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

    Tensions eased somewhat between two camps after they signed a ceasefire in September 2017.

    Non-signatories and dissidents

    Former rebels unhappy with the way in which the CMA is handling the peace process, especially its emphasis on the Kidal region and the Ifoghas confederation of Tuareg clans, have formed several new entities based on geography and community.

    Congrès pour la Justice de l’Azawad (Congress for Azawad Justice, or CJA) in the Timbuktu region

    Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad (Movement for Azawad Salvation, or MSA) in the Menaka region

    Branche dissidente de la CM-MPR (Dissident wing of the CM-MPR)


    The exclusion of these new groups from some mechanisms of the peace process, despite their military strength and the portion of the population they represent, calls into question its relevance, given that the context it was signed in has since changed so significantly.

    In early February 2018, GATIA said it was impossible for the terms of the peace accord to solve Mali’s crisis in its current form, and called for inclusive dialogue on all of the deal’s shortcomings.


    Jihadist and related groups


    Jamaat Nosrat al-Islam wal-Mouslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM or GNIM).


    In March 2017, the main jihadist groups in the Sahel – Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – announced they had formed an alliance under the banner of this new entity.


    JNIM bills itself as the official branch of al-Qaeda in Mali. As such, it consolidates that group’s presence in the Sahel and puts Sahel players, especially Ansar Dine, firmly on the global jihadist map. Since the alliance was formed, “terrorist groups [in Mali] appear to have improved their operational capacity and expanded their area of operations [leading to] an increase in the number of casualties owing to terrorist attacks,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in his latest update to the Security Council on 26 December.


    Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)


    Ten years after its inception as an offshoot of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – GSPC), which itself emerged from Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Armé, AQIM has increasingly made its presence felt, especially in some areas around Timbuktu and the far north of the country, where the leaders of some of its cells have spent years forming alliances with the local population.

    “The aim of building these bridges is to make it so that our Mujahedeen are no longer isolated in society, and to integrate with the different factions, including the big tribes and the main rebel movement and tribal chiefs,” AQIM leader Abdel Malek Droukdel wrote in a document discovered after the jihadists were chased out of Timbuktu by French troops in 2013.

    The scarcity of foreigners in northern Mali these days has reduced AQIM’s income from kidnap-for-ransom, but the lawless region continues to offer rich pickings from all sorts of trafficking, including of people and narcotics.


    Ansar Dine


    In the past, Mali’s Tuaregs were seen as a bulwark against AQIM and Islamic extremism in the north. Founded in 2012, Ansar Dine is proof that those days are over. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, was a key a player in the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s but has since been radicalised, and his group took the helm of JNIM in 2017.


    Even though Ansar Dine has caused an increasing number of civilian casualties in its offensives, a “conference of national understanding” held last year recommended that negotiations be held with Iyad Ag Ghali (and other Islamists), but no such talks have yet taken place. For its part, France has ruled out any such discussions with “terrorists”, and its regional Operation Barkhane attacked an Ansar Dine base in mid-February, killing a close associate of the group’s leader.


    Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS, or French EIGS)


    ISGS was formed in 2015 by the spokesman for the now-defunct Mouvement pour l'unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) and the following year gained recognition from the self-styled Islamic State group as its official branch in the Sahel.

    The group is active in the region where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. It has fought international forces and some local armed groups. It gained considerable publicity with its October 2017 attack on a unit of US and Nigerien special forces in which five Nigeriens and four Americans were killed.


    Boko Haram


    Founded in northern Nigeria in 2002, Boko Haram (full name: Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād – Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad) developed into a violent insurgency in 2009. As well as Nigeria, Boko Haram also operates in northern Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The insurgency has claimed at least 25,000 lives and forced more than 2.5 million people from their homes.


    Although the Nigerian army has dislodged Boko Haram from much of the territory it claimed as a caliphate in 2014, the group continues to launch attacks against civilians, government officials and troops.


    In 2015, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the head of so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But a year later, IS named Abu Musab al-Barnawi – son of Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf – as the leader of its “West Africa province”. Al-Barnawi has been critical of Shekau’s position, that only Boko Haram followers are true Muslims, thereby legitimising attacks on civilians. The split led to fighting between the two factions. Boko Haram has also been weakened by the food crisis in the northeast that it helped generate, but it remains far from defeated, despite recent military offensives on its strongholds in the Lake Chad and Sambisa Forest regions.


    To read IRIN’s extensive coverage of Boko Haram see our in-depths here and here.


    Ansarul Islam (Defenders of Islam)


    This Burkina Faso-based umbrella group of jihadist fighters came to prominence in December 2016, when it claimed responsibility for an attack on a military base in northeastern Soum Province that killed 12 members of a counter-terrorism unit. Since then the group has been implicated in – or itself asserted responsibility for – dozens of attacks on civilians or state and military personnel. Ansarul Islam leader Ibrahim Dicko is said to have previously fought in the ranks of a jihadist group in neighbouring Mali, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (see above).Despite its name, the group “is as much a social uprising as it is a religious movement,” according to a recent International Crisis Group report on Burkina Faso.

    Blurred lines

    As well as hardcore jihadism, the ingredients of this region’s conflict dynamics also include long-standing and often violent rivalries, trafficking, and self-defence activities. Jihadist groups such as ISGS include in their ranks numerous members of Niger’s Fulani community, which has long been in conflict with Tuaregs in Mali.

    “Jihadist violence often intertwines with local intercommunal tensions related to competition over natural resources and trafficking, making it difficult to distinguish the real nature and motives of many incidents,” the International Crisis Group wrote after the October Niger attack.

    The rivalry between IS and Al-Qaeda seen elsewhere in the world seems to be absent in the Sahel, where, according to the UN secretary-general’s report, JNIM and ISGS are reported to be “operating in parallel and possibly cooperating”.

    Moreover, the lines between former separatist insurgents and jihadist groups are also blurred. Late last year, the then head of the Mali contingent of France’s regional Barhkane intervention force spoke of the “collusion” between some members of groups that signed the 2015 peace accord and “armed terrorist groups”.

    After France’s military Operation Serval dislodged jihadist groups from northern towns in Mali, many of the groups’ members re-emerged in new guises: some from Ansar Dine joined the nascent HCUA, which is now an important player in the CMA coalition. Some MUJAO members are now among the ranks of the “loyalist” wing of the MAA.

    The blurring of supposedly separate groups of non-state actors takes on added importance when you consider the aid France gave the MNLA to help in the fight against jihadist groups.

    Nevertheless, deadly animosity prevails, and former rebels are paying the price for entering into the peace process – many have been assassinated. On 18 January 2017, dozens of people were killed in a suicide attack – claimed by al-Mourabitoun – in the central town of Gao. The attack took place inside a camp housing both government soldiers and members of signatory armed groups working together under the Operational Coordination Mechanism created by the peace accord.

    See our guide to the international players of counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel




    A who’s who of insurgent groups in the Sahel
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Why some Malians join armed groups

    More than two years after some of Mali’s armed groups signed a peace accord, insecurity in the country is both escalating and spreading.

    When the latest chapter in Mali’s long history of insecurity first broke out in 2012 it was initially restricted to the north, but in recent years the violence committed by a wide range of groups has been growing in the centre of the country.

    In the third quarter of 2017, “the security situation worsened and attacks against MINUSMA [the UN mission in Mali] and Malian defence and security forces increased and intensified,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in his latest update to the Security Council on 26 December.

    “Terrorist groups… appear to have improved their operational capacity and expanded their area of operations [leading to] an increase in the number of casualties owing to terrorist attacks,” even if attacks between parties to the peace accord have stopped, he added.

    “The peace process has yielded but a few tangible results,” Guterres concluded.

    According to Ibrahim Maïga, a researcher with the African Institute for Security Studies, “we have entered a new phase of the war.”

    “It is much more unpredictable than in 2012. It is much more diffuse. Before it was focused on urban centres, now it is happening in rural areas and the pockets of insecurity are much more numerous,” he told IRIN.

    The “non-state armed actors” – to use the jargon of conflict analysis ­– behind this violence are many in number and raison d’être, while alliances and splits come and go.

    Broadly, these groups fall into four categories:

    • The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) – a loose coalition of armed movements with shared interests in issues such as self-determination and territorial control.
    • The Platform of Armed Groups – a diverse range of nominally pro-government armed groups.
    • Violent extremist organisations, many of which fall under the umbrella of the Jamâ’ah Nusrah al-Islâm wal-Muslimîn (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM.)
    • Other groups, notably local self-defence units which are not aligned to the above.


    The multiplicity of these groups, their constant evolution, and insecurity in areas where they operate makes it impossible to determine how many Malian citizens are within their ranks. None of the organisations IRIN spoke to wanted to provide even a rough estimate.

    Some sense of the scale of the phenomenon can be gleaned from proposals about how many members of the groups which signed the 2015 accord are set to be integrated into the regular security forces. The government puts the figure at 4,900; some of the signatories insisted it should be as many as 14,000. Jihadist forces and self-defence units were not party to the accord.

    One area that has been researched extensively is why Malian citizens decide to join armed groups. And, according to the results of several field surveys, “radicalization” and immediate monetary gain barely figure as “pull” factors.

    Instead, what emerges is a picture in which taking up arms is often a considered response to deteriorating circumstances.

    “There is a multitude of factors, almost as many motives as there are members” of armed groups, explained Maïga of the ISS.

    Youths, aged between 18-35, “make up the largest proportion of the groups, of their fighting forces. Without youths, it’s hard to be an active, dangerous group,” he said.

    More than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million inhabitants is under the age of 24.

    In 2016, ISS interviewed dozens of former members of Malian jihadist groups to assess their motives, which the research group determined fell into 15 broad categories: Personal reasons, education, protection, social, ethical, influence, economic, family-related, political, religious, psychological, coercion, environmental, cultural/community/sociological and unknown.

    The ISS findings are in line with those of other organisations that conducted similar research.

    Here’s an overview of some of the key (and overlapping) factors at play:

    Governance vacuum

    For decades, perceptions of marginalization and neglect have fuelled insurgencies in northern Mali. The 2012 rebellion and conquests by jihadist groups led to a mass withdrawal of the state’s presence in the north.

    Recent years have seen a similar exodus of government workers in Mali’s centre, as conflict spread there.

    “It’s a question of governance,” Amara Sidibé, who works with an association of young Malians called Plus Jamais Ça (Never Again), told IRIN when asked about the attraction of armed groups to civilians.

    “The youth feel abandoned. There is a total absence of the state, of justice, a lack of jobs. There are no health centres, schools, or places to get official documentation,” he said.

    Security and protection

    Abdoul Kassim Fomba, the national coordinator of Think Peace Mali, a think-tank that works on peace-building and counter-extremism, explained that “when the state is not present, people tend to place their trust in armed groups.”

    According to Mercy Corps, an international NGO, “the government’s inability to provide effective security—and the subsequent widespread impunity for perpetrators of violence—have left many in conflict-affected regions seeking justice and security from non-state actors.”

    “Youths in anti-government and violent extremist groups in particular shared deep grievances rooted in their perceptions of the government’s relative neglect and mistreatment of their communities, primarily in Gao and Timbuktu,” it said in a recent report based on field research conducted together with Think Peace Mali.

    “Non-violent youth were more likely to say the level of government service provision in their communities was similar to or better than that of others, potentially contributing to a lower likelihood that their communities would create or support armed groups,” the report noted.

    In an analysis of insecurity in central Mali, the International Crisis group explained that in the absence of the state’s presence “some authorities and local elites are tempted to try to improve security by supporting the creation of community-based self-defence militias.”

    The very concept of “security” has many dimensions for Malians living in the centre and north of the country, according to the views gathered by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Coalition of Civil Society for Peace and the Fight Against the Proliferation of Light Weapons.

    “Security means different things to different people,” SIPRI said in a paper based on the survey.

    Respondents stressed that “security is as much a developmental question as an issue of exposure to violence.”

    As well as physical violence, factors related to security cited by the survey’s respondents included “unemployment, poverty and access to public services.”


    The deficit of functioning state services extends to the justice sector.

    Mariam Sy, a young architect who works with Plus Jamais Ça told IRIN “the justice system is so corrupt. Decisions are biased, who pays the most wins.”

    Putting an end to violence “has to start with justice. We need an equitable functioning justice system. And for a functioning justice system there needs to political will, leaders able to take decisions for the good of the population,” she said.

    According to Afrobarometer, “the Malian justice system has faced deep threats and disruptions, especially in the north… access to justice remains severely compromised. Public trust in the judiciary is low, and perceptions of corruption are high.”

    “Delays, the system’s complexities, and perceptions of bias lead many Malians to rely on traditional and local authorities to dispense justice, rather than engaging with the courts,” said the organisation, which conducts public surveys on attitudes to democracy and governance across Africa.

    The Mercy Corp report noted that “youth cite experience with injustice – including abuses and corruption – as motivators for joining anti-government groups.”

    And according to the ICG’s study on central Mali, “radical groups know how to win ground by making themselves useful and by supporting some groups against others. They… are able to respond to strong local demands for justice, security and more broadly moral standing in politics.”

    Community and identity

    “The search for social success and recognition” plays a key role in decisions made by young Malians to resort to violence, according to research published by Interpeace and the Malian Institute of Action Research for Peace.

    “A crisis of authority” and the breakdown of a social fabric that ties young people to the family, the community and school has left many youths “without guidance.”

    “Youth’s violent acts are an expression of their need to find a place in society, to be recognised and valued,” the field research found.

    “Too many analyses regard youths as passive entities upon whom violence is exercised, or as vulnerable beings easy to mobilise or indoctrinate. [But] youths are fully-fledged actors in the dynamics of violence and make their own choices, even if these choices are often limited or defined by context,” the research report said.

    Fomba, of Think Peace Mali, noted that such important choices are sometimes made at a collective, rather than individual level.

    “There are many armed groups that defend the interests of their own communities. So the communities identify with certain armed groups, and to show their good faith they give a member of their family to join the group so they can fight for their community,” he told IRIN.

    The research by Think Peace Mali and Mercy Corps also cited youths who said “joining pro-government armed groups offered them a path to entering the military, promising them eventual economic stability and enhanced social status, even if joining initially offered little financial gain.”

    The way forward

    According to Mercy Corps, “solutions to prevent violence are found at the community level. If we can recognise the strong influence of the community and address risk factors at the group level, we are more likely to turn youth away from violence.

    “If local governance can become more inclusive and more effective at delivering state services, perceptions of exclusion that have led communities to support armed groups will change.”

    Or as ICG, which warned of the blowback risks of Mali’s predominantly military response to its security challenges, puts it: “preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.”

    “It’s a long road,” said Sy. “To get to the Mali we dream of could take 20 years, but you have to start somewhere and we refuse to lose morale.  We have no other choice, it’s our country.”


    Why some Malians join armed groups
    It’s more about disillusionment than radicalisation
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

    In 2011, several African states warned about the likely consequences of an international military intervention in Libya aimed at toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Now, six years after his death, security in the Sahel region has never been worse.

    In a domino effect, from 2012, the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, which in turn facilitated a jihadist incursion, which, after briefly being halted by France’s Operation Serval, arose from the ashes stronger than ever and spread across neighbouring states.

    “Mali’s roots were rotten, it just needed a breeze to make it collapse,” summarised a former Malian minister recently.

    In Mali, the state is now hardly present across much of the country. In mid-December, barely a quarter of state agents were in their posts in the six northern and central regions.

    According to an opposition party tally, 2017 was Mali’s most deadly year since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power in 2013.

    Yet the Sahel region has never been so militarised; it is rife with insurgencies and counter-insurgency forces of various stripes. Relative veterans from France and the United States have recently been joined by troops from Italy and Germany, and by a new regional coalition, as well as by forms of warfare new to the region.

    Presented as solutions by their political masters, the military missions detailed below are seen by others as pouring fuel on the fire, and as simplistic responses to complex problems.

    United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)

    Created in April 2013, this UN mission, now consisting of 13,000 troops, was supposed to stabilise northern regions of Mali after the lightning assault launched against jihadist groups there three months earlier by France’s Operation Serval (see below).

    Instead, MINUSMA faced a resurgence of these groups outside major urban centres and found itself exposed to mobile and seasoned guerrillas. They proved to be beyond the mission’s capabilities to control, and, arguably, peripheral to its mandate.

    “The UN deployed [here] without a peace accord, which is normally a precursor for a peacekeeping mission,” MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif told IRIN. “On the other hand, the idea that MINUSMA came here to fight terrorists has always been a major misunderstanding between Malians and MINUSMA, and unfortunately one that still exists.”

    Annual revisions of the mission’s mandate aimed at making the force more reactive have failed to silence critics. Both within and outside Mali, questions have been raised about the utility of spending more than a billion dollars in a single year when the mission has proved unable to fulfil its core tasks of protecting civilians and defending human rights.

    The killing of civilians during demonstrations by peacekeepers and accusations of rape have helped to sour pubic opinion of MINUMSA.

    The mission’s relations with the Malian government have frequently been strained, not least over the neutrality MINUSMA has shown towards certain rebel groups, a stance Bamako viewed as impeding the state’s recovery of its sovereignty over the entire country.

    The force’s limitations have frequently been highlighted. The latest report on Mali by the UN secretary-general, for example, noted that, “the lack of armoured troop carriers, especially of vehicles protected against landmines, remains a major obstacle to the mission's operations”.

    The previous report, issued in September, said MINUSMA’s civilian protection mandate had been compromised by the “absence of adequate air assets”.

    Both publically and in private, MINUSMA officials have made no secret of their frustration at being used as a punching ball and cash cow by Malian politicians.


    Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA

    Another prominent component of the force’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. MINUSMA itself is paying the price for the breakdown of that accord: 133 blue helmets have died in Mali, making the mission the fourth most deadly for UN peacekeepers in term of deaths caused by hostile acts. In Mali, jihadist groups have made specific targets of the blue helmets.

    A recent UN Security Council resolution added another element to MINUSMA’s mandate: providing operational and logistical support within Mali to the joint force recently formed by the G5 states of the Sahel (see below). The council said the creation of the force should allow MINUSMA to “better carry out its stabilisation mandate”.

    The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)


    This formation was originally set up in Nigeria under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1994 but remained largely dormant until 2012 when its mandate was widened to include combatting the Boko Haram insurgency.


    The MNJTF comprises some 7,500 military and non-military personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.


    The force suffered a major setback in January 2015 when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters. Its base has now been moved to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.


    Shortly after that incident, the force won official approval from the African Union, with a mandate (renewed this month for a further year) to conduct military operations, achieve coordination at inter-state level, conduct border patrols, find abducted persons, stop the flow of arms, reintegrate insurgents into society, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.


    The force receives intelligence and training support from the United States, Britain, and France and, although theoretically financially self-reliant, money from the EU, which in August 2016 agreed to allocate some 50 million euros to it, paid through the AU.  Serious budgetary shortfalls and delays in procuring equipment, which left MNJTF troops without essential equipment for over a year and strained AU-EU relations, have hindered the force’s effectiveness.


    Since it become operational in 2016, the MNJTF has, despite tense relations between some contributor states, recorded significant gains against Boko Haram, killing or arresting many hundreds of the group’s members and releasing many of its hostages.


    In December 2017, the AU’s Peace and Security Council said the MNJTF had “significantly weakened the capability of the terrorist group and continued to successfully dislodge it from its strongholds”.


    But, it added, “Boko Haram still remains a serious threat for the countries of the region.”


    A March 2017 paper published by the African Identities journal argued that the MNJTF’s “sole reliance on a concerted military approach in countering terrorism will not address the root causes and may further incubate violent extremism” in the region.


    Force conjointe du G5 Sahel (FC-G5 S)

    The most recent arrival among international armed contingents deployed to counter the spread and intensification of jihadist groups’ activity in the Sahel consists of 5,000 troops from the region’s G5 states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

    Malian President Boubacar Keita has described the forces as “an innovative approach to collective security, one that puts cooperation and mutual action at the heart of our response”.

    The force is set to deploy under a joint command in three geographic sectors. Its primary objective is to “fight terrorism and transnational crime” committed by various groups, some of which have already joined forces in Mali under the banner of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM), which is allied to al-Qaeda.

    According to analyst Nicolas Degrais, contrary to media reports, the joint force came into being more as a result of G5 member states’ own initiative and political will than at the instigation of France, which somewhat resents having done so much of the heavy lifting on counter-terrorism over recent years.


    Yet, for the time being at least, it owes its very existence to foreign assistance, notably that of the region’s former colonial power, which has been militarily active in the region since 2013. France has been the new force’s most ardent champion, and has backed it to the tune of eight million euros.


    Other sources of finance are the EU (50 million euros), G5 member states (50 million euros), Saudi Arabia (100 million euros), and the United Arab Emirates (30 million euros). These last two donors are regular customers of the French arms industry.


    It is hoped that further donor conferences will ensure the budget for the FC-G5 S’s first year of operations, some 423 million euros, will be fully funded.


    In November 2017, the force conducted a pilot mission, codenamed “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”), in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso intersect, and which is a centre of insurgent activity. According to at least one analysis, the operation did little to demonstrate the new force was able to operate effectively without French support.


    The FC-G5 S, which is expected to reach its full capacity by March 2018, faces numerous challenges. These include coordinating armies of varying quality deployed by countries whose leaders have different security priorities. And some of these armies stand accused of committing abuses against civilians they suspect of collaborating with jihadist groups.


    Given how hard it is proving to raise enough money for the first year of operations, securing sufficient long-term financing will be, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a “significant challenge.”


    France never fully left Africa when it ceased to be a colonial power, and it keeps making new appearances. 2018 sees it embark on a sixth year of military operations in the Sahel. These began in January 2013 with Operation Serval (in Mali), superseded in August 2014 by the more regional Operation Barkhane, which includes 4,000 troops and is run from N’Djamena.

    Barkhane’s successes include the killing of dozens of jihadists, some of them very senior, and the capture or destruction of more than 22 tonnes of weapons. But it has been unable to prevent extremist groups reappearing and carrying out attacks in central Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger.

    The days when former French president François “Papa” Hollande was feted from Bamako to Timbuktu are long gone. In Mali’s northern Kidal region, some armed Tuareg groups regard French forces as an army of occupation, while others don’t understand why Barkhane doesn’t come to their aid when they engage with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Timbuktu region. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, some people suspect Paris of having a hidden agenda to support secessionist movements. Eighty percent of respondents to a recent opinion poll in Bamako said they believed France was in Mali "solely for its own interests."

    In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where a popular revolt toppled France’s long-time protégé Blaise Compaore in 2015, many people, fed up of repeated promises that Paris is putting an end to la Françafrique (its enduring sphere of influence in Africa), resent the French military presence, which they suspect is more of a magnet for jihadist groups than a deterrent.

    Despite these criticisms, Barkhane has had more success against extremist groups than any other military forces.

    United States

    It took the 4 October death in Niger of four special forces on a “reconnaissance mission” to shine a light on the US “shadow war” in the Sahel, even though there was nothing new about its presence there.

    Since 2002, the United States has conducted a succession of counter-terrorism training missions in the region to “support local forces in dealing with the threat”, as General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in October.

    Niger, a key partner in this endeavour, currently plays host to 800 US troops, the largest American contingent in Africa. It will soon have two US military bases on its soil, after one dedicated to drones is built near the city of Agadez.

    The October attack, near the village of Tongo Tongo, seemed to signal an escalation of US military engagement. In November, Niger gave its approval for US drones to be armed and thus for the introduction to the Sahel of a mode of warfare already in use – with deadly effect and numerous mishaps – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

    “This is exactly what we never wanted to see in West Africa: very powerful bombs which, despite their reputed precision, cause dozens of civilian casualties, and provide armed, anti-Western jihadist groups with hundreds of new candidates for recruitment,” warned Gilles Yabi of the Wathi think-tank.


    Sébastien Rieussec/EU
    EUTM Mali arrives in Bamako

    European Union

    The EU is taking a greater interest in the Sahel amid concerns over migration and security resulting from the region’s growing destabilisation.

    The bloc currently has three outfits deployed there: the EU Training Mission-Mali, launched in 2013 to instruct the country’s armed forces; and a capacity-building mission each in Mali and Niger to support domestic agencies countering extremism and organised crime.

    Separately, Germany is shortly to open a military base in Niger to support MINUSMA, while Italy has announced it will sent 470 troops to the country to counter people-smuggling and combat extremism. Meanwhile, Britain is reportedly in talks with France with a view to supplying military helicopters or surveillance aircraft in support of Operation Barkhane.

    (TOP PHOTO: French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in Mali. CREDIT: Fred Marie/Flickr)


    The region has never been so militarised. Here’s an overview of the international players in uniform
    A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • New Sahel anti-terror force: risks and opportunities

    Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger are teaming up to take on Islamist militants with the launch of a the 5,000-strong "FC-G5S" force in the restive Sahel. But are more boots on the ground the answer?

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the Security Council, which votes today on whether to fund the nascent multinational military force, that supporting it was “an opportunity that cannot be missed” and that failing to back it would carry serious risks for a region where insecurity has become “extremely worrying”.

    The Security Council “welcomed the deployment” of the force in a resolution adopted in June, but put off a decision about financing. The resolution's wording was the subject of a prolonged tussle between France – the G5 force’s main proponent – and the United States, which didn’t believe a resolution was necessary, sees the force’s mandate as too broad, and, as the world body’s biggest contributor, isn’t convinced the UN should bankroll it.

    On Friday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said Washington wants to know “what the strategy would be, how they see this playing out, what’s involved in it, before we ever commit to UN-assessed funding”. 

    France has been working hard to win over the United States. On a visit to Washington last week, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said the former colonial power had no desire to become the “Praetorian Guard of sovereign African countries”.

    Existing forces

    In 2013 and 2014, France’s Operation Serval drove back militants in Mali’s northern desert from some of the towns and other sanctuaries they had taken. With attacks nevertheless continuing and having spread beyond Mali’s borders, 4,000 French troops are currently deployed under the banner of Operation Barkhane across all the G5 states.

    Mali is also home to the 14,000-strong MINUSMA force, one of the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping missions. It has come under frequent attack by militant groups such as the Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-linked coalition forged last March. Some 86 blue helmets have been killed in militant attacks since MINUSMA was established in July 2013.  

    Meanwhile, efforts by civil society groups to negotiate with some jihadist groups have come to nought, while parties to a 2015 peace agreement between Mali’s government and two coalitions of domestic armed groups – a deal that excluded the jihadists – are embroiled in violent divisions among themselves. Some of these domestic groups are also responsible for attacks against the state. 

    These divisions have dimmed hopes of forging any kind of common front against the jihadists, and even of properly implementing the 2015 accord. The government’s failure to address widespread political and economic grievance further undermines its position.


    Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo
    The MINUSMA Camp in Kidal was targeted by intensive rocket and mortar fire
    Humanitarian fallout

    All this insecurity comes at a high price for Mali’s civilians. At the end of the 2016-17 academic year, 500 schools were closed, up from 296 the previous year, while the numbers of refugees and internally displaced reached a record 140,000 and 55,000 respectively.

    Acute malnutrition among children under five has reached “critical levels” in conflict-affected areas around Timbuktu and Gao, according to UNICEF. The agency predicts that 165,000 children across the country will be acutely malnourished next year.

    “Repeated criminal acts” prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to suspend its operations in the northern Kidal region in mid-October.

    Funding concerns

    The primary mandate of the G5 force will be to secure the bloc’s common borders and fight “terrorist” and criminal groups.

    The force’s headquarters were established in September in the central Malian town of Sévaré, but its financing has yet to be secured.

    “Estimates still vary; nothing has been settled,” said a diplomat who has followed the latest developments. “If we get to 250 million euros at the donors’ conference in December, that would be very good. But even if financing is obtained in December, the force will not be operational the next day.”

    The G5 says it needs 423 million euros to set things up and run the force for its first year, but so far only a quarter of this sum has materialised, with the G5 and the EU both coming up with 50 million euros and France another eight million.

    "Mobilising sustainable and consistent financial support over a period of several years will remain a significant challenge,” conceded Guterres in his report.

    Money is far from the only uncertainty: Trust between G5 member states remains shaky.

    “The Burkina military believe their Malian counterparts are ‘lazy’ and joined the army to get an income and not to defend the country,” the International Crisis Group said, for example, in its latest report on Burkina Faso.

    And the security and political agendas of G5 states are not always aligned. Facing an economic and social crisis, regional powerhouse Chad, which already has troops in MINUSMA and in a separate regional force fighting Boko Haram, hopes to make the most of its involvement in the force, whose remit it would like to see expanded to include other regional threats closer to home.


    Given how often existing forces in Mali, including the army, are attacked (losing weapons and vehicles in the process), deploying yet more troops in the region carries a real risk of further boosting jihadists groups’ military assets.

    “Malian armed movements have employed an increasing proportion of heavy weaponry from Malian government stockpiles – particularly ammunition for larger weapon systems such as rockets and artillery – as opposed to Libyan or other foreign sources,” Conflict Armament Research said in a 2016 report on the Sahel.

    Human Rights Watch recently reported on “killings, forced disappearances and acts of torture” committed by security forces in Mali and Burkina Faso against suspected members of jihadists groups.

    Even if they are only committed by a minority of soldiers, such acts lead civilians to mistrust the armies supposed to protect them, and in some cases to join the armed groups to seek their protection instead.

    “The fighters are found among the greater population, are part of them and live with them. It is not easy to identify them. That makes combat difficult, even if there are far fewer jihadist than soldiers,” explained Ibrahim Maîga, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies.

    “You can’t defeat these people without helping the population caught in the middle. One side accuses them of being terrorists, the other of collaborating with national or foreign armies. This is why it is imperative that the state gains more legitimacy,” he added.

    The G5 joint force’s first operations are expected to take place in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet. These states have been particularly affected by the attacks carried out by JNIM, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Ansarul Islam against national and foreign security forces.

    On 21 October, 13 gendarmes were killed when their barracks in Ayorou in Niger’s Tillaberi region came under attack.

    The joint force will be deployed in an environment rife with trafficking of all kinds, and with globalised jihad, and where myriad local conflicts merge with and fuel each other.

    On the border between Mali and Niger, economic rivalry between Tuareg and Fulani communities has deepened since becoming militarised and politicised.

    Fulani youth – too simplistically – are seen as ready recruits to jihadist groups, and Nigerien Tuareg militia are being used by the government to hunt them.

    In northern Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam built its popularity by challenging social structures widely seen as inequitable, according to the ICG.


    Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA
    Security Council ambassadors pay their respects to UN peacekeepers killed in the line of duty
    US role

    None of the groups operating in the region has claimed responsibility for the 2 October attack in which four US and four Nigerien soliders were killed 200 kilometres north of Niamey – an attack a top US general has attributed to a local IS-affiliated group. The incident served to bring international attention to US military presence in the region, described by some media as a “shadow war” at a time when the US is in the process of moving its drone operations from Niamey to the central Niger town of Agadez.

     “Our American colleagues believe the [Niger] attack against their troops exposes a dilemma: Do too much and be exposed, or don’t do enough,” a French diplomat remarked.

    It seems the Pentagon is going for the first option: US Defense Secretary James Mattis recently informed Congress that the United States was increasing its anti-terrorism activities in Africa and that new rules of engagement were being introduced, allowing troops to open fire on mere suspects.

    But for the jihadist groups in the region, a greater US military footprint will feed their rhetoric of occupation and help swell their ranks.


    New Sahel anti-terror force: risks and opportunities
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Fact file: Unfair cop – why African police forces make violent extremism worse

    Undermanned, underfunded, underwhelming: African police forces struggle to contain regular crime, and they are even further out of their depth when it comes to tackling violent extremism.

    The best way to identify threats to public safety is a policing model that promotes trust and collaboration with the community, say the policy manuals on preventing violent extremism, better known as PVE. A positive relationship is believed to help build resilience to radicalisation.

    But the reality in much of the world is that the police are viewed as corrupt, violent, and people best avoided.

    “In African culture the police are there to intimidate, to coerce,” acknowledged Kenyan senior sergeant Francis Mwangi.

    He is trying his best to change that perception. Sharp and articulate, Mwangi is the face of a new policing initiative in the Nairobi slum of Kamakunji, which aims to build a partnership with the community to help blunt radicalisation of the youth.

    Traditional policing – far too often based on brutality and arbitrary arrest rather than proper detective work – can create more fear of the security services than the insurgents and is clearly counter-productive.

    A new UNDP study based on interviews with more than 500 jihadists –  drawn mainly from Kenya, Nigeria, and Somalia­ – found that in over 70 percent of cases “government action”, including the killing or arrest of a family member or friend, was the tipping point that prompted them to join.

    Why is the culture of human rights abuse and resistance to reform so deeply ingrained?

    Citizen or subject

    Part of the problem is history. African police forces were set up by the colonial powers to maintain control over the local population. Independence didn’t really change that function. Their role largely remains regime protection and representation rather than serving the public.

    As a result, most police forces are seriously undermanned. The UN recommends a ratio of 300 officers per 100,000 citizens. It’s a rough guide – force levels are influenced by a range of factors. But Kenya manages a ratio of only 203, Nigeria 187, and Mali – another country facing an Islamist insurgency – just 38.

    Police forces are also underequipped. From vehicles and the fuel to run them, to paper, pens, and printing ink. The barest of necessities are in short supply, before you get to functioning forensic labs and national fingerprint databases.

    Unsurprisingly, conviction rates are low. In South Africa, one of the more advanced police forces on the continent, only an estimated 10 percent of murder cases end in conviction. In crimes of sexual violence, it falls to between four and eight percent.

    The temptation, then, is to turn to forced confessions. In Nigeria, torture has become such an integral part of policing that many stations have an informal torture officer, according to a 2014 Amnesty International report.

    The prevalence of shoot-to-kill policies are also a reflection of the failure of the criminal justice system, with sections of the community seeing themselves as targets of persecution.

    Police hit squads take that logic one step further. In the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, they are known to operate against so-called radical elements, whose deaths only serve to stoke the anger of Muslim youth, who view themselves as already marginalised.

    Nigeria provides a stark example of the impact of the failure of due process. In 2009 the police killed Boko Haram founder Mohamed Yusuf while he was in custody. It did not stop his movement, and his successor, Abubakar Shakau, has proved a far more brutal and implacable enemy.

    The impunity of the police commanders involved in the murder undermines the moral authority of the Nigerian state.

    Governance failure is key in the tolerance of abuse. A corrupt political system breeds corrupt cops. If states are unwilling to provide opportunities, services, and rights to entire sections of its citizens, “there is then little reason to expect national police actors to do so”, argues a report by the Global Centre on Cooperative Security.

    Sympathy for the police

    The subservience of the police to the ruling elite doesn’t win them any political favours. Conditions of service are generally appalling and pay poor. Families of officers killed in action can struggle to receive their benefits – with kickbacks expected.

    A former Nigerian Inspector General of Police acknowledged that some barracks were “to say the least, nauseating”. In the absence of accommodation, one Nigerian officer told IRIN how he spent the first few months of his posting to the northeastern city of Maiduguri sleeping on two plastic hard-backed chairs.

    The police top-brass regularly make whistle-stop visits to the city as part of political entourages, but hardly ever drop in on the officers who are on the frontline of the insurgency, and very much targets for Boko Haram.

    Predatory police take out their frustrations on the public – typically the most vulnerable and powerless members of society. According to an Afrobarometer survey across 34 countries, the police are universally regarded as the most corrupt of institutions – well ahead of even government officials.

    “In most cases the police in Africa are demoralised because the remuneration they are getting is just peanuts,” said sergeant Mwangi in half-hearted mitigation. “They have a family to feed so can be prone to being compromised.”

    In the Afrobarometer survey, more than half of respondents who had been victims of a crime did not report it to the police. Regionally, levels of distrust were highest in East Africa – just 43 percent said they would seek the assistance of police first if they became victims.

    That’s because the police don’t have a monopoly on criminal justice. People often have multiple choices, with varying degrees of legitimacy and links to the state – from family and friends out to exact revenge, to local militia, customary courts, and formal commercial security guards.

    Western models of PVE stress community policing – the ideal of the “bobby on the beat”. But in an African context, community policing means something quite different.

    These informal security systems – some of which are just plain vigilantes – have less to do with notions of state legitimacy, “and more to do with what’s available, trusted, and affordable,” the Global Centre on Cooperative Security report points out.

    Resistant to reform

    Security sector reform is a growth industry in aid world, despite little concrete evidence of success. The reports compiled by external police experts, paid for with donor money, gather dust on the shelves of police commands, the officer in Maiduguri told IRIN.

    According to researcher Alice Hills, police reform cannot be divorced from “fundamental socio-political change”. Without buy-in from the powers that be, the effects are only transitory.

    The lessons being learnt by sergeant Mwangi in Kamakunji, for instance, are yet to feature in the curriculum of the Kenyan police college.

    Reform is admittedly difficult to tackle in the middle of an insurgency. The priority of governments and their international partners is for harder-hitting security services, not the soft power of PVE.

    What that can mean in practice is squads of men who are simply more proficient at harming their fellow citizens and extracting rents.

    What is needed are “programmes that recognise that the core problems of governance lies in incentives and desire, not capacity,” write researchers Rachel Kleinfeld and Harry Bader.


    TOP PHOTO: Kenyan Administrative Police on patrol after an al-Shabab attack


    Unfair cop – why African police forces make violent extremism worse
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Six major humanitarian challenges confronting the UN General Assembly

    Hype over what President Donald Trump may or may not say dominated the media build-up to this week’s UN General Assembly. However, US funding cuts and the apparent absence of American authority on key global issues weigh more heavily over world leaders beset by a host of daunting humanitarian challenges.


    It’s the first UNGA since Trump was elected president. He’ll make his debut on Monday in hosting a meeting on UN reform, ahead of his maiden speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday. It’s also the first year at the helm for UN Secretary-General António Guterres. His speech opening high-level week on Tuesday will be closely watched, as will his handling of Trump’s US administration.


    The US decision on the eve of the General Assembly to halve its diplomatic presence in New York doesn’t augur well for those concerned that US cuts and retreats from international agreements are creating a dangerous vacuum at a time when the General Assembly has so many global crises to address.


    Here’s our guide to the major humanitarian issues:


    Climate Change


    The UNGA is always a vital forum for the world’s developing countries, particularly those facing down climate change. The new General Assembly president, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovenia, identified grappling with it a priority for the UN’s 72nd session. Catastrophic flooding in South Asia and two record-setting hurricanes that recently hit the Caribbean and the southern United States will lend added gravity to sessions this week.


    A high-level meeting convened by Lajcak and Guterres on Monday will focus on Hurricane Irma, which ploughed through the Caribbean and into Florida earlier this month. The UN’s regional response plan for the Caribbean calls for $27 million to help up to 265,000 people affected. For the first time in 300 years, no one is left living on Barbuda, according to Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US.


    Notably absent from the expected speakers list are any Americans. Trump this year announced he would pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, angering world leaders and giving an opening to countries like China to take more of a lead on the issue. After word leaked that the US might be changing its position once more, the White House confirmed on the eve of the UNGA that it still plans to renege unless drastic changes are made. On Tuesday, heads of state will meet for a roundtable on climate change. By then, a new hurricane, Maria, will be running over some of the same Caribbean islands hit by Irma, possibly reaching Hispaniola by the end of the week. NGOs hope that attention will rub off on the sustainable development goals more broadly, with warnings that countries are falling behind.




    More than 20 million people in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and northeastern Nigeria are still at risk of famine, and their lot will be the focus of aid agencies and diplomats. The UN’s just-released State of Food Security report warns that “the long-term declining trend in undernourishment seems to have come to a halt and may have reversed.”


    Shortfalls in funding persist across the board, and the aid community will be applying further pressure on donors to follow through on their promises. The week’s main event on famine response and prevention is on Thursday. It will provide an opportunity for some new faces – recently appointed World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley and Mark Lowcock, the new top UN relief official – to set out their stall.


    Yemen’s long humanitarian crisis, deepened by years of war, is now considered the world’s most dire: more than 20 million people are in need of assistance; seven million are severely food insecure; two million children are acutely malnourished; the worst cholera outbreak in memory has infected more than 660,000 people and claimed 2,100 lives. There’s no sign the warring parties are any closer to ending the civil war. On Monday, UN, EU and Gulf Cooperation Council representatives will host a closed-door donor coordination meeting; Friday will see a separate high-level humanitarian event organised by OCHA, Sweden and the Netherlands.


    South Sudan will be the focus of a separate high-level event on Thursday convened by the African Union and the eastern and central African bloc IGAD. In his speech opening the Human Rights Council this month in Geneva, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said South Sudan “is being quite simply destroyed”. One million refugees have fled to Uganda alone.


    Refugees and Migrants


    Last September, the General Assembly held a historic, high-level summit on refugees and migrants. The meeting's outcome, the New York Declaration, paved the way for two global compacts – one on refugees and another on migration – that member states are due to adopt in 2018. World leaders at last year's summit agreed to a number of commitments amidst a global surge in displacement, key among them increased international cooperation and responsibility-sharing. This week, member states will take stock after a year that saw anti-refugee sentiment go mainstream in the West. That starts on Monday, with a high-level follow-up meeting.


    EU agreements have seen the flow of people from the Mideast to Europe decrease. There is also concern over armed groups preventing the movement of refugees and migrants into Europe, particularly along the Libya route. Additional horror stories abound: off the coast of Yemen, a boat carrying Somali refugees was hit by an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in March, killing at least 40, and more refugees have washed up on Yemen’s shore after being spilled into the sea by people traffickers. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar into Bangladesh present member states with as urgent a crisis as ever – if not one on Europe’s doorstep.


    On 27-28 September, the General Assembly will hold a separate high-level meeting on combating human trafficking. 


    Human rights and Myanmar


    This month, Guterres said Rohingya Muslims were experiencing “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar. The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has cancelled her inaugural trip to the UNGA, where she is still expected to face more scorn than any Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. After years of alarm bells ringing, the crisis has now escalated beyond most people’s worst fears, with 400,000 Rohingya having fled across the border to Bangladesh, many alleging grave human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar military. In a BBC interview ahead of the UNGA, Guterres said Aung San Suu Kyi had a last chance to end the offensive in a national address on Tuesday: "If she does not reverse the situation now, then I think the tragedy will be absolutely horrible, and unfortunately then I don't see how this can be reversed in the future."



    Meetings will also be held on the flouting of international law in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, as well as sessions on lawless Libya and Somalia. On Thursday, a meeting will be held about supporting accountability and justice in Iraq as the war against so-called Islamic State winds down. Ahead of high-level week, the General Assembly voted to include the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and mass atrocity prevention as part of its formal agenda.


    International peace and security


    North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests are seen as the top priority for the reduced American contingent. Shrugging off Trump’s threat to respond with “fire and fury”, Kim Jong-un’s regime has conducted what is believed to be its largest nuclear test and fired two missiles over Japan.


    The Security Council has unanimously passed two resolutions sanctioning North Korea since Trump took office, but the US administration has indicated it could be prepared to take unilateral action.


    “I have no problem kicking it to [US Secretary of Defense] General [James] Mattis because I think he has plenty of options,” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said on Friday. Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, will brief the UNGA on the latest test on Thursday.




    In June, the General Assembly voted to decrease the overall peacekeeping budget by $600 million, assisted by several missions already in the process of shrinking or winding down. The US had shot for a $1 billion reduction, but ambassador Haley immediately took credit, saying in a statement: “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the UN peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.” The US wants to review all missions. On Wednesday, a high-level meeting aims to have “frank discussions on the reform of UN Peacekeeping and push forward the implementation and follow-up of reforms for strengthening UN Peacekeeping.”


    The UN reportedly wants 750 additional troops to step into a “security vacuum” in Central African Republic. CAR has been the site of some of the worst allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by UN and foreign peacekeeping forces. On Thursday, diplomats meet to discuss Mali, where the UN’s deadliest mission is located (two more peacekeepers were killed earlier this month). That same day, the AU and IGAD will meet for the high-level event on South Sudan, where more than 210,000 South Sudanese are still sheltering with the UN.



    Six major humanitarian challenges confronting the UN General Assembly
  • What can save Mali?

    Hamidou Barry has come to Bamako to find his son. His village of Ikerena, in the rural heart of Mali, is a long way from the capital, but this is where he’s been told that men detained by the security forces are taken.


    Barry rented a room in the home of a very distant relative. The city is expensive: He’s running out of money and he still hasn’t made contact with anyone who can shed light on the whereabouts of his son, also called Hamidou.


    Witnesses told Barry that Hamidou, 38, was arrested in mid-December at the hospital in Douentza where he had taken his friend for treatment. For some reason the police took an interest in the two Fulani men. They found a sermon by Fulani Islamist extremist Hamadoun Koufa on Hamidou’s phone, but Barry insists that does not make his son a jihadist.


    Koufa is a marabout (preacher) from the central Malian town of Niafunke. He is also a protégé of the veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who heads Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked militant group.

    Dialogue instead of more foreign troops might yield an answer
    What can save Mali?
    Rebels with a cause?

    The connection between the two men is just one of a web of overlapping conflicts and shifting alliances the Malian government is struggling to contain, even with generous Western military support.


    Koufa fought in northern Mali with Ansar Dine and allied jihadist groups in 2012, rapidly overrunning the region’s main towns. He then led his men south. That advance, threatening Bamako, triggered a French and African Union intervention that scattered his forces.


    Koufa re-emerged in 2015 as the head of the newly-founded Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a movement that seeks the revival of the 19th century Macina Empire, a Fulani-led Islamic state based in the central Mopti and Segou regions of present-day Mali.


    FLM recruitment has stoked and exploited community tensions, especially between Fulani pastoralists and Bambara farmers over land and access to pasture. The Bambara have turned to government-backed Dozo self-defence militia, and there is now an unbroken tempo of tit-for-tat killings of civilians, along with more formal executions of government officials by the FLM.

    Ashley Hamer/IRIN

    Central Mali has taken over from the north as the country’s most lethal region.


    “It’s a toxic mix of intercommunal violence, jihadist activities, and abuses by government forces together fuelling this vicious circle,” said Héni Nsaibia, an analyst at Menastream, a risk consultancy firm that covers the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel.


    But the violence is not just narrowly sectarian. A Human Rights Watch report documenting testimonies earlier this year from both communities included the account of a Fulani youth leader who pointed out: “We, the Peuhl [Fulani], were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.”


    Both sides have condemned the government’s failure to provide justice for the killings and to hold its own security forces accountable.


    A Bambara leader was quoted by HRW as saying: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”

    Hearts and minds

    When the government does act, it is heavy handed. HRW has recorded a number of arbitrary arrests by the security forces, especially around Douentza, where Hamidou was picked up.


    When IRIN last spoke to Barry, he had run out of money and was returning home, without his son.


    Abuses fuel FLM recruitment. It has adopted AQIM’s playbook of taking advantage of a weak state by embedding within the local community, listening to their problems, and fashioning its message accordingly.


    "Hamadoun Koufa came [to Mopti] preaching about the government. He said he would help, not the government," explained Amadou Thiam, a Fulani opposition politician.


    “In many villages, the jihadists appear to be replacing the state actors responsible for addressing banditry; for responding to common crime, marital and family disputes; and for ensuring community reconciliation,” said Corinne Dufka, HRW’s West Africa director.


    “The messages they preach in community meetings, against corruption, state neglect, and at times abusive community elders, is appearing to resonate.”


    The government’s presence doesn’t extend much beyond Segou, three hours from Bamako. Even without the challenge of insurgency, successive southern-based Malian governments have failed to stamp their authority in the north, where the population is relatively small and conditions extremely harsh.

    Neglected north

    The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic group, span the Sahara Desert. They are the largest ethnic group in northeast Mali. Fiercely independent, they have historically been influential in the spread of Islam in the Sahel.

    Tuareg militants control the informal trade networks, from migration to drugs and contraband cigarettes, on which the region’s economy depends.

    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    Africa's Sahel Region

    Northern Mali has been a stronghold for jihadists since 2003, when Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, fleeing a government clampdown, escaped across the border. Key to the militants’ survival was a tacit agreement with the Malian military and state officials that largely left them alone.

    In 2012 they made common cause with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The rebellion relaunched longstanding separatist demands for the secession of the neglected north.

    But soon after the independence of “Azawad” was proclaimed, the MNLA was under attack by Ansar Dine and a coalition of jihadist fighters, determined to impose an extreme version of shariah law in the north.

    The French military won back the region for the government. Operation Serval, an air and ground mission, was launched at the request of Bamako as the jihadists rolled south. France continues to fight in Mali as part of a regional anti-terror drive called Operation Barkhane.

    Underlining that investment, Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French president, made Mali his first official visit outside Europe, earlier this month.

    The West’s concern is the transnational threat of jihadism. Some Malian groups have links with Boko Haram in Nigeria, and AQIM last year launched attacks on Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Neighbouring Senegal is concerned it could be next.

    In what the International Crisis Group has described as a “security traffic jam”, more external military intervention is envisaged, from the G-5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and/or the G-3 (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali).

    But military force alone cannot put Mali together again. The north is now splintered as competing groups emerge – some narrowly ethnic, others backing the jihadists. The government has fallen back on an old model of corrupt payoffs and the use of local proxies to manage the conflict. What is needed, though, is better governance.

    View from Timbuktu

    The 700-year-old, mud-built Djinguereber mosque in Timbuktu is a tourist must-see. Inside, the light refracts between its adobe pillars. It’s cool and airy and the acoustics are just how you’d imagine talking under water might sound. In the desert sky above this iconic building a UN military drone buzzes.

    Within minutes of new arrivals at the mosque, a man has spread out a small blanket and set up piles of worn postcards and jewelry. He explains that no tourists have visited this famed site in five years. He looks hopeful, if only for a moment.

    Timbuktu was held by the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Dine for several months in 2012. They imposed a stringent, alien version of Islamic law in what is a traditionally moderate country. Centuries-old Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts, cultural treasures on which Timbuktu’s fame is based, were destroyed.

    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    The Great Mosque of Djenné

    Although the town was recaptured in January 2013, the only visitors to Timbuktu these days are UN soldiers and a smattering of aid workers and government officials. In the vast northern desert beyond the city, jihadist groups hold sway.

    Timbuktu’s urbanites find the jihadist presence unsettling. But in the conservative rural areas there is far greater acceptance, a local NGO worker, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.

    Timbuktu remains unsafe. On 15 May, there was a rocket attack on the airport; earlier this month a UN police base came under fire, as did a Malian army checkpoint. The raids occur despite the presence of Burkinabe and Swedish contingents of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali.

    The scruffy Malian soldiers tasked with jointly securing the city with the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSMA, seem marooned, vulnerable and disconnected from any notion of nation-building. They don’t always show up for the nightly joint patrols they are supposed to undertake.

    A broader conflict

    MINUSMA is a 13,817-strong, $933 million operation.

    Among its contributors are European countries that have brought a level of sophistication – including drones, special forces, and intelligence cells – few other UN missions possess.

    But it is also the UN’s most dangerous mission, with 118 peacekeepers killed since 2013.

    It hasn’t been hard for the jihadists to portray MINUSMA and the European intervention as a neo-colonial plot, propping up a corrupt regime as they steal the country’s raw materials. But the West’s strategic interests clearly go beyond countering extremism to include policing the migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean.

    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    January to March 2017 Displacement in Mali | UNHCR

    From north to south, Mali’s state institutions are barely functioning or entirely broken. For months, earlier this year, public schools and hospitals were closed because teachers and health workers were on strike.

    “It’s difficult to say what really works in Mali today,” wrote Abdelkader Abderrahmane, an international consultant on African peace and security issues, in an email to IRIN.

    Kamissa Camara, a researcher based in Washington DC and specialising in Africa's Sahel region, said she doubts that any Malian children, save the ones living near Bamako, have gone to school for a straight year since 2012.

    The jihadist “threat narrative has obscured a proper assessment of the Malian government’s performance and its ability to deliver basic public services and create jobs,” Camara wrote in a piece for the Africa Research Institute.

    Both Abderrahmane and Camara think that corruption has eroded popular support for successive administrations, and added to the resilience of Mali’s overlapping conflicts.

    Peace deal

    For the past two years there has been a shaky framework for peace called the Algiers Accord, which has been unhurriedly implemented.

    The two principal signatories are a coalition of Tuareg rebels known as the Coordination of the Azawad Movements, or CMA, and ostensibly pro-government armed rivals grouped in what is called the Platform.

    The jihadists were not included in the agreement and have tried to wreck it. The most dramatic example was a bomb explosion in Gao in January that targeted a joint patrol of rebel fighters (the first patrol of its kind, 18 months after the accord was signed). The attack, which reportedly killed 80 people, stalled the initiative.

    In March, the extremists created their own coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM). It fuses AQIM, Ansar Dine, and FLM, and is led by Ag Ghali. It excludes a small faction that has sided with the so-called Islamic State.

    Simply throwing more troops at the jihadists does not seem to be the answer.

    But there could now be a new twist in the five-year conflict.

    A Conference of National Understanding, held between the government and non-jihadist armed groups in the north, had been heading the way of other stalled provisions of the 2015 peace agreement. But after a series of boycotts, it delivered a key recommendation at its close on 2 April that has jolted Mali’s political class: the idea that the government should talk to Malian jihadists, specifically Ag Ghali and Koufa.

    After initially appearing to welcome the suggestion, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has since backtracked. France has adamantly rejected it. “We are engaged in a fight. It is a fight without ambiguity against terrorism… And so there is only one way; there are not two,” France’s then-foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on a visit to Mali in April.


    There are also political and legal obstacles to talking with people linked to al-Qaeda. Ag Ghali is on a US terrorist list for a start, which would complicate any potential amnesty deal. Nobody knows what concessions he would seek to extract, how reliable an interlocutor he would be, and how talks might impact on an international coalition that has shed much blood fighting in the north. Domestically, dialogue could also become hostage to Mali’s elections due next year.


    But it is "worth a try”, noted well-regarded Sahelian analyst Alex Thurston in a recent blog: “A peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks.”


    That’s not to say, he added, that the Malian government “could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit.”


  • Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts

    Fears are growing that the UN will be forced to drastically cut peacekeeping missions at President Donald Trump’s behest. Fortunately, it's a lot more complicated than that. First, Trump has to get his proposed budget through the US Congress and then, even if he does, where and when to cut the presence of blue helmets around the globe relies on tricky diplomatic manoeuvring and careful navigation of the UN's bureaucratic roadblocks. 

    The current UN peacekeeping budget, for the year ending 30 June, 2017, is $7.78 billion. The US provides 28.57 percent of this budget, followed by China and Japan at around 10 percent, then Germany, France, and the UK.

    The budget officially proposed by the Trump administration would significantly reduce financing to the State Department, international aid, and the financing of international organisations, including the UN. The so-called “skinny” budget contains only a few lines that directly reference peacekeeping. Namely, the US “would not contribute more than 25 percent for UN peacekeeping costs”.

    However, the US Congress already caps American’s peacekeeping assessment level at 25 percent. To meet its marginally higher existing obligations, that cap must be waived every year. “Trump is not creating this – it exists already,” pointed out Paul D. Williams, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

    Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration wants to cut far deeper than the 25 percent ceiling, ripping as much as 40 percent from the $2.2 billion annual US contribution. A decrease from 28.57 percent to under 25 percent amounts to around $280 million. Incidentally, this is almost precisely the figure a 2014/15 UN Board of Auditors’ report identified as the total amount funded but not being spent by missions. A 40 percent cut would take roughly $1 billion from the UN's peacekeeping budget and reduce the US share, at existing levels, to more like 17-18 percent.

    The UN has often faced threats from American politicians, but this time the White House has telegraphed a clear intent to follow through on its promises: “We’re absolutely reducing funding to the UN and to various foreign aid programmes,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director.

    “We should look at all 16 of them,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said at her confirmation hearing, referring to the number of blue-helmet missions around the world (14 are funded through the assessed peacekeeping budget). Haley will chair a 6 April meeting at the UN Security Council about the future of those peacekeeping missions. A letter she sent to Council members asks: "are current missions still 'fit for purpose?'"

    "Council members are encouraged to review missions and identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities and propose alternatives or paths towards restructuring to bring missions more in line with achievable outcomes," wrote the US mission. The letter, obtained by IRIN, asks many of the same questions already being posed by Council members – what to do "where there is no political process to support"; how to guard against mission creep; or whether it is "advisable, or even possible, to operate a mision without the strategic consent of the host government".

    Even if a far larger proposed cut does emerge when Trump’s more detailed budget is released in May, the reality is that it is Congress that ultimately decides the budget, not the White House. Many Republicans already balked at the proposed cuts, especially at the State Department, and the president is already locked in a major congressional battle over healthcare reform.

    "I do not anticipate that Congress will approve the UN-related provisions in the president’s budget without major revisions,” Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation told IRIN. "There are many congressional champions who appreciate peacekeeping, and want to ensure full-funding."

    Experts reserve their deepest concern for reductions in US financing to other UN programming, including UNICEF. “I think the proposed cuts to the UN’s humanitarian, climate and human rights work will have a far more negative impact,” said Cedric de Coning, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

    No one knows exactly how things will play out at this stage. For one, the White House has yet to even brief Congress on its budget proposals for the State Department. 

    “Depending on how all this shakes out, the cuts could end up being quite enormous across the various agencies and the UN itself,” Bathsheba Crocker, assistant secretary of international organisation affairs at the State Department during President Barack Obama’s administration, told IRIN. “I think we all need to be girding ourselves for that possibility.”

    But when it comes to peacekeeping, the US cannot pick and choose which missions it wants to fund.

    What each member state owes as a portion of the peacekeeping budget is determined every three years. The US share, like that of other countries, won’t be renegotiated until late 2018. That means that if the US cuts funding to 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget – regardless of what the total budget is – it will be in arrears for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the UN Foundation.

    America’s own federal budget won’t be passed for nearly a year. The UN’s peacekeeping budget, meanwhile, will be renewed at the beginning of July. “This cycle is rarely aligned with the Security Council mandate” of each peacekeeping mission, the UN’s website notes.

    "This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance."

    All of these built in lags – at times criticised as roadblocks to simplifying UN bureaucracy – could now serve as buffers. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already committed himself to deep reforms and will look to carefully decide how and where best to trim.

    Some Security Council diplomats say there is room to make missions work better, and that could mean some cuts in funding – though such efforts may now be associated with the White House, where top officials have shown contempt for the UN as an institution. "There is an opportunity to have a tougher approach with the UN on where they spend their money, using money as an incentive for reform,” insisted one non-American Security Council diplomat. If the US approves deep funding cuts without a parallel re-assessment at the UN, diplomats may be less sympathetic. 

    US reviews of peacekeeping missions, noted de Coning, “will probably prompt the UN Secretariat to also do its own internal reviews, and other member states, especially those in the Security Council, will also need to form their own opinions, and have a basis for doing so.”

    “This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is always good to be under pressure to review your goals, objectives, effectiveness, and efficiencies,” he added. “The proposed cut to 25 percent will be politically symbolically important for the US, but the real reduction in costs would come from pressure to bring down the overall $8 billion budget.”

    Others point to the fact that peacekeeping is hugely cost effective for countries like the US. As one recent analysis points out, the US pays $2.1 million every year for each servicemember deployed in a war zone; the equivalent figure for a deployed UN peacekeeper is $24,500.

    “I think this budget proposal reveals this administration’s slash-and-burn approach to the UN is ideological,” said Williams. “It is not the product of a thoughtful review process carried out and then implemented to find sensible reforms. This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance.”

    “Such cuts would mean the UN Security Council would not be able to achieve a range of objectives it authorised in the name of maintaining international peace and security,” he added.

    But several missions were already in the process of shutting down or transitioning to a smaller footprint, so efficiencies can also be made, even if they don’t make the kind of dent in spending that the White House appears intent on achieving.

    “There are actually quite a lot of straightforward ways to shrink the peacekeeping budget by reasonably high amounts in the next several years,” said Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the UN.

    IRIN took a look at the options, mission by mission:

    Cutting and shrinking

    MINUSTAH – Haiti

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended that the mission in Haiti be drawn down and replaced with a smaller UN presence by October of this year. That move is complicated both by disagreements over what the new presence would entail – or if there should be one at all – and the UN’s ongoing response to a cholera epidemic that its own peacekeepers introduced in 2011. A trust fund set up to finance the UN’s $400 million cholera response strategy currently contains just $2 million. MINUSTAH’s current mandate will expire in less than one month – on 15 April.

    Currently, there are nearly 5,000 uniformed personnel deployed, including 2,370 military and 2,601 police. An additional 1,245 civilian personnel are in the country, according to the Department of Peacekeeping. The mission’s budget is currently $345.9 million.

    UNOCI – Cote D’Ivoire

    In April 2016, the UN Security Council voted to close down UNOCI by June of this year, and lifted an arms embargo on the country, and travel bans. By 30 April, all uniformed and civilian personnel are to leave the country. The mission’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 2017 is $153 million.

    UNMIL – Liberia

    After more than 13 years, the UN’s mission in Liberia will close at the end of March. Its approved budget through this year was $187 million.

    Maximum overall savings: $685.9 million

    The Big Missions

    The UN’s five most expensive missions are MONUSCO, deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; UNMISS, deployed in South Sudan; UNAMID, deployed in Darfur, Sudan; MINUSMA, deployed in Mali; and MINUSCA, deployed in the Central African Republic. Together, the five missions soak up more than $5.2 billion, or two-thirds of the entire peacekeeping budget.

    In order for significant cuts to be made, “you have to see some major changes to existing missions like CAR or Mali or DR Congo,” said Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation. “If you want to get serious numbers,” said Crocker, “it’s very hard to do without these big missions taking some hits.”

    MONUSCO – The Democratic Republic of Congo

    The UN’s mission in the DRC is its most expensive peacekeeping operation, with an approved budget of $1.23 billion. Nearly 19,000 peacekeepers are deployed in the country, and Guterres recently requested that the Security Council send 320 additional police to handle election-related unrest. The Council meets in March to consider mandate renewal. It could be a first sign of how Haley’s US mission plans to throw its weight around. But it may also be too soon to gauge, with the ink on the White House budget barely dry, and little sense of how Congress will proceed. Recent violence and the disappearance of two UN experts and their teams have ratcheted concerns.

    At the Security Council, France has circulated a draft resolution to renew the mandate. Last week, France’s UN ambassador Francoise Delattre said he was open to “negotiations aimed at reforming MONUSCO,” as long as they remained focused on protection of civilians and preparing for elections. “We should not be playing with fire when it comes to such high stakes,” he added.

    "What commitments should the Council expect of countries hosting UN peace operations where the UN is helping the government to establish its authority throughout its territory," asked the US note, specifically referring to MONUSCO, as well as missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Somalia. 

    “Negotiations around MONUSCO are going to be the first evidence of how these battles play out,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch. “In many ways you need MONUSCO to do more, not less, in the coming year. Slimming down the mission at the same time as the country is gearing up for elections could be really problematic.”

    “My guess is that the DRC mission will stay in some capacity, although the government pretty much wants it to leave,” assessed David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

    UNMISS – South Sudan

    Authorised on 8 July, 2011 – one day before South Sudan became independent – the mission’s task changed drastically following the outbreak of civil war in December 2013. Today, the mission protects a quarter of a million displaced South Sudanese civilians at its bases, including more than 120,000 just in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State. The mission has been censured for previous failures to intervene in violence against civilians and aid workers.

    It would be hard to rationalise shutting down a mission in a country where UN officials have repeatedly highlighted the threat of genocide, and where famine has been declared in some areas. But UNMISS may find its funding at risk simply because of the need to find ways of overall tightening.

    With an approved budget of $1.08 billion, UNMISS is the second most expensive UN mission. According to State Department figures, the US financed the mission in 2016 to the tune of $315.47 million. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reports that 12,923 uniformed personnel are currently deployed, along with 1,973 civilians. In December 2016, the mission’s mandate was renewed and the Security Council reaffirmed the authorisation of a 4,000-member “Regional Protection Force”. That force has yet to be allowed into the country, underscoring the impasse.

    UNAMID – Darfur, Sudan

    UNAMID is the UN’s *third costliest mission, and its first hybrid deployment. 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of the joint UN-African Union enterprise, and at an annual price tag of $1.03 billion, it has been one of the “most expensive endeavours ever conducted” by the organisation. Beset by scandals and an inability – some say unwillingness – to operate freely, the mission has long been under pressure. UN officials say it is not always easy to quantify the return on investment for UNAMID – a metric the US now appears bent on amplifying. In a region historically vulnerable to genocide, it acts as a deterrent (a weak one, critics say) and provides leverage against the government in Khartoum. Several Security Council diplomats told IRIN that UNAMID needs at the very least to be reformed.

    The 16,000-strong mission is currently mandated through June 2017. “It may be the case that the calls for UNAMID to leave are more open now than ever before,” said David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

    “It is a very troubled mission for sure; it is also a very troubled part of the world,” offered Crocker. The Security Council, she said, “should make sure that any decisions that are made about downsizing the mission are made on a realistic strategic assessment of the needs on the ground.”

    Several diplomats suggested that the US may negotiate hard on UNAMID, potentially raising the threat – perhaps feigned – of vetoing its renewal.

    “I would imagine Darfur (UNAMID) may receive the most attention as the protection situation there is perhaps less acute than in DRC and South Sudan,” said de Coning.

    MINUSMA – Mali

    The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali is one of its most expensive – and also one of the deadliest. More than 70 peacekeepers have been killed since MINUSMA’s deployment in July 2013, following French intervention against extremists and rebel groups. Blue helmets are targeted by and involved in fights with regional al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists. Currently, more than 13,000 peacekeepers are deployed.

    Because of the mission’s counter-terrorism role, some diplomats consider it better safeguarded from cuts than other deployments. It is also relatively new by UN standards. In February, Canada reportedly delayed deployment of its peacekeepers to the country because it was wary of US plans across all missions. “The overall security situation remains worrying,” UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous said last week during a visit.

    MINUSMA will cost $933 million in the fiscal year ending June 2017.

    MINUSCA – Central African Republic

    A mission notorious for rampant sexual abuse among its peacekeepers, some diplomats consider MINUSCA too recently created for large scale retrenchment. Deployed in April 2014, there are currently more than 12,000 peacekeepers in the country. MINUSCA will cost roughly $920 million this year.

    On 16 March, Haley met with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic. According to a readout, she expressed America’s “commitment” to both MINUSCA and “how to make it as efficient and effective as possible.” In a speech before the Security Council on the same day, deputy US representative Michele Sison also largely endorsed the mission; repeating that America wanted to make “MINUSCA an even more efficient and more effective peacekeeping mission”. She did note the sexual exploitation and abuse tied to the mission, but did not criticise its staffing.

    The current mandate expires in November 2017.


    Annemieke Vanderploeg/UNMISS
    Chinese peacekeeper in South Sudan

    Other Missions

    UNIFIL – Lebanon

    The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed in the country since 1978. Its mandate has changed several times, most recently after the 2006 Lebanon War involving Israel. UNIFIL was subsequently expanded by the Security Council. Rarely mentioned in the press, its presence and price tag are not small: 11,425 UN personnel, including 10,577 troops, are currently deployed. The mission currently has an approved budget of $488 million.

    When UNIFIL’s mandate was last renewed, in June 2016, the Security Council requested that the secretary-general conduct a strategic review. Delivered on 9 March, it recommended reductions in the number of maritime crew personnel deployed by the mission, from 1,200 to 900, and that helicopters be flown less. Larger cuts were not outlined, although the review reiterated that “UNIFIL should continue to optimise its staffing complement and resources to support the effective and cost-efficient implementation of its mandate.”

    UNISFA – Abyei

    The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei was deployed in June 2011. Set up as an interim force, the current mission costs a sizeable $268.5 million. More than 5,300 military personnel are deployed. The current mandate runs through May of 2017. Much of the Security Council’s attention has been drawn to the other more expensive missions in the Sudans – UNAMID and UNMISS.

    UNMIK – Kosovo

    The UN’s mission in Kosovo, deployed since 1999, costs $36 million per year. In a February report, Guterres supported the continued resourcing of the mission, which he said “in it’s current configuration, is well suited to respond to challenges on the ground.” But the US representative told the Security Council in February: “we believe UNMIK is over-resourced and overstaffed in comparison with its limited responsibilities.”

    UNFICYP – Cyprus

    Amid negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriot representatives, the UN in January approved a six-month extension of the mission there. One of the UN’s oldest missions, UNFICYP costs a modest $55 million per year.

    UNMOGIP - India/Pakistan

    The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is one of the smallest peacekeeping operations. Only 111 total personnel are deployed; the budget through 2017 is $21 million.

    UNTSO – Middle East

    The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is the UN’s oldest current peacekeeping mission. Founded in 1948, today it assists other deployments in the region. Its budget for the fiscal year ending in 2017 is $68 million.

    MINURSO – Western Sahara

    The UN’s mission in Western Sahara was created in 1991. Last year, it was the center of controversy when then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to the Moroccan “occupation” of the territory. Today, the mission is involved in ceasefire monitoring and supporting local families. Current strength is around 480 personnel, including 241 peacekeepers. Its budget through mid-2017 is $56 million.

    UNDOF - Golan Heights

    UNDOF was mandated in 1974 to supervise disengagement between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. Since 2013, fighting inside Syria has forced most of its peacekeepers into Israeli-controlled territory. The mission currently deploys around 830 peacekeepers, at a cost of $47 million per year. Its mandate was renewed in December until 30 June, 2017.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that UNAMID was the second most expensive UN peacekeeping mission)



    A look at the options, mission by mission
    Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts
  • Editor’s take: Can UN peacekeeping be fixed?

    Lieutenant General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki is in disgrace. The Kenyan commander of the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan was sacked this week by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon after a special investigation found there was a "chaotic and ineffective response” to protecting civilians during fighting between government and opposition soldiers in the capital, Juba, in July. 


    But Ondieki’s departure will not solve the wider deficiencies and challenges hobbling UN peacekeeping. Ondieki inherited many of those shortcomings: he had only headed the UN Mission in South Sudan for two months before the Juba clashes.


    A furious Kenyan government, accusing the UN of scapegoating, has said it will withdraw its 1,000-strong contingent from UNMISS. It has also backed out of a planned, more robust, 4,000-man Regional Protection Force.


    The significance of walking away is that Kenya is the region’s point person for South Sudan’s battered peace process


    What the UN’s special investigation found was certainly shocking. Peacekeepers abandoned their posts. No contingent was willing to participate in a rescue mission to help aid workers and civilians whose hotel was raided by government soldiers a little over a kilometre from their base, even though a senior government officer offered to accompany the reaction force.


    Problems from the start


    The panel pointed to a grave lack of leadership. But Ondieki may well be feeling aggrieved: the bar that UNMISS could operate at was never set particularly high.


    From the start, UNMISS has struggled to attract enough troops to reach its mandated strength. Command, as in other UN missions, is also complicated by “caveats” – hidden restrictions whereby the different national contingents apply their own rules of engagement, or refer direct orders to their home governments who make often delayed decisions on compliance or refuse them.


    When the country degenerated into civil war in December 2013, the peacekeepers had little choice but to pull back into their bases. The idea was that they would provide protection to the civilians around them, but the reality was that UNMISS was intimidated by a government that publicly accused it of supporting the opposition.


    Duck and cover

    A bunkering mindset meant UNMISS chose not to patrol aggressively or challenge the restrictions placed on its free movement – even though those restrictions violated the status of forces agreement the UN had agreed with the government.


    In Mongatan, just outside the Juba Tongping base, civilians were being killed by government forces within earshot of the UN troops when fighting first broke out. Between January and April 2014, there were massacres in Leer, Malakal, and twice in Bentui, towns where peacekeepers were bivouacked.


    Even the UNMISS bases themselves have not been safe for the sheltering civilians. In Akobo, 43 Indian peacekeepers, defending a fortified position, equipped with armored personnel carriers, surrendered to a mob who executed at least 20 people in the base. In Bor, 43 were killed in the IDP camp defended by UNMISS; in Malakal this year, 30 died when government soldiers broke in.


    The 12,000-strong UNMISS force, without proper medevac support or air cover, has preferred not to confront a government army or rebels who have shown little compunction in killing peacekeepers or downing UN helicopters. The international community has applied limited pressure on Juba and done little else to try to change this equation – and, in truth, may lack leverage.


    A global problem


    South Sudan is just one example of the challenges and setbacks faced by UN peacekeeping. Through the years there’s also been the genocide in Rwanda; the surrender by Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica; the sex abuse scandals and multiple failures to protect civilians in the Congo; and ineptitude in Darfur.


    In Central African Republic, child rape and murder aside, the failure of the UN mission to end the lawlessness in the centre and east of the country led to protests last month demanding MINUSCA’s withdrawal – in which the peacekeepers shot dead four people.



    Bentiu IDP Camp
    UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
    Bentiu IDP Camp


    Traditional peacekeeping is about separating warring parties who consent to the intervention. But increasingly UN operations are in countries where there is little or no peace to keep. Rather than an interposing neutral force, the UN is increasingly a direct combatant, as in Mali and the Congo.


    In the future, even more complex roles are anticipated for blue helmets, from countering people-trafficking to cyber-crime. But are we already expecting too much of peacekeepers? 


    New skills needed


    There is a narrative that blames peacekeeping failures on the “Third World” soldiery that makes up the bulk of missions. That is as insulting as it is inaccurate. Several countries in the Global South have a proud tradition of peacekeeping.


    What Western armies do possess is the additional equipment and skills that will allow UN peace operations to be more mobile, aware, and harder-hitting.


    In Mali, 10 percent of MINUSMA is made up of soldiers from the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden. They come with the experience of dealing with IEDs in Afghanistan, and their contribution of drones, attack helicopters, and special forces has enabled the creation of an intelligence “All Sources Information Fusion Unit” - unique initiative for the UN.


    But the Europeans are in Mali because of its strategic importance: it is a hub of Salafi jihadism, and a key migration and drug route to Europe – there is also the sense that if these personnel do not use the capabilities developed in Afghanistan, they will be lost.


    The African Union, on the other hand, has a duty to intervene to uphold peace on the continent. The AU has shown itself willing to deploy in situations like Somalia and engage in the bloody slog of house-to-house combat – hardly the traditional role for UN blue helmets.


    The UN’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, or HIPPO, envisages more regional interventions like Somalia, authorised by the Security Council. But whereas the AU can provide the troops and deploy far faster than a still hidebound UN, it doesn’t have the funding.



    Victorious SPLA soldiers
    Albert González Farran/IRIN
    Victorious SPLA soldiers in Malakal


    The AU has now agreed an innovative plan to finance its organisation, and 25 percent of its peace operations, through a 0.2 percent levy on imports. African leaders hope the international community will make up the remaining 75 percent, mostly through UN-assessed contributions. But it is far from a done deal.


    Political solutions


    The HIPPO argues that the role of peace operations is to create the space for political solutions. It calls for flexibility to respond to changing needs, rather than standard template deployments. But it also acknowledges there are situations where the UN should say “No” to intervention.


    South Sudan feels far from “ripe” for a political solution. In the absence of that moment, the UN Security Council wants the planned 4,000-strong RPF to specifically protect civilians and strategic installations in Juba. It is a measure of the difficulty of operating in the country that the focus is so limited.


    It also remains far from clear what an additional 4,000 troops can achieve, beyond what the existing 12,000 blue helmets have struggled to accomplish.


    The RPF will be operating under the existing UNMISS mandate and command structure, and dealing with the same truculent government. Juba will no doubt refuse to accept any additional equipment that will improve the UN’s fighting abilities.


    So what happens next, now that Ondieki has gone, replaced by a Chinese force commander?


    Not much new, might be the right answer. What South Sudanese no doubt hope will emerge is a new sense of accountability from the men and women the international community has sent to help them.


    But the ultimate responsibility doesn’t rest with the peacekeepers. It is the duty of the South Sudanese government to protect and serve its own citizens. When it fails, those in charge must be held to account.




    TOP PHOTO: Bangladeshi peacekeeper in South Sudan, Credit: UNMISS

    A damning report on the UN’s performance in South Sudan adds to the urgency for reform
    Editor’s take: Can UN peacekeeping be fixed?

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