Narrowing the gap between the UN and Malians

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch24 Dec 2015Karlijn Muiderman

Two-and-a-half years after the start of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, Mahamady Togola and Naffet Keita share some conclusions on popular perceptions of MINUSMA. As national coordinator and board member of the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in Mali, they plead for more communication from the UN with Malians on their mission, but also on their findings.

During the past two years, WANEP has held community consultations with a wide variety of Malian civil society representatives, who have shared the different insecurities the people of Mali encounter in their daily lives (please click on the icon below). The 2012 civil war, military coup and extremist takeover made life difficult for Malians, particularly in the north. The consultations in all eight regions and Bamako district aim to complement the military intervention with inclusive community dialogue. This is particularly important for the strengthening of civil society and to include their message in the international peace process, but also to get a better grip on extremist violence and the interconnections between extremism and problems in society. The recent Bamako attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel – which happened shortly after this interview – demonstrates how extremism continues to have an impact in Mali, in both the north and the south.

About WANEP Mali

WANEP is a regional peacebuilding organization in West-Africa with 15 country offices of which WANEP-Mali is one. In April 2015, it drew up the lessons from the first round of consultations on human security and is in the process of writing up the second round of consultations. The consultations are held throughout Mali with civil society organizations, including women’s groups, youth groups, religious leaders from all religions, the security sector, local governments, and human rights groups. The consultations are part of a project called ‘Civil Society for a Human Security Strategy’, in which WANEP works together with the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) and the Human Security Collective. Read more about their consultations by clicking on this link.

During the interview, Togola and Keita shared some insights into the Malian perception of MINUSMA gained from the first and second round of consultations. They noticed that some political changes had influenced state-society relations, most importantly the signing of the peace agreement in June this year, shortly after which MINUSMA’s mandate was reformulated to focus more on the protection of civilians. This led to a change in the mind set of civil society in that Malians are now more demanding of their government. Priorities have shifted – whereas security from violence was number one priority in the earlier phase of the consultations, the second phase was marked by a high emphasis on the environment, agricultural development and peaceful communities. The consultations highlight that the security of Malians has to be addressed at several levels in terms of physical security, food security and the development of governance and public goods. Thus, the political game has changed and living together peacefully in a strong civil society has become particularly important.

A perceived gap between MINUSMA and the population

In this light, the momentum to put civil needs high on the agenda is most vital. From the consultations, four points stood out.

The first point is about the mandate. The confusion around the MINMUSA’s mandate continues to negatively impact on its image. The separatist groups do not see MINUSMA as a mediator between the parties, but as an ally of the government with a biased role. On the other hand, government officials often accuse MINUSMA of cooperating too much with the armed groups. A part of the population would like MINUSMA to leave, others want them to stay, but with a revised approach. The confusion is not new, and the UN has tried to address it during the renewal of the MINUSMA mandate in June 2015. These perceptions illustrate that a negative image can be persistent and should be addressed quickly to avoid problems later.

The second is about protection. For the majority of the population, the UN has no teeth, as the mandate only allows them to defend, not attack. Particularly in the south, where Malians are not confronted with the work of MINUSMA as regularly as in the north, the people questions its effect. The recent Bamako attack at the Radisson Blu Hotel demonstrated how insecurities continue to exist, also in the south of Mali.

The third point is of a socio-political nature. Those who criticize MINUSMA’s actions feel justified by the display of wealth by the international community, who are driven around in four-wheel drives with air-conditioning. Seeing UN soldiers collaborate with local politicians feeds the idea that money is not being well spent, as corruption is rampant in Mali. At the same time, many Malians are poor and have limited access to resources, jobs and politics. Many Malians expect MINUSMA to help them with these insecurities and feel disappointed that they haven’t.

A final important conclusion is about psychological distance. Communication is perceived as a one-way street. MINUSMA goes into communities to obtain information, ‘intelligence’, but the population cannot access information from MINUSMA. The greater the gap between the UN and the people, the less the UN is perceived to be there for them.

How to make the connections

Togola and Keita make clear recommendations for MINUSMA to improve their communication with Malians on several topics: the duration of the mission, the responsibilities under its mandate, the logic behind the interventions and with whom they work. Mali’s culture of dialogue has been recognized as a good strategy for connecting the population with the international community’s work. Keita also emphasized the role of the youth. The fact that the median age in Mali is below 20 is often forgotten in the strategies of the international community.

But connection goes further than telecommunications. Physical connections need to be forged between the different communities and cities with roads, they emphasize, to improve access to markets and to physically narrow the gap between them. Particularly the remote areas of the north would benefit greatly from more physical connectivity with the rest of Mali. This will recreate great opportunities for the populations.