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The Malian Crisis: Thinking More Broadly about the Security Sector Agenda By: David Law | Mali | Nov 10, 2016

For the UN, the Mali deployment has been politically one of its most important to date, one of its largest in terms of numbers of deployed personnel, and one of its most deadly in terms of personnel losses.  At the time of writing, MINUSMA also appears to have been one of the least successful.

Overall, implementation of the peace agreement has been slow, uneven and flawed. The ongoing violence has made it difficult for armed groups to withdraw from certain areas, let alone disarm, and has thwarted development of the new power-sharing arrangements agreed in Algiers. As noted above, the Mixed Units to be constituted by previous opponents have not got off the ground as violence among their would-be constituent actors has continued. The impression one gains is that the political ground work that needed to be done to make possible cooperation among Malians from the centre and the North has not been forthcoming.

While it is far too soon to draw definitive conclusions from the situation in Mali, the crisis and the efforts to address it raise a number of points that may be instructive for the overall SSR/SSG agenda.

First, the Mali situation confirms that mainstream SSR thinking is spot on.  This calls for a country’s security actors to be  capable of defending the population, using security resources responsibly and to this end being subjected to effective supervision by the executive, the parliament, the judiciary, civil society and the media. The Malian security sector has traditionally been ineffectively overseen. It has also been grossly under-equipped and financed. It has had little capacity in the North. It was totally unprepared for the challenges that emerged in the country after 2011. Had the Malian security sector been more functional, the country would have had a reasonable chance of neutralizing the destabilizing elements that descended on it as Libya was plunged into chaos and region-wide terrorist ambitions took root.

Second, Mali must redouble its efforts to develop a power-sharing formula that respects both the authority of the central government and the need for a devolution of decision-making prerogatives across its different communities and regions. In a country like Mali, a federalism of sorts, even if rudimentary, needs to take shape. Security sector governance in any national entity needs to ensure that sub-national specificities and identities are taken into account and effectively addressed.

Third, one cannot address the security situation in Mali without taking into account how regional and international developments have impacted upon the country. The experience of the Tuareg community is a case in point. As Berbers, the Tuaregs are connected with fellow communities across the Sahel and in neighboring regions. The central government in Mali and their supporting donors need to factor this more prominently into their security sector decision-making. The larger issue is that any national SSR process will need to take into consideration regional interests and agenda in its programmes.

Fourth, the Malian crisis has underscored just to what extent the international community is badly prepared to intervene when intervention becomes the only option. As explained above, in Mali as many as seven different missions – local, regional, European, UN – were engaged in an effort to find a viable response to the crisis. Not only were valuable time and resources lost in the process of mounting successive operations, but the credibility of external efforts suffered accordingly.

As for MINUSMA, it seems that it was singularly ill-prepared for its missions. In particular, here is what a recently-resigned UN Assistant Secretary General had to say about the UN role in Mali:

“Our most grievous blunder is in Mali. In early 2013, the United Nations decided to send 10,000 soldiers and police officers to Mali in response to a terrorist takeover of parts of the north. Inexplicably, we sent a force that was unprepared for counterterrorism and explicitly told not to engage in it. More than 80 percent of the force’s resources are spent on logistics and self-protection. Already 56 people in the United Nations contingent have been killed, and more are certain to die.”

The credibility of international intervention has also been diminished by broad and overlapping mandates. MINUSMA has been criticized for having too wide a mandate, which has led to disagreements over its interpretation, especially given the great number of states involved. MINUSMA has also been taken to task for catering to the interests of the international community as opposed to prioritizing the needs and expectations of the Malian people. This may point to a local ownership deficit in responding to the crisis. It may also mean that the Malian capacity to deal with the crisis and the need for reform that it has engendered has been so weak and dysfunctional that external actors have had to assume greater responsibilities than they would normally be inclined to do.

At the same time, there has been conflict among international stakeholders about who should take the lead in coordinating the actions on the ground  in Mali. In principle, this is the UN’s task. In practice, the EU has been trying to play this role.

In conclusion, there  are two overarching issues that come to the fore when looking at the Malian crisis from a security sector perspective.

One is almost a truism, but it is one that bears repeating. While external actors can play a decisive role in suffocating conflict and helping a country instigate the necessary reforms, over the longer-term security must come from within. A country cannot systematically rely on external actors for support in the reform process, and the support it receives will be limited in volume and in time. At the end of the day, it will have to depend primarily on its own efforts.

The other is that the Malian experience also points to the need for the external actors – ECOWAS, AU, EU, UN but also states of the region – to review the course of events in Mali and how their efforts could have been made, individually and collectively, more effective. In particular, one senses that many of the interventions were designed and proceeded without an effective appreciation of the fundamental sociological and political realities at work in the country, and how they would need to be reshaped as a sine qua non for any successful peace and reconstruction process.

It is to be hoped that national, regional and international actors will all come away wiser from their Mali experience. That said, at the current juncture they are still engaged, at a time when Mali looks increasingly like a state that lacks the material and political capacity to maintain itself as a viable entity. If the latter is true, this will have major implications for neighboring states and the situation in West Africa – and perhaps adjoining regions of the continent as well.

A parting thought concerns the overall evolution of the SSR/SSG agenda. Security Sector Reform moved to the mainstream as the many-year focus on forward defence and strategic competition during the Cold War gave way, to a reinforced attention on the domestic causes of conflict and the measures that could be brought to bear to address them. The internal security challenges have not become any less important in the meantime. But it has become more widely apparent that what happens in any internal security sector reform process needs to factor in the regional and global realities that can have an impact on them. In a way, we have moved dialectically in a full circle, opening new doors and windows in the process that will likely prove hugely challenging to pass through with efficiency, credibility and grace.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Security Governance.

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