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Lessons from the Malian Crisis for the International Security Architecture

French VAB Vehicle Being Unloaded from RAF C17 in Mali
French VAB vehicle being unloaded from RAF C17 in Mali. Photo: Defence Images/flickr.

The response to the crisis in Mali has revealed the shortcomings of the multilateral security architecture in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). The response to the security situation in Mali has gone through four phases, with the first two each facing challenges that made it necessary to move on to the next step. The third phase was an interim measure to address the acceleration of events on the ground, paving the way to a fourth step currently under discussion at the UN.

The initial response, which spans the period from the March 2012 coup d’état to June 2012, was a regional one. Articulated by ECOWAS, it was centred on the decision to deploy a multidimensional mission – the ECOWAS Mission in Mali (MICEMA). However, this decision never went beyond the planning stages, having faced several obstacles, including the junta’s hostility to any armed presence in Bamako; the absence of consensus on the way forward with Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Mauritania, accentuated by the fact that these two countries do not belong to ECOWAS; and logistical and financial constraints that made it impossible to deploy in the absence of international support.

The next phase was marked by the involvement of the AU. The AU, which initially limited its efforts to supporting ECOWAS, started playing a more active role in June 2012 and made some progress. Firstly, differences with the Malian actors were overcome, allowing the development of a harmonised concept of operations, which gave the Malian army the lead role in the envisaged military operation. Then the AU sought to overcome Algeria’s reluctance by making it a continental initiative, transforming MICEMA into the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). Finally, and in order to facilitate the provision of support from the UN, the AU, in collaboration with the Malian government, ECOWAS and other international actors developed a strategic concept that framed the military action in a more global perspective.

This response faced its first hurdle in the actual capacity of the Malian army, which had been expected to spearhead the campaign to regain control of the north. On 10 January 2013, twenty days after the UN Security Council adopted the resolution authorising the deployment of AFISMA, the armed groups launched their offensive on Kona. This called for urgent action that the Malian army, whose reorganisation and formation by the EU had not yet started, and AFISMA, then still in the planning stages, could not deliver. In addition, the transition from MICEMA to AFISMA was marked by tension between ECOWAS and the AU. Finally, the crucial issue of resource mobilisation to sustain AFISMA could not be resolved.

At the request of the Malian authorities, France then launched Operation Serval, which was the third phase of the international response. In a few weeks, Serval broke the offensive of the armed groups, regained control of the major northern cities and tracked the armed groups to their northern hideouts. Aimed at addressing the urgency of the crisis, this operation was not meant as a long-term solution. Hence, the emergence, at France’s initiative, of the idea of a UN mission with more secure funding to take over from AFISMA.

The fourth phase of the international response is the ongoing discussion about the UN’s future role. Initially, the UN Secretariat was reluctant to allow any kind of deployment since the prevailing conditions did not lend themselves to the type of operation the UN is able to conduct. After pressure by some members, the Secretariat softened its position. Two options are now provided in the March 2013 Secretary-General’s report: either an integrated and multidimensional presence alongside a military force under African leadership; or an integrated and multidimensional stabilisation mission authorised under Chapter VII and supported by a parallel force. While the UN Security Council is expected to decide on these recommendations in the coming weeks, the majority of members seem to support the second option.

Among the shortcomings of the UN’s actions is the UN Security Council’s refusal to authorise a support package, based on the Somalia model, that is funded by assessed contributions to enable AFISMA to operate effectively. Even the middle-of-the-road solution of establishing a Trust Fund has so far been ineffective. At the doctrinal level, stabilising northern Mali (see ISS Today 12 March 2013), which requires an offensive mandate, goes far beyond the scope of peacekeeping operations as understood and conducted by the UN.

The UN Security Council’s expected resolution should mark the conclusion of the long process of trial and error through which the international community, through the relevant multilateral fora, has sought to manage the security dimension of the Malian crisis. Ultimately, it is the French intervention that helped change the military situation. The broad support it received highlighted the absence of credible and timely alternatives to the threat posed by the armed groups, and hence the serious shortcomings of the multilateral security architecture.

At the continental level, the inability of ECOWAS and the AU to counter the armed offensive is emblematic of the long road that lies ahead before the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) can be fully operationalised. Four elements are worth noting in this regard.

First, it is a matter of urgency that the African Standby Force be operationalised, including its rapid deployment capability, to provide the AU and the Regional Mechanisms with instruments adapted to the type of situation experienced by Mali in mid-January. Pursuant to a decision taken by the January 2013 AU summit, the AU Commission will organise a meeting of African Ministers of Defence in late April in an attempt to expedite the implementation of the rapid deployment capability.

Second, the AU’s Peace Fund, which is under-resourced, does not allow the AU and the regional mechanisms to finance and have full ownership of their operations. When the UN Security Council rejected the requested support package, the deployment of AFISMA became hypothetical. African actors must find viable sources of funding, including through assessed contributions, as provided for by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) Protocol.

The management of the crisis also brought to the fore the limited coordination, based ‘on circumstances and comparative advantages’, between the continental body and regional structures. While the PSC Protocol and the Memorandum of Understanding between the AU and the regional mechanisms asserts the primacy of the first and details rules for cooperation, in practice, the relationship between the AU and ECOWAS was marked by a lack of coordination and, at times, rivalry. Hence the need for a shared understanding of the principles underlying the APSA, their effective implementation, and sustained dialogue between the parties concerned.

Moreover, the crisis in Mali has highlighted the gap between the rhetoric of prevention, which is at the heart of the objectives of the AU and ECOWAS, and its practice. Neither organisation had pointed to the increasingly glaring governance shortcomings in Mali, nor taken the necessary initiatives to address them. While the AU had warned of the consequences of the Libyan crisis, particularly for Mali, it failed to take the full measure of the fragility of the Malian state.

In conclusion, a double action is required. At the continental level, full effect must be given to all of the components of the APSA, which the AU and the regional economic communities’ meeting in Durban in early April was supposed to bring about. At the UN level, it is more necessary than ever to overcome the reluctance that characterises its relationship with regional arrangements, in order to build a partnership adapted to the complex challenges to peace and security in Africa. The AU summit to be held in May 2013 offers the opportunity to move in the direction indicated by the lessons that should be learned from the management of the Mali crisis.

This is a cross-post from the ISS Africa


Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar.

The publication of this article was made possible by a grant from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Mali and the Sahel-Sahara: From Crisis Management to Sustainable Strategy

Crisis in Mali: Ambivalent Popular Attitudes on the Way Forward

EU CSDP in the Light of the Crisis in Mali


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch

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