The United Nations Security Council has renewed the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, for a further twelve months. The seven-year operation has been beefed up and given extra powers, despite a divergence between the United States and France over the mission's effectiveness.
UN Security Council members on Monday voted unanimously to extend the mandate of MINUSMA, the organisation's peacekeeping mission to Mali, until 30 June 2021.
The number of personnel will be increased to 13,289 soldiers and 1,920 police officers.
The mission's budget has also been boosted to 1.2 billion dollars, making MINUSMA - the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali - the third most expensive peacekeeping operation in the world.
It is also one of the most dangerous, and many observers agree that the extra resources are vitally necessary.
"The news is better than I expected," says Alexandra Lamarche, Senior Advocate for West and Central Africa at the non-profit organisation Refugees International. "Now they have an expanded mandate plus resources," she tells RFI.
Fear of cuts
It is a very different situation from last year when the mission mandate was renewed. "Last year, the operation was given a new strategic priority to protect civilians, but no money.
"I was extremely worried following a statement from the US in January saying 'if you don't improve your work on resilience we will call for cuts'," Lamarche comments.
The Trump administration, which is keen to spend less on UN missions in Africa to free up more money for the US military, has repeatedly questioned the efficacy of MINUSMA in tackling ongoing violence in the west African nation.
There were fears that MINUSMA's effectiveness would be hampered further after 73 of its members contracted the coronavirus in May.
"A lot of its funding went to support the health ministry with its response, spreading the personnel even thinner," says Lamarche.
She hopes that the new mandate, which offers "more money and less talk of decreasing at a time where violence is skyrocketing," will enable MINUSMA to do its job of protecting civilians.
Central Mali violence
That is what the operation has been trying to do in the centre of the country, where violence so far this year has killed nearly 600 civilians.
The violence has been blamed on tensions between Dogon farmers and Fulani herders, which has increased since a militant uprising in the north of the country in 2012, which triggered Mali's crisis.
"Every day there is a tragedy in the centre of the country due to attacks by the Dogon self-defence group, Dan Na Ambassagou, and reprisals from the Peulh community," says Leslie Varenne, director of French research institute IVERIS, referring to the Malian name of the Fulani herdsmen.
Some experts accuse armed groups such as Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Greater Sahara, an ISIS affiliate, of inflaming tensions between the two ethnic groups.
"There are more civilians killed by intercommunal violence than by terrorist groups," Varenne tells RFI, denouncing the often heavy-handed response of the Malian military.
Last Saturday, the office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented "230 extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions" attributed to the Malian military in the central regions of Mopti and Segou.
This week's UN proposal calls for a return of stability and government control in central Mali and will for the first time measure MINUSMA's progress in this arid zone.
For the first time too, MINUSMA will provide support to the G5 Sahel Joint force, notably through the appointment of its former Africa bureau chief, Bruno Mpondo-Epo, as special adviser to the UN's special representative to Mali, Mahamat Saleh Annadif.
"I think it's an attempt to better coordinate efforts," reckons Varenne.
Currently, there are several military operations in the Sahel, including France's 5,000-strong Operation Barkhane, the G5 force, comprising troops from neighbouring Sahel countries, a European Union training mission known as Takuba, due to be set up in 2021, and the MINUSMA operation.
"MINUSMA's new political mandate can be seen as a compromise between the US and France," Leslie Varenne explains.
"The United States were incredibly skittish about spending any more money," she says. "The fact that they've accepted a bigger budget and agreed to enlarge the mission's mandate suggests that they must have received guarantees in return."
The renewal does commit to presenting a "possible exit strategy" for the mission by March 2021, but Varenne reckons the Americans may have obtained more during negotiations.
"The Americans have been lobbying for their candidate David Gressly to take over MINUSMA from Chadian boss Mahamat Saleh Annadif," she says. Gressly is the current head of the UN peacekeeping force in the DR Congo.
"If they succeed, the Americans won't mind that MINUSMA takes on a bigger political role if that role is in their hands."
Whatever role MINUSMA plays, the challenges facing the mission are enormous. Since its launch in 2013, the operation has witnessed the Malian state teeter over the edge, an instability compounded by recent anti-government protests and rising resentment against the presence of foreign troops.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the peacekeeping troops that we see being deployed in Mali don't speak the local language, many don't even speak French," says Lamarche of Refugees International.
"So, building trust is very difficult," and that can hamper efforts to obtain credible information from the local population, crucial in stamping out violence, she says.
Still, "things would be worse without MINUSMA," reckons IVERIS' Varenne. "Where MINUSMA is based, terrorist groups do not come."
To fulfil its essential mandate of protecting civilians, Lamarche argues that the mission needs to regain public trust.
"They were supposed to play an important role in the peace deal and people have not seen that come to fruition. They see them supporting the G5 and that isn't doing any good either. So there is a lot of disappointment among the Malian population."
That resentment has spilled over into the political realm, with recent protests from northern civilians against marginalisation and government corruption.
Mali president faces fresh protests to resign amid leadership challenge
"There is a possibility for change," says Lamarche. "Before, such protests would have been unheard of." This desire for change can be "maximised by peacekeepers," she concludes.