What Canadians need to know about our peacekeeping mission in Mali

Canadian troops are set to join the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, a country that's been torn apart by violence since 2012 and has proved to be one of the UN's deadliest missions.

A look at the history of the conflict and the challenges Canadian troops could face

Canadian soldiers conduct a practice medical evacuation as they prepare to deploy to Mali. (David Common/CBC)

Canadian troops are set to join the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, a country that's been torn apart by violence since 2012.

They will be teaming up with around 13,000 authorized international troops as part of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) that's trying to stabilize the landlocked West African country amid an ethnic and jihadist insurgency.

Despite UN peacekeeping and French-led counterterrorism efforts that began in 2013 and a peace deal signed in 2015, Mali remains a "war zone," according to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

According to the UN, 170 peacekeepers have been killed there since 2013, making it one of the organization's deadliest peacekeeping missions to date. 

The mission has 57 partner countries and is based in the northeastern city of Gao.

Key groups in the conflict

Bruno Charbonneau, an associate professor at Laurentian University and an expert in peacekeeping and military intervention in francophone Africa, says the groups involved in the conflict can be divided into two categories: those that signed the 2015 peace agreement and those that didn't.

The signatories include the Malian government; Platform, a pro-government coalition; and Co-ordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a pro-separatist alliance that includes the Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group that has long felt marginalized and excluded in the country.

Both Platform and CMA are armed groups without representation in the legislature.

The non-signatory groups, Charbonneau says, are "fluid in membership" and include militias, bandits, jihadists and gangs. Members of each group are not mutually exclusive, further complicating counterterrorism efforts.

G5 Sahel is also an important player in the conflict. Developed in 2014, its members — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania — support the French counterterrorism mission.

A history of violence

A former French colony, Mali became independent in 1960. It moved from a single-party state to a multiparty democracy in 1991 in the wake of anti-government riots. But a lack of autonomy and services for the sparsely populated northern region remained a problem.

In 2012, the anger in northern Mali boiled over as Tuareg rebels waged an insurgency against the Malian government in Bamako, located in the south. The Malian military took over the state and deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré for failing to quell the Tuareg rebellion.

The rebels and other insurgents took advantage of the chaos and seized control of the north, but French troops and airstrikes pushed the rebels back in January 2013, allowing the Malian government to regain control.

A French soldier inspects a home near Tin Hama in southeast Mali in October 2017. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

The UN authorized the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission three months after the French-led counterterrorism efforts began.

In 2015, Mali declared a state of emergency as attacks spread to the south, particularly in the Sikasso region.

"We focus a lot on terrorism in the north of Mali in the Sahel, while​ the actual problems within Mali right now are in the centre where you have a lot more people living there," Charbonneau said. "This is where it is really, really worrisome and yet the focus is still on the north and terrorism."

Persistent problems

Today, the coalitions remain factious, and the violence has only intensified. Northern jihadist groups have unified while Platform and CMA continue to splinter.

The al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, for example, was formed in 2017 and has since captured territory in the north.

Charbonneau said two big problems that help fuel the conflict are the lack of state services, including a functioning and impartial justice system and the army's "history of human rights abuses."

The Malian army has a poor reputation when it comes to human rights, an analyst says. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
  There's also the fact the government has yet to successfully implement the 2015 peace deal. 

"There is definitely a lack of leadership within the government of Mali," Charbonneau said.

Risks for peacekeepers

In March, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced Canada would deploy an aviation task force to Mali for a period of 12 months.

The task force will include up to 250 troops, two Chinook helicopters to provide needed transport and logistics capacity and four Griffon helicopters to provide armed escort and protection.

Charbonneau suspects the task force will have little interaction with people on the ground. However, he does anticipate the separation of roles between the peacekeeping mission and French-led counterterrorist operation could be a challenge.

The climate could also be an issue, he said. 

"It definitely takes a toll on equipment to fly around in that region," he said, referring to the heat and dust storms.

And, of course, there is always the threat of violence.

The latest monthly report by the UN Security Council on MINUSMA says the security situation in Mali remains of "grave concern," and there's been an increase in the complexity of the attacks against Malian and international forces, as well as an "unprecedented number" of civilian casualties.