BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Nearly 10 years ago, Mariame Coulibaly Sangare lost everything when armed violence in northern Mali forced her to flee her home. Desperate for money, she saw an opportunity with the arrival of a new United Nations peacekeeping mission in the West African nation’s capital, Bamako.
Sangare left her previous job of trading animal skins to open a restaurant across the street from the mission’s headquarters. Selling rice dishes to U.N. workers earned the 58-year-old enough money to help support her family. But after Mali’s military junta ordered the mission to leave the country, the mother of 14 worries her reliable income will be gone along with the peacekeepers.
“I don’t have anything else except this restaurant,” she said.
In June, the junta said the U.N.’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali had failed after a decade to stem a jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and its 15,000 international troops were no longer welcome. Experts say the peacekeepers’ withdrawal could further destabilize the country and the broader Sahel region of Africa.
The first peacekeepers to leave – a 460-strong battalion of Egyptian troops – left the city of Gao in northeastern Mali on Wednesday, the U.N. mission said on its website. The Egyptian peacekeepers secured safe passage for aid workers and civilians along a key corridor in rural eastern Mali, a road pockmarked with improvised explosive devices laid by armed groups.
But amid safety concerns and regional turmoil stemming from an ongoing military coup in neighboring Niger, some Malians also fear the immediate economic fallout. About 900 Malian civilians are directly employed by the U.N. mission, according to the operation’s website. But the mission, known as MINUSMA for short, generates thousands of jobs when support and service enterprises are factored in, according to the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization and think tank.
“If the Malian authorities fail to make investments to compensate for the U.N. mission’s departure, Bamako’s relations with populations in the north could become strained,” the group headquartered in Belgium said.
The U.N. mission is required to create a withdrawal plan by mid-August. A draft obtained by The Associated Press suggests bases in 14 locations across Mali will be packed up, region by region, until the MINUSMA headquarters in the capital closes in December.
The U.N. mission will continue to pay its Malian staff members until the end of the year, when it has pledged to leave, according to Fatoumata Kaba, a spokesperson for MINUSMA. However, others who work on limited U.N. contracts, as well as shopkeepers and restaurants that serve the mission, can expect to lose that source of income.
The loss will be especially acute in northern conflict-riddled regions like Kidal, Timbuktu, Menaka, and Gao, where U.N. bases employed hundreds of Malian contractors to cook meals, do maintenance work, and to build landing strips and living quarters.
“In large parts of northern Mali, there’s often not many economic opportunities, so … contracts in support of the mission actually go a long way,” Arthur Boutellis, a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute, an independent think tank based in New York, said.
According to the World Bank, an additional 375,000 Malians fell into extreme poverty between 2019 and 2021, in part due to stagnating wages and rising inflation. Nearly half of the country’s 22.5 million people live below the national poverty line. The problem is worse in rural areas, where subsistence farming —many peoples’ only real option for making money — is threatened by armed conflict and climate change.
But the U.N. mission’s withdrawal also will be felt in major cities like Bamako.
Bocar Coulibaly, 49, used to sell scrap metal he rummaged in the street. Now, he runs a shop outside the peacekeeping mission’s headquarters where he earns 30% more selling water, tea, cigarettes, and electrical equipment to foreign soldiers and U.N. employees.
“I have a feeling of fear after the departure of the MINUSMA,” he said.
Mali’s national employment agency has asked local contractors working for the U.N. mission to register with the government to aid “the development of national strategies to mitigate the effects of job losses,” agency Director General Ibrahim Ag Nock said.
It is not yet clear what assistance, if any, former U.N. contractors will receive, though people who benefited informally from the U.N. mission, like shop and restaurant owners with businesses near peacekeeper bases, were not asked to register.
Like other countries in the Sahel region, Mali has spent years struggling to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency. Armed rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities in 2014 with the help of a French-led military operation, but they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.
The U.N. peacekeepers arrived a few months later for what has become one of the most dangerous U.N. assignments in the world. At least 170 peacekeepers have been killed in the country since 2013, according to the U.N.
Following two coups since 2020, a military junta has governed Mali and relations with Western countries and the United Nations have frayed. The country also has moved closer to Russia, bringing in mercenaries from the private military company Wagner to help fight the Islamist jihadis.
Rights groups and civilians have accused Wagner mercenaries, who also fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine before their leader staged a short-lived mutiny in late June, of committing human rights abuses in Mali and across Africa.
In neighboring Niger, meanwhile, the coup of the country’s presidential guard has sought to unseat democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum from power. Niger was seen as a valuable international partner in efforts to stem terrorism and armed violence in the Sahel region, but the coup-plotters cited the country’s deteriorating security as a rationale for overthrowing Bazoum.
An internal U.N. mission review completed in January lamented that the peacekeepers were not able to prevent the insurgency in Mali from gaining steam. “Almost 10 years after the mission’s deployment, the fact remains that the security situation has deteriorated,” the review stated.
Still, experts say the pullout of peacekeepers could embolden armed groups to attack northern towns and cities such as Gao and Timbuktu, where U.N. missions have ensured relative safety despite ballooning rebel violence in rural areas just outside city limits.
Only 22% of territory in Mali’s northern and central regions, where the U.N. mission had many of its bases, are under state control, according to the United Nations. The peacekeepers provided regular patrols in areas where Mali’s army is under-equipped to provide adequate protection, according to conflict experts.
In recent years, Wagner mercenaries have helped pick up some of the slack in Mali’s military needs, supplying pilots and ground soldiers. Once the U.N. mission leaves, the International Peace Institute’s Boutellis said, “the (Malian armed forces) and its Russian allies will be much more on the front lines and potentially much more exposed.”
Aid groups say the end of the peacekeeping mission also will impede their ability to reach some of Mali’s most vulnerable people in insecure areas unreachable by road. The mission helped airlift personnel and goods to hard-hit areas of the country, flying some 25,000 non-U.N. passengers, including NGO personnel, in the last three years, according to an April budget report.
Regular U.N. patrols also helped provide safe passage to villagers living in dangerous areas, said Action for Development and Wellbeing President Ould Ahmed M’Bareck, whose local nonprofit provides aid to displaced families in northern Mali.
“We really would have liked the U.N. mission to have stayed by the side of local organizations,” he said.
Some aid workers hold out hope. Ag Mohamed Abba is the president and founder of a nonprofit that helps build clean water infrastructure in western Mali. He’s been running the organization since 2004.
“We existed before MINUSMA, it came to help us, and I think we will continue after it,” he said.