On the second day of his visit to Mali, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres travelled some 460 kilometers outside the capital, Bamako, to Mopti, where he highlighted how insecurity in the region is threatening the country’s fragile peace process.
“I believe that the center of Mali is today the key to the solution of the Malian problem”, said Mr. Guterres following a meeting with local government officials, religious leaders and representatives of civil society, including women and youth, at the regional headquarters of the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in Mopti.
“We must avoid the collapse of the center of Mali, we must restore security and normalcy in central Mali”, added the UN chief, who also asked for “much stronger solidarity from the international community”.
UN peacekeepers were deployed in Mali in 2013 following a violent insurrection by separatist rebels attempting to take control of the north of the country and a subsequent military-led coup. The mission’s chief objective in Mali is to help maintain a fragile peace agreement in support of the national authorities and to protect civilians.
The Secretary-General told UN News, which accompanied him on the visit, that he found “a will, a determination to fight for peace”, following his conversations with local leaders. “They need peace and security. They do not want confrontations between communities or confrontations between ethnic groups or religious groups. They demand this peace”, he added.
He said the security situation in central and northern Mali was a growing cause for concern, especially around the Mopti and Ségou regions, where violence has spiked in recent months. The situation has been exacerbated by repeated intercommunal clashes.
Security is deteriorating here against a backdrop of slow progress in advancing the Malian peace process; with presidential and legislative elections scheduled for later this year.
UN chief visits Grand Mosque
Earlier in the day, the Secretary-General visited the Great Mosque of Mopti where he met the Imam. The two men exchanged views, underneath ceiling fans cooling the daytime heat, while sitting on the carpets which cover the floor of this 15-metre high house of worship, built of brick and plaster.
This is a visit of “solidarity with the people of Mali”, Mr. Guterres told the Imam. Every year, during Ramadan, the Secretary-General has grown accustomed to visiting a Muslim country during which he fasts, in order to pay tribute “to the community of Muslims all over the world”.
The Secretary-General also journeyed to Sévaré, about 15 kilometers from Mopti, where he visited the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force formed by five countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) to combat the growing threat posed by terrorist groups and transnational organized crime, across the vast region that spans Africa from west to east, below the Sahara Desert.
The operationalization of this 5,000-strong force has fallen behind and has not yet reached full operational capability.
“"I wish I could support them better. I was in favor of a stronger mandate”, said Mr. Guterres at a press briefing in the G5 Sahel camp court, where flags of the five countries were fluttering in the breeze.
“We have not achieved all the goals we have set ourselves to better support the G5 Sahel force, but we will do our best”, he added. He cited the support that MINUSMA can provide and pledged to ask for more help from the international community so that the force “can have the financial, material resources necessary for its effectiveness”.
Press conference followed meeting to discuss peace process
Back in Bamako in the afternoon, the Secretary-General attended a meeting of the parties which together signed the 2015 peace agreement, which was meant to draw a line under the 2012 uprising against the government.
At a press conference before leaving Mali, Mr. Guterres welcomed that the fact that signatories had spoken at this meeting “with one voice; the voice of the Prime Minister”.
He said the meeting had allowed him to leave Mali "with a warm heart”, underscoring again, that he believed it was necessary to “ask the international community for much stronger support”.
Honouring peacekeepers at MINUSMA headquarters
On Tuesday, the Secretary-General began his visit by honouring the service and sacrifice of UN peacekeepers at what is still the UN's most dangerous mission, while also praising the dedication of 'blue helmets' around the world, and the Troop Contributing Countries that release them to serve.
Last year, 21 troops serving with MINUSMA lost their lives, together with seven civilians. Mr. Guterres laid a wreath at memorial in mission's headquarters, to those killed in the line of duty. He also awarded medals to two peacekeepers for their outstanding service.
"I want to thank you very much for this effort, these sacrifices, to pay tribut to you and to say how proud I am to work with you," said the UN chief.