By Edith M. Lederer
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the “dire humanitarian and security situations” in Mali and Africa’s Sahel region.
The U.N. chief said in a report to the Security Council obtained Thursday by The Associated Press that the deteriorating security situation “remains of grave concern with terrorist groups allied with al-Qaida and Islamic State competing for control over areas of influence.”
Guterres said terrorist attacks against civilians, Malian and international forces are continuing in northern and central Mali, posing the most significant security threat in the north. He said clashes between al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have also been reported.
Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the president. The power vacuum that resulted ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013.
Insurgents remain active and extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali since 2015, stoking animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the region
Guterres said the impact of COVID-19 was exacerbating the humanitarian crises in Mali, where 3.5 million people are currently suffering from food insecurity and 757,000 are severely food insecure.
He said the pandemic is likely to increase the number of people who will face crisis levels of food insecurity to 1.3 million in coming months.
The anticipated impact of the pandemic led the government to revise its economic forecast for 2020 from 5% growth to just 0.9%, Guterres said, adding that decreasing output, lower remittances from workers abroad and decreasing tax revenue risk putting 800,000 people below the poverty line.
On a positive note, Guterres said the engagement of rival parties in the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement was encouraging.
Parliamentary elections were held in March and April and Guterres said he is encouraged that the newly elected National Assembly includes 41 women, almost three times the 14 women in the previous legislature. He encouraged members of Parliament “to play a proactive role in shaping the reform agenda and implementing the peace agreement.”
Guterres said the redeployment of Mali’s reconstituted army to the country’s north “is an important achievement” that wouldn’t have been possible without support from the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country, known as MINUSMA. The Malian force includes an equal number of regular army soldiers, former rebels and ex-militants who fought in regional self-defense groups.
“It is paramount for all redeployed units to become operational, while creating the conditions for them to gradually assume their mandated security responsibilities,” Guterres said.
He recommended that MINUSMA’s mandate be extended for another year, until June 30, 2021, at its current level of about 15,600 troops, police and civilians.
MINUSMA’s Force Commander Lt. Gen. Dennis Gyllensporre told a Security Council video meeting on Thursday that the deployment of the reconstituted army “represents a vital step towards state representation in northern Mali and the implementation of the peace accord.”
Turning to the pandemic, Gyllensporre said MINUSMA has put in place a variety of preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus. According to Guterres’ report, as of May 27, 73 members of MINUSMA and 6 U.N. staffers tested positive and two peacekeepers died from the virus last week.