The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, also known as MINUSMA, faces unprecedented challenges. Now in its sixth year, it is caught in the middle of an unfolding spiral of violence that is moving closer to the capital and that has already been spreading to neighbouring countries.

The initial violence took off shortly after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya in 2011. Armed groups and weapons entered Mali from the north, intersecting with already existing tensions between groups of different ethnic and religious belonging.

The conflict has since changed and spread - now overtaking parts of central Mali.

"The international community needs to be more interested in what is happening in Mali," Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of MINUSMA, tells Al Jazeera.

"We say we have wiped out the Islamic State in Iraq, in Syria. Do people ask the question where these people are going?" asks Annadif. "There is a breeze going towards the Sahel." 

As the president of Mali used to say: Mali for the moment is a dam, if it gives in, it risks invading the rest of Africa as well as Europe.

Mahamat Saleh Annadif, Head of MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali

Armed groups such as ISIL and al-Qaeda are gaining strength in Mali. New armed groups have entered the fray, some taking advantage of longstanding pastoral and inter-communal tensions, causing deadly violence to escalate between the Fulani and Dogon communities.

"Inter-communal conflict has always existed. It is part of the society. But in the past, there were the traditional mechanisms ... to manage this conflict," says Annadif. "The terrorists came, they chased out all these people ... Today the majority of the religious leaders of these customary chiefs are in the big cities in the capitals and they [armed groups] have taken hostages of these communities."

Annadif says the international community must "pool our resources" and do more to stem the rising tide of violence in the Sahel. He warns that a failure to do so would have wide-reaching effects.

"As the president of Mali used to say: Mali for the moment is a dam; if it gives in, it risks invading the rest of Africa as well as Europe," he says. "The Sahel is becoming an open military arsenal. There are more than 60 million weapons circulating in the Sahel. If the Europeans and the other powers are not stopping it, it is there in the Sahel, that's what will obviously contaminate Europe and contaminate the rest of the world."

According to Annadif, the crisis is complex and while the Malian army is in the process of reconstituting itself, it has suffered a shock and needs to be supported.

"The day we help the Malian security forces to redeploy to the territories, these terrorists will have no place, it will be like when they fled Iraq, like they fled Syria, like fleeing Libya. They will flee to some other place," he says. "That's why it is extremely important for the international community to stand together and take seriously what is happening in Mali, which is contaminating the entire Sahel."

He believes the 2015 peace accord signed between the Malian government and some armed groups is the best way for the country to achieve peace, even though he admits there have been some delays in its implementation.

"The agreement for peace and reconciliation has no alternative," he says. "Today it is the only tool that exists to help Malians make peace. But we need to push Malians to accelerate the pace of its implementation."

The UN secretary-general has called on MINUSMA to change its priority, focusing on the 2015 peace agreement and helping the state to re-establish its control over the centre of the country.

But MINUSMA also faces challenges unlike other peacekeeping missions: it costs $1bn and is currently the deadliest mission in peacekeeping history - with nearly 200 soldiers killed since 2013. Some UN peacekeepers are now also leaving, including those from the Netherlands who are set to withdraw.

"I dare to hope that this presence of the MINUSMA is only temporary, that it will be as short as possible and that the Malians can find this national consensus, that they can restructure their army and they can take control of their destiny," Annadif says.

"We still need the United Nations. Peace missions are still needed, but peace missions alone can not do."

Source: Al Jazeera News