November 23, 2022
By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow
Throughout the summer of 2022, the military regime in Mali took a series of steps under the influence of Russia to isolate itself from its international military and political partners. This decline in access to hard power was counteracted by the introduction of the Russian private military company the Wagner Group, with its alleged heavy ties to the Kremlin. While the Malian Junta argued these steps were in the best interest of the country and its security, actions by the Wagner Group and the Malian Armed Forces (Forces Armées Maliannes, FAMa) are indicative of greater future insecurity. The withdrawal of, and limitations imposed on other, foreign partners, have also resulted in a gap of ability to address key security concerns currently plaguing the north of the country. These developments are bound to have significant human security consequences for years to come in Mali and the greater Sahel region.
How anti-French became anti-UN
Initially, the military Junta under leadership of Colonel Assimi Goïta, who came to power following the country’s fifth military coup in May 2021 – only months after the fourth coup in August 2020 – had pledged an 18-month transition period before fresh elections. This plan was later shelved, with the government saying it would be unable to meet this deadline due to ongoing terrorist attacks and the fallout of Covid-19. The new elections deadline was set to 2026, a postponement which drew international condemnation.
At the start of 2022, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called this decision to delay a vote “irresponsible” and “illegitimate”. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), implemented a series of sanctions against Mali, including the closing of land borders with the country, several economic bans, and the freezing of financial assets, saying sanctions would only be lifted gradually upon the presentation of a more “acceptable” timetable and “satisfactory progress” in its implementation. France, the USA and the European Union (EU) supported these sanctions, which the Junta called an “extreme and illegal embargo”. Despite protest, the Junta adapted their plan with an election deadline of March 2024 while instigating its population to protest against the sanctions.
Mali further responded by expelling the French ambassador following the minister’s “hostile statements”, a move which drew pro-Junta and anti-French protestors to the streets. To the sanctions it responded by grounding all flights of the United Nation’s (UN) peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSMA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali), though this was later lifted under the condition that MINUSMA obtain authorization for every flight, effectively paralyzing MINUSMA. And in July, Mali ordered a suspension of all Troop Contributing Countries (TCC) rotations and earlier had arrested 49 Ivorian peacekeepers, accusing them of being “mercenaries”. Through these acts, the Junta had drawn the UN into the diplomatic spat it already had with France and ECOWAS. Paris was clearly fed up with the situation, as France also completely opposed Mali’s decision to invite the Russian Wagner group to help combat the terrorist threat.
Anti-French protests starting around mid-2022 began to witness demands that MINUSMA leave the country as well, with this demand becoming a goal of the pro-Russian movement Yerewolo, debout sur les remparts (Standing on the Ramparts). Russia had become prominent in rallies, with the Wagner Group effectively having replaced Barkhane and Takuba in actively engaging terror groups. As recent as September 2022, protests with Russian flags alongside Mali’s occurred in Bamako, with people demanding an end to MINUSMA, accusing the mission of undermining Mali’s sovereignty.
Though the 2013 French intervention came as a result of a call for help from Bamako and was widely welcomed by Malians, the increase in terrorist attacks and the spread of Islamism to neighboring countries made many people feel France should have been able to solve the problem. This divide made it clear that Bamako and Paris no longer sharing a common strategy, and French President Emmanuel Macron accused his now former partner nation of “hidden aims” France did not share. Due to this status-quo, the Junta has been able to craft a form of populism to solidify political power instrumentalizing an anti-French narrative, with MINUSMA becoming a casualty in the process.
Consequences of the French departure and of limited UN activity
On February 17 2022, President Macron announced that the French anti-terror operation in Mali, Operation Barkhane, would withdraw from the country within six months after nearly ten years. This follows demands from Bamako that Barkhane, along with the EUs Takuba task force, designed to eventually replace Barkhane, leave the country immediately. Though forces would re-deploy in neighboring countries in a continued effort to combat the regional jihadist threat, Mali lost its main partner in actively combating jihadist militants, as offensive operations are not within MINUSMA’s mandate.
Following the French departure and fear of increased dangers towards their soldiers, considering MINUSMA is the deadliest UN mission, TCCs also began to withdraw and limit support in 2022. These included Egypt, which announced withdrawal by August 15 citing personnel losses, the UK, which will withdraw its forces by 2024, and on November 22, Germany announced its withdrawal by May 2024 following an earlier suspension after the Malian Junta prevented Germany from reinforcing the Gao airfield next to the UN camps following France’s departure. An uncertain political and security environment also has the secondary effect of making potential TCCs reluctant to contribute to MINUSMA, especially with flights being at the mercy of the Junta’s will. The Malian populace had also begun to call on individual states to depart, with one member of the transitional council claiming that if Germany, a large contributor to MINUSMA, left, that FAMa would be able to provide security. It is also worth noting that the FAMa budget is supported by international partners. By reducing or cutting ties, the Malian State would need to find alternative sources of financing.
The Russian Connection
September 2022 was not the first time the Russian flag was seen in public at anti-French/UN protests; already in 2021, demonstrations seemingly organized by Yerewolo featured anti-French and pro-Russian chants and signage such as “France, get out” and “Long live the Russians”, and as early as 2019, Yerewolo’s spokesman and member of the transitional council submitted a petition with an alleged nine million signatures to the Russian Embassy demanding more military cooperation. The group also submitted a letter to the UN a month after renewal of the mandate in 2022 demanding the UN leave by September. In August 2020, members of the coup allegedly met with Russia’s Ambassador for the first time to discuss “security” and recently, and perhaps most significantly, Mali’s Goïta is believed to have had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian media outlets have also set up French-language channels to reach African readers and promote a pro-Russian narrative to reach the general population. The US Embassy reported on June 1 2022 of “intensified application of disinformation” by the Russian State in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, including the promotion of the Wagner Group and false information about UN peacekeepers. These effectively replaced France’s news outlets which were suspended in March and later banned by the Junta due to negative reporting of FAMa and Wagner Group activities, including human rights abuses and the reported killing of civilian.
The first time Russian boots hit the ground in Mali would appear to have been around September 2021, when 50 “Russian military experts” visited and agreed with the Malians they would end the conflict within six months of signing a “contract”. Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed in the same month that Mali had approached a “private Russian military company” for support. At the same time, France warned Mali against a deal with Wagner for a suspected 1,000 mercenaries. Wagner itself is believed to have arrived in December 2021, which drew condemnation from over a dozen countries, and after which the FAMa appears to have changed tactics. Under Russian influence, Malian units no longer wait to be attacked but rather launched operations to “flush out” alleged jihadists, often resulting in high numbers of casualties they claim were jihadists but who international actors believe to have been civilians.
Since the arrival of the Wagner Group, international actors and human rights groups have accused both the Group and FAMa with human rights violations. The UN claims to have documented 320 rights violations by the FAMa between January and March of 2022 alone. The most prominent incident which has gained international attention occurred in the town of Moura, where rights groups claim the FAMa, accompanied by “white fighters” killed between 300 and 400 civilians suspected of being militants. On June 29, MINUSMA’s mandate was renewed by the UN’s Security Council by one year despite Mali “firmly opposing” requests to allow for Freedom of Movement to permit investigations into alleged human rights violations, including an investigation into what happened at Moura. Russia also blocked a Security Council statement calling for an “independent investigation” into Moura, instead congratulating Mali on an “important victory against terrorism”. The implementation of a large no-fly zone for the UN without Malian permission further limits the UN’s ability to implement its mandate.
Russian support also came in the form of material aid. In March 2022, combat helicopters, radars and other equipment arrived in Mali, and in April, two MI-24P combat helicopters and additional material was transferred. Most recently, Mali’s Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maïga praised the “fruitful cooperation between Mali and Russia” at the 2022 UN General Assembly in September, indicating the Junta is seemingly satisfied, or claims to be, with the relationship with Russia so far. Though as France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned in January, the Wagner Group was there for the gain of resources in exchange of protection of the military government while asserting Russia’s influence on the continent.
A dim outlook
It may appear attractive to the Malian Junta, receiving Russian military support without “strings attached”, as Russia does not have expectations of democracy or political reform attached to its aid. Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel framework for international cooperation in May 2022 further alienated the Junta, this time from its own neighbors with whom it was working together to combat the transnational jihadist threat. These actions were foreshadowed on October 21, when France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly accurately said, “If Mali enters into a partnership with mercenaries, it will isolate itself and lose the support of the international community, which is very committed to it”. International actors and Western powers that did require considerations for human security and rights topics have now heavily sanctioned Mali and withdrawn financial support. While Mali and its population may be dissatisfied with the lack of results after almost ten years, Mali’s partners are clearly dissatisfied with the course the Junta has taken Mali in turning to Russia.
By turning to Russia and the Wagner Group, the military Junta has driven Mali away from its neighbors (G5), from regional organizations (ECOWAS) from Western powers (France), and from the international community (UN). The challenges facing Mali and the greater Sahel region are not any that can be solved in ten years, and the Wagner Group has not been able to end the conflict within six months, as had been reportedly contractually agreed. What this contract is very unlikely to include, and what the UN specifically was working on, were state- and peace-building measures to prevent relapse into conflict, socio-economic and development (professional integration) projects to prevent young people from turning to armed groups due to lack of job opportunities and education, and likely any human security considerations. Populations living under jihadist rule may also be seen as collaborators and treated as such by the FAMa, with the risk of incidents such as what happened at Moura reoccurring. In a cycle of violence, these same people may join armed groups in order to protect themselves from government retribution, regardless of their affiliation.
It is extremely unlikely Mali will be able to solve the jihadist threat without multi-dimensional efforts addressing the root causes of conflict; human security issues such as the lack of education and job opportunities. By cutting ties with international partners who had focused on such peacebuilding and conflict-prevention measures, insecurity has increased. These tasks, which take many years to bear fruit, are especially crucial in a multi-ethnic and -religious environment. It is most likely that groups along these lines will be the main providers of security in the north, with the Junta unable to assert itself as the legitimate authority within its own internationally recognized borders.