There is deep international concern over Mali’s discussions with the controversial Russian private military company, the Wagner group, but many Malians feel the Russians cannot replace French troops soon enough.
The group was first identified in 2014, when it was supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. It has been involved in countries such as Syria, Mozambique, Sudan, Libya, and the Central African Republic since then.
When French soldiers arrived in Mali in 2013, they were greeted with joy after Islamist militants hijacked a rebellion and threatened to seize control of the entire country.
However, President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that the French contingent of 5,000 would be cut in half, prompting Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga to accuse France of abandoning his country.
France reacted angrily, with Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly accusing Mali’s government of “wiping your feet on the blood of French soldiers.”
President Macron was “shocked” by the accusation, and he condemned Mali’s military government, which he claimed lacked “democratic legitimacy” after two coups in less than a year.
However, public opinion in Mali has undoubtedly turned against the presence of former colonial power troops.
Eight years after the French arrived, the security crisis has spread to Burkina Faso and Niger, with numerous different groups roaming the region from their bases in the Sahara Desert, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group.
Approximately 55 French soldiers and hundreds of Malians have been killed.
Malians, enraged by the escalation of insecurity, hold regular protests against the French military, accusing them of failing to make a difference in the fight against the jihadists. They consider the presence of French soldiers to be an occupation and demand that they leave as soon as possible.
Many are happy for the Russians to replace them.
‘Russia is more neutral’
According to Oumar Cissé, a prominent peace campaigner in the troubled Mopti region, Russia is a long-standing partner of the Malian army.
“Russia has no interest in Malian politics, whereas France manages the conflict based on its economic and political interests,” he told the BBC.
According to some activists, the presence of French forces was a catalyst for the jihadist violence. France has long been opposed to talks with jihadists, an option advocated by some Malians.
There have been no public demonstrations against Russia, but public opinion on Wagner’s proposed intervention is divided.
Working with the Russians, according to the Coordination of the Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of former Arab and Tuareg rebels in northern Mali, would jeopardise their 2015 peace agreement.
The international outrage over a deal with Wagner is linked to the mercenary organization’s shady reputation. The Russian government’s denial of any ties to the group is also viewed sceptically.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has confirmed that Mali had “turned to a private military company from Russia” to help fight jihadist groups.
In Africa, Wagner operatives are reported to have dubious involvement in the Central African Republic (CAR), where some of the Russian military instructors backing the beleaguered government are believed to be mercenaries. They are also linked to war crimes in Libya’s civil war.
Russia entered the conflict in the Central African Republic in 2017 as part of its efforts to expand its influence across the continent. It provided weapons, ammunition, and 175 military instructors to the African country.
According to the British Foreign Office, the Wagner group is a “driver of conflict” that “capitalises on instability for its own interests, as we have seen in other conflict-affected countries such as Libya and the Central African Republic.”
If the deal with Mali goes through, it would represent a significant expansion of Russia’s military interests in Africa, as well as a strategic setback for the West. The use of Russian military contractors would represent a significant break with France and the West.
Mme Parly, the French Minister, has warned that “we will not be able to coexist with mercenaries.” She later accused the Malian prime minister of “hypocrisy, bad faith, and indecency” after he claimed that the French mission, Operation Barkhane, was not consulted with his administration.
Germany and Estonia, whose forces are part of Takuba, a European force based in Mali, have also threatened to withdraw their troops.
Ecowas, the West African regional bloc, has strongly condemned the plan to hire private security firms.
Cherif Mahamat Zene, the foreign minister of Chad, which has played a vital role in fighting Islamist groups across West Africa, said the rebels who killed former President Idriss Deby in April were trained by the Wagner group and warned against their intervention.
Russian helicopters arrive
In the face of growing public dissatisfaction with France, the choice of Russia was obvious. Mali and Russia have maintained close relations in recent years, particularly since 1994, when they signed a defence cooperation agreement that was revised in 2019.
Defence Minister Sadio Camara, as well as other key members of Mali’s junta, received training in Russia.
On Thursday, he welcomed the arrival of four Russian military helicopters, describing Russia as “a friendly country with which Mali has always maintained a very fruitful partnership.” He stated that this was part of an agreement reached in December 2020, well before the French drawdown was announced.
The Russian involvement could also serve as a convenient justification for Mali’s interim government to extend its mandate following the military takeover in May.
The country’s ruler, Col Assimi Gota, has been under fire for failing to keep a promise to hold a referendum on a new constitution on October 31 and general elections on February 21, 2021.
Prime Minister Maiga has stated that elections may be postponed.
Mali’s military partnership with its neighbours to combat jihadist groups in the region, known as the G5-Sahel states, could also be jeopardised.
Hassoumi Massaoudou, the Foreign Minister of Niger, stated that if Mali hired the Wagner group, the alliance would “certainly” fall apart.
Whether or not Russian troops are sent to Mali, jihadist groups, which recently celebrated the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and drew parallels with the French withdrawal from West Africa, may seek to exploit the instability and scale up their attacks, sparking a new crisis in Mali and its neighbours.