Is Mali Russia’s new roost?
As Mali braces for sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), questions are being asked about the growing presence of Russian mercenaries in the country, writes Leon Louw, founder and editor of WhyAfrica.
The Russian mercenaries, part of the controversial paramilitary outfit Wagner, does not have a good record in Africa. They have been involved in conflicts across Africa, including in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique and now Mali. The group has been accused of atrocities in a number of these countries.
Many believe that Wagner is a unit of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) which is used by the Russian government in conflicts around the world, including in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Syrian government; and in the war in Donbas in the Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, where they aided the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic.
In 2020 Wagner mercenaries left the Cabo Delgado province in the north of Mozambique in a rush, reportedly after 11 soldiers were killed in brutal clashes with Isis-linked insurgency group, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa, during which some of the Russian fighters were beheaded.
United Nations (UN) experts recently reported that there could be as many as 2000 Wagner linked “instructors” operating in the Central African Republic (CAR), including recruits from Syria and Libya, where Wagner operated previously.
According to Wagner, the mercenaries are in the country to support President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the fight against rebels, who still control many parts of the mineral rich country.
Russian presence a concern
Russia’s presence in parts of West Africa is of particular concern to France, who has also deployed a number of soldiers across the region. Parts of West Africa have suffered unrelentless attacks by various organisations said to have links with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). France has, on numerous occasions, accused the Russians of aggravating the tense situation by carrying out human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings of suspected rebels.
Ecowas said in a statement this weekend that they are deeply concerned by reports that Wagner had been deployed in Mali, warning of a destabilisation effect in the whole region. According to unconfirmed reports, close to 400 Wagner mercenaries could be present in Mali. A number of sources told international media houses that the hired guns from Russia were involved in several clashes with the jihadists close to Bandiagara in early January. Bamako denies that there are Russian mercenaries operating in the area.
Sanctions a blow to Goita
Meanwhile the sanctions imposed by Ecowas is a big blow to Colonel Assimi Goita and his fellow military leaders who took over the country in a military coup d’état in May 2021. Ecowas decided to push through with harsh sanctions against Mali after the government failed to call for elections early in 2022, as they promised when they came to power.
The sanctions include a closure of all Mali’s border crossings and air links between Mali and the other countries in Ecowas; the suspension of all trade (except for medicine, essential consumer goods, fuel and electricity); the freezing of Mali’s assets at the regional central bank (BCEAO); the suspension of aid and investment flows through the region’s development banks; and the recalling of the ambassadors of Ecowas countries to Mali.
According to Ecowas, the sanctions will only be lifted progressively after the finalisation of an acceptable and agreed calendar.
Mali’s turbulence could have a ripple effect in West Africa. Russian mercenaries have never been able to solve any crisis in Africa. If their dismal performance in Mozambique, CAR and Libya is anything to go by, Mali is in for a bumpy ride in 2022.
Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in natural resources and African affairs.
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