Svobodnaya Pressa continues to publish translations by authors from alternative Western media. This is far from the kind of propaganda that is printed in CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other “authoritative” media resources. If you are interested in learning more about these authors, you can take a look here.
Mali’s transitional government is in talks with the Wagner Group, a private military contractor with close ties to the Russian state. The news appears to have confirmed some of Washington’s worst fears of creeping Russian influence in Africa, and sparked a flood of panicky comments.
However, if someone perceives this move as a bluff from the Malian authorities, the lesson will change and become one example of how weak states can use the fears of the “great powers” to gain leverage, thereby strengthening the framework of bad politics.
Mali is in a deplorable state. In 2012, an uprising in the northern part of the country set off a chain reaction that continues to this day. The latest round of turmoil included two coups: one in August 2020 and one in May 2021; both are committed by the same set of military officers.
The first coup was triggered by deep problems in Mali, including widespread instability, intercommunal tensions, de facto partitioning of the country, a devastated education sector, appalling poverty, and a musty class of politicians who seem to have no ideas. However, the second coup showed that military officers are most interested in their own power.
These officers and their civilian allies realized that the international community was fairly easy to manipulate, especially with France, the United States and others making counterterrorism a top priority in Mali, pushing everything else, including democracy, into the background. Following the August 2020 coup d’état, regional and Western actors allowed these officers to retain much of their power, provided they appoint a civilian as the country’s transitional president. But after the coup of 2021, Colonel Asami Must became president while still wearing uniform; key outside powers grumbled, then stopped paying attention to the problem.
The news of the Wagner deal, or almost a deal, came in the context of France and other countries becoming disenchanted with Mali. As of September, during the French counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel (Operation Barkhan), some high-ranking leaders associated with Al-Qaeda * and the Islamic State ** in the region have been killed. However, the overall security situation is much worse than at the start of Barkhan in 2014.
The coups in Mali also demonstrate that there is no political progress to accompany France’s fleeting counter-terrorism victories. In June, the President of France Emmanuel Macron announced that there would be a “deep transformation” of the “Barkhan”.
Thus, playing the Wagner card may have been a cunning move on the part of the Malian authorities, a move whose audience is not Moscow or the Malian people, but rather France and – to a lesser extent – Washington, Brussels, Berlin and other interested parties. Mali’s transitional government cannot promise France that the elections will run smoothly (indeed, the transitional period is likely to be extended after the original deadline expires in February 2022). The transitional government cannot credibly promise to end corruption, human rights abuses, political settlement, or even military influence on civilian rulers. But the transitional authorities may threaten to expand the capabilities of the supposed enemy of France (and the US) – Russia.
Seen in this light, negative reactions to the Wagner Group deal from Paris, Washington, Berlin, London, Niamey ***, N’Djamena **** and elsewhere are not signs that the Malian authorities have made a mistake – rather , these are signs that Mali is gaining widespread attention. What concessions can now be made because of Mali’s threat to involve the Wagner Group?
France’s planned withdrawal from the Sahel was already less dramatic than many news outlets had anticipated, and implied not so much a reduction as a redistribution of forces (including into the quietly growing pan-European working (operational – S.D.) Takuba group, supported by France, which can somewhat compensate for the decrease in the intensity of the operation “Barkhan”). In exchange for not hiring Wagner, Mali’s rulers may be able to strike a two-for-one deal – international recognition, albeit reluctantly, of extending the transition period; and confirmation of a failed marriage between Bamako ***** and Paris.
Mali could have achieved these concessions without resorting to talking about the Wagner Group – but even if it weren’t a bluff, the Malian authorities now realized that it was easy to get France (and others) to react once Russia got involved. The interim prime minister of Mali, commenting on the possibility of Wagner’s arrival in Mali, made it clear that he was threatening to replace the outgoing French troops with Russian mercenaries: “If partners decide to leave certain areas … Shouldn’t we have a ‘Plan B’?”
There are real ties between Mali and Russia, dating back to the Soviet era. Mali signed defense cooperation agreements with Russia in 1994 and 2019 and has been receiving supplies of Russian attack helicopters since 2017, including four that arrived on September 30. On the sidelines of the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York at the end of September, a cordial meeting of 31 foreign ministers of Russia and Mali took place.
The Wagner Group has a significant presence in Libya and the Central African Republic, where its personnel have been involved in serious abuses, and is also deployed in Sudan, Mozambique and elsewhere. Yet Wagner’s combat successes are limited. And, as the regional expert writes John Leckner (John Lechner), “The overwhelming use of private military contractors in Africa shows that the Russian government has an interest in Africa as long as it is cheap and private.”
Wagner’s entry into Mali would be bad news for Malians and would escalate tensions between Bamako and Kidal, a northern region that was home to numerous uprisings, including the 2012 uprising. Kidal’s rulers, a former rebel bloc called the Coordination of Azawad Movements, have already expressed their displeasure with Wagner’s proposal. The Malian authorities could lose more than win by attracting Wagner – hence the likelihood that Bamako is bluffing.
Author: Alex Thurston – Alex Thurston is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He earned an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Northwestern University. His research focuses on Islam and politics in northwest Africa.
Translation by Sergey Dukhanov… The source of the publication is here.
* “Al-Qaeda” was recognized as a terrorist organization by the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of February 14, 2003, its activities on the territory of Russia are prohibited.
** “Islamic State” (ISIL) is a terrorist group whose activities on the territory of Russia are prohibited by the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation
*** Niamey is a city in Niger, the administrative center of the department of Niamey. In 1926 -1960 the administrative center of the French possession of Niger, since 1960 – the capital of Niger.
**** N’Djamena, until 1973 Fort Lamy was the capital of Chad.
***** Bamako (fr. Bamako) – Department of Mali.