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North African Review: Russian meddlings in Mali ever bolder

Russian meddlings in Mali is still very real as shown by the enigmatic “Caucasians” who have appeared on a video captured by a French military drone dispatched to inspect alleged mass graves. The pits were discovered near a military base that had been handed over by the French to the Malian military. The development comes as the Forces armées françaises slowly but surely pull out of Mali leaving a vacuum that the notorious group of Russian mercenaries known by the moniker of Wagner is exhilarated to fill.

The fallout between the Malian junta and the French military over alleged mass graves discovered in the base of Gossi, which had been given up by the French to the Malian military on April 19, not only rendered the French-Malian relations even colder but also exposed the junta’s inclination to protect Russia’s “good name”, if one fancies putting it this way.

The octopus called Wagner

Hearing about Wagner’s shady operations in Mali should come as no surprise, for the Russian octopus’ arms have dipped into various corners of the Earth.

A quick recap. Allegedly founded by Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, a veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars, a lieutenant colonel and brigade commander of the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade operating under Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the group first made global headlines in 2014, where it participated in the annexation of Crimea.

After their ignominious premiere in Ukraine, the group hopped on Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s bandwagon, taking part in campaigns such as the 2015–16 Latakia offensive, Palmyra offensives, the Deir Ez-Zor offensive and Operation Dawn of Idlib. The extent of Wagner’s operation in Syria boiled down to military training, sniper action, but also regular combat.

The group made inroads into Sudan as well as evidenced by video footage published in 2017 on social media. The clips, although not showing the faces of the trainers, featured very telling Russian military cursing.

Photo: TVP World

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Russian mercenaries helped the administration force rebels to retreat for the first time in years. Backed by the Wagner group and Rwandan troops, on January 25, 2021, CAR forces attacked Boyali, killing 44 rebels who were concocting an assault on the capital. The counteroffensive brought forth more victories when the force captured a number of strategic towns in February 2021, including Bossembele, Bouar, Beloko and Bossangoa. As the rebels were being pushed back, Valery Zakharov, a Russian advisor to the Faustin-Archange Touadéra (FAT) government, urged them to hand over their leaders to the CAR’s security forces. However, the rebel Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) fought back claiming its fighters killed several Wagner Group mercenaries near Bambari on February 10, 2021. The Russian “instructors” continued to support the CAR government in suppressing various rebel groups.

Wagner’s questionable highlight in CAR fell on January 16-17, 2022 when the Russian mercenaries killed at least 65 civilians in Aïgbado and Yanga villages. But the Russians had not stopped just there, reportedly killing hundreds of civilians in their March 2022 offensive in the northern part of the country.

As chilling as it is, CAR authorities allegedly erected a monument dedicated to Russian mercenaries in Bangui.

One would not miss the point by saying that the Wagner group has turned African countries into its testing ground. To recall, Russian leader Putin planted his mercenaries in Libya torn by civil war.

Apart from Africa, the Wagner group, unsurprisingly, popped up by Venezuelan strongman Maduro’s side, training his guards and military to prevent the dictator’s fall.

Delivery of ten Russian BRDM-2 armored vehicles to Central African Republic. Photo: UN Security Council

Wagner gone undertaker?

But now, back to Mali.

The Wagner mercenaries exhibit a peculiar penchant for grave digging. A day after handing Gossi over to the Malian military, the French sent a drone to verify claims by a mysterious Twitter user @DiaDiarra6 who tweeted that corpses had been found thereat, allegedly left by the departing French forces. Backing their claims with aerial reconnaissance video footage, the French military said “Caucasians [Europeans] suspected of belonging to the [Russian mercenary] Wagner group” had been spotted on the ground while unloading equipment with Malian troops.

Disagreements pilling up between the European member states present in Mali and its transitional authorities, with the Wagner group being one of the bones of contention, prompted the French Barkhane and European Takuba forces engaged on the anti-terrorist front in Mali to revisit their plans on maintaining their military presence in the country. For instance, Germany decided to discontinue training Mali’s military under its current transitional government. The justification of the decision came up in April through the lips of Germany’s Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht who voiced concerns that Germany-trained Malian soldiers could fight together with Russian troops and “commit cruel violations of human rights“.

What spurred the decision was an accusation made by Human Rights Watch against Malian troops and Russian fighters suspected of executing some 300 civilian men in the central Mali town of Moura. Boasting a population of around 10,000, the town is located in the Mopti region infamous for being a hotspot of extremist activity that has intensified and spread to neighbouring countries in the Sahel region.

Dubbed by the Humans Right Watch “the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict”, the executions unleashed condemnation from far and wide including the US, the EU, France and Germany.

Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic Photo: Clément Di Roma/VOA

Mali siding with Russia

The allegations of complicity were denied by Mali’s army. Bamako and Moscow have previously said the Russians in the country are trainers helping local troops with equipment bought from Russia.

Here goes catch-22. Germany, by opting out of the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) and European Union Capacity Building Mission in Mali (EUCAP), and France, by pulling out from Mali, will leave a glaring demand in Mali for trainers and military support indispensable for standing up to jihadists. This demand is eagerly met by Russia’s Wagner, which in turn provokes an even sulkier response on the part of the EU.

But the Malian junta is far from concealing its satisfaction with seeing the French turn tail and the Russians setting up shop. Quite the contrary, the Malian National Transitional Council is overtly speaking of procuring Russian military equipment.

Pro-Russian sentiments have been voiced by Aboubacar Sidick Fomba, a member of the Malian National Transitional Council, who has seen France’s presence in the Sahel region as a form of occupation with a view to monopolising its natural resources. The pundit slammed NATO claiming the bloc would use assassination, disinformation, espionage, corruption and co-option of local cadres, sedition and finally military confrontation to carry out this ostensible plan. While readers having both feet on the ground will find the following needless to point out, perhaps one should time and again stress that NATO is a defensive alliance that has no interest in neo-colonial pursuits.

Be it as it may, the pundit felt that the French planned on “financially asphyxiating Mali through ECOWAS, UEMOA, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the sole purpose of inducing the Malians to renounce their quest for sovereignty.”

France’s alleged plan of domination should be countered, according to Mr Fomba, by protecting Mali’s airspace through the installation of Russian anti-aircraft missile systems like “Pantsir” and “Buk”. The pundit’s statement gives a clear view of the pro-Russian direction of Mali’s policies.

Aside from bargaining over security with the Malian authorities, Russia continues to maintain a steady foothold on the propaganda frontline. On the face of it, yes, RT is still in the game in Mali. Regrettably for Paris, its France24 TV channel and Radio France Internationale (RFI) were banned by the Malian authorities on April 27, hook, line, and sinker. Unsurprisingly that put the pre-presidential elections Macron in a tantrum, and his rage became fodder, a free-for-all for some ostensibly “pro-freedom of speech” enthusiasts of the idea that Moscow’s propaganda tubes RT and Sputnik should be let holler as they please over the Seine.

On the level of diplomatic relations, there remains little to add other than recall the expulsion of the French ambassador from Mali in January 2022.

Having seized power in August 2020 with promises to put an end to the jihadist insurgency pestering Mali, (but also Burkina Faso and Niger) the junta said there had been “false accusations” in a report in mid-March in which RFI diffused comments from alleged victims of abuse by the army and the Russian Wagner group. Mali’s army booted authorities have also lambasted Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, for what the powers in Bamako called false allegations against the government.

Displaced civilians, who fled from Dialassagou, Bankass, Koro, Mopti Ouenkoro regions, settle in a refugee camp in Bamako, Mali on February 06, 2022. The sanctions imposed on the country by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) due to the junta administration’s decision to postpone the democratic elections for 5 years in Mali had a negative impact on the economy. Photo: Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The broader picture

Apart from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger have been struggling with jihadist insurgencies. The power in the former three states has been seized over the last years by military juntas in a bid to bring a tangible change and stop the jihadists in their tracks. The military takeovers unfolded as follows: Mali in August 2020 and again in May 2021, Guinea in September 2021, and most recently Burkina Faso in January 2022.

In Burkina Faso, attacks on military targets were carried out in late April. These happened in Gaskinde and Pobe-Mengao resulting in the death of nine soldiers and six civilians, including two members of an armed self-defence group. Some 30 people were wounded in the two attacks.

This, alas, has become more or less a Burkinabe reality as the Al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated jihadist militias continue tormenting Burkina Faso — a plight that France-led international efforts could not curtail. With thousands dead and millions displaced, it was the resulting frustration with the former governments and the lack of positive change with the French presence that urged the Burkinabe to take to the streets on January 23, 2022. The country has been ruled by a military junta ever since.

In a show of defiance, Burkina Faso and Guinea’s juntas rejected the timetable set out by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with Ouagadougou saying they had no plans to shorten the three-year transition period they had already announced.

In late April, Burkina Faso’s regime buttressed its plans to take three years to transition back to constitutional rule, in spite of the calls from ECOWAS.

Nearly simultaneously, Guinea’s junta leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya said he had opted for an about 39-month transition period to civilian rule. The decision was unanimously condemned on the same day by opposition leaders in Guinea, including both the party of the ousted president Alpha Conde and opposition groups that had opposed him.

“The CNRD [the National Rally and Development Committee] and the government, in turn, will submit to the CNT [the National Transitional Council], which serves as Parliament, this proposal which is the result of extensive and patient consultations,” Col Doumbouya said in a televised address from Boffa, west of the capital Conakry.

In the wake of the coups, all three countries were suspended from their memberships in the ECOWAS — a regional political and economic union of fifteen countries located in West Africa currently presided over by Senegalese President Macky Sall.

While the war in Ukraine may not be the driving factor in the West African politics, interestingly enough, the dividing line between ECOWAS and the three states controlled by defiant juntas may to some degree have something to do with the political actors siding with one of the belligerents of the war in Ukraine. President Sall’s words uttered during UN chief Antonio Guterres’ latest visit to Dakar rang with pro-Ukrainian tones, as the Senegalese head of state said the war in Ukraine was “a human tragedy” which could have “a dramatic impact on economies, in particular, those of developing countries.”

Burkina Faso and Guinea did not take part in the memorable April 7 UN General Assembly vote on the suspension of Russia from the Human Rights Council. Mali voted against it. Senegal abstained.

A pro-Russian supporter in Bamako, Mali, February 2022. Photo: Paul Lorgerie/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Bear to remain in Mali

It is unlikely that EU member states’ militaries will maintain their presence in Mali. With their numbers dwindling, the EU is up for losing influence in the subregion at the expense of others, be it Russia or the more subtle and yet pervasive China. Russia will continue training Malian troops, perhaps sending some of them for a trial of fire in Ukraine… or elsewhere.

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