Since 2021, rumors have swirled about “white soldiers” who have been setting fire to villages and gunning down suspected Islamic militants in Mali. In December 2022, this group was said to have invaded the village of Bamguel, Mali. According to an eye-witness, the perpetrators were Russian. It has become an open-secret that these soldiers most likely belong to Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company who has provided covert military assistance to regimes since 2014. The same group that was allegedly involved in a massacre of civilians in Moura, Mali in March of last year.
Introduction to the Wagner Group
Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the details of the Wagner Group had been largely hidden from the public eye, despite their activity in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and across Sub-Saharan Africa. With this recent attention, journalists and scholars have been able to uncover a lot of previously unknown information. According to a Center for Strategic & International Studies report from 2020, the founder of the organization is believed to be Chechen wars veteran, Dmitry Utkin. It is widely believed that Kremlin-linked Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin has not only been acting as the chief, but that he has also been the man responsible for bankrolling the organization.
Most of the current knowledge about the mercenary group comes from former member Marat Gabidullin, who is known as the first combatant to publicly talk about the organization and his experience. As of this week, Gabidullin has been joined by another commander who fled to Norway. Since the group participates in spreading disinformation, the eye-witness testimony from victims and accounts from combatants are crucial to breaking down the secrecy.
Political Instability in Mali
Prior to the ousting of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, there had been months of protests. Fed up by nearly a decade of instability and losing ground to a never ending insurgency, protestors demanded that the government be held accountable for the mounting failures. Their calls were answered on Aug.18 when Colonel Assimi Goita, backed by the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, unseated the president. Less than a month later, the coup appointed two civilians, Bah N’daw and Moctar Ouane as President and Prime Minister respectively. During this period, Goita was placed as Vice President where he had the power to rule on all ministerial positions.
This model of governance lasted until May 2021, when N’daw and Ouane were arrested on allegations that the transitional civilian government was planning to bypass Goita by making their own ministerial nominations. Both N’daw and Ouane were later released after they formally resigned from their positions, allowing Goita to be sworn in as the interim President of Mali two weeks later.
In the wake of the political turmoil, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union suspended Mali from participating in the organizations. France’s President Macron also announced that joint military operations would also be suspended. Nonetheless, the rising anti-French sentiment ultimately pushed the French to announce their withdrawal in February 2022. Simultaneously, Goita and his cohort of colonels sought to tighten their alliance with Russia.
Trading in France
Mali and France have had a tumultuous history dating back centuries. The “French colonial enterprise” began in the 1630s, but greatly accelerated during the mid-19th century when the Great Powers at the time were racing to divide the African continent. Having solidified their claims in West Africa to the rest of the world, France turned its attention to civilizing the population and extracting the natural resources. After years of resisting, Mali finally gained their independence in 1960. Nonetheless, the French would be back. In 2012, Mali faced an ethnic Taureg rebellion in the north, a coup, and an influx of Islamist forces. The new transitional government appealed to France for assistance in pushing back the encroaching rebellion and to restore order. The following year, France launched Operation Serval, where they provided air support and special forces to target Islamist strongholds in northern Mali. After some initial successes, operations were renewed in 2014 under the name Operation Barkhane.
Despite having a larger budget and more manpower, the broad goals of Operation Barkhane proved to be elusive as it dragged on for nearly a decade. The ongoing state of emergency and the coups of 2020 and 2021 provided the ultimate blow for the relations between France and Mali, as France pulled out their forces the following year. Domestically, many in Mali were becoming critical of France’s motives and demanded to know why the situation had only gotten worse.
With France scaling back their operations, this created a void for the Wagner Group to step in and provide assistance. It should be noted that official channels in Goita’s administration have denied claims that the Wagner Group is operating in the country, figures like Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was publicly quoted by AP News defending Mali’s right to hire a private military company to fight terrorists.
No clear path
The Russian presence in Mali is estimated to cost Goita’s junta approximately $11 million per month and has resulted in no significant gains. Instead of bringing the desired stability, many fear that the Russia-Mali alliance will only push the country closer to the tipping point. A showdown between scholars and diplomats has only highlighted the severity of the situation as more information about gross human rights violations have emerged. The potential destabilizing influence of the Wagner Group bleeds over Mali’s borders, threatening neighboring countries by exacerbating food insecurity, ethnic conflict, and climate degradation. Despite the transitional Malian government announcing that elections would be held in February 2024, they have also been drafting a new constitution. As of right now, the proposed document has not been made public; which has left many to speculate on the potential changes and the future role of Russia in the country.
[Representational image, by VOA]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Lydia Brown is a recent graduate of American University’s School of International Service with a Master’s in International Relations. Her interests include American foreign policy, conflict & security studies, and soccer.