For Mali, the last decade has been a turbulent one. In 2012, members of the Tuareg ethnic group in the north of the country began a war for the independence of a region known as Azawad; this quickly ballooned into a multi-factional civil war between the government, Tuareg rebels, and Islamist groups aligned with Al Qaeda and Daesh. Further complicating the situation is the French military mission, codenamed Operation Barkhane, that has conducted counterinsurgency operations on behalf of the government since 2013. While that operation is slated to end next year, French troops will remain in the region through the EU’s international task force, Takuba. One more actor, the Wagner Group, may yet enter the fray, threatening Malian stability, Tuareg human rights, and even French aspirations.
Though the Tuareg rebels and government signed a peace agreement in 2015, largely ending hostilities between the two parties, the Islamist insurgency has endured, even spreading into the broader Sahel region. Worsening matters, the country underwent two separate coups - one in 2020 and another this year. The nationwide conflict shows little sign of abating, and Bamako’s international partners are increasingly uncomfortable conducting joint operations with the Junta, leaving hopes of stability even lower. The debacle has already begun. After the most recent coup, France briefly suspended military cooperation with the Malian military. While the cooperation was resumed just a month later, Paris had sent its message, and the Junta had been threatened. Bamako (Mali's capital) it seems, has found a solution: soliciting the services of the Wagner Group.
Describing the Wagner Group is like ripping a page out of a James Bond script; a Russian para-military organisation, established by a neo-Nazi veteran of the Syrian civil war, controlled by Dmitry Prigozhin, an oligarch affectionally referred to as “Putin’s chef”. While they are officially both private and independent, they maintain a close relationship with the Russian state, with their operators receiving both top-of-the-line-equipment and military honours from the government.
While its most publicised operations have been in Ukraine and Syria, Wagner involving itself in Mali would hardly be unprecedented. Recent years have seen its operators deployed in Libya, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic, among others. Underlying these deployments is a clear pattern: Wagner operators are brought in to help a leader (or aspiring leader, in the case of Libya) maintain power and resist threats posed by insurgent groups. In return, they secure preferential access to mines and other natural resources, which are then exploited by other companies owned by Prigozhin. The Russian government secures a more subtle benefit by bringing another country out of the Western sphere of influence and into its own. All the while, Wagner itself conducts its trade with little regard for civilian life or humanitarian law; in the Central African Republic, for instance, UN experts have accused Wagner of “mass summary executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture during interrogations.” This is, disturbingly, a key selling point. Unlike France, neither Prigozhin nor the Russian state will hold the Malian military to humanitarian standards or lodge complaints about atrocities perpetrated.
The Junta, for its part, is understandably tight-lipped about the potential deal. "These are rumours. Officials don't comment on rumours," said spokesman Baba Cisse when pushed on the subject. Yet it is unlikely that the deliberate ambiguity is motivated by an official commitment to facts; the implicit threat of including Russia in the Sahel security equation gives the junta some leverage over its Western partners, especially France. Paris now appears to find itself in a bind; either it maintains a military operation to prop up a dictatorship, seemingly in perpetuity, or it accepts Russia creeping into what it perceives as its own sphere of influence.
Within Mali itself, public opinion on a deal with Wagner is divided. Many are disgruntled with Operation Barkhane, and French presence more generally, and welcome Russia as a “more neutral” security partner. The sentiment is understandable - France has been accused of perpetuating the conflict for its own economic and political ends, while Russia is perceived as being disinterested enough to avoid manoeuvring for personal gain.
Despite this, the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA), a coalition of primarily Tuareg rebel groups that made peace with the government in 2015, is deeply opposed to the deal. Citing the atrocities committed by the Wagner Group in other countries, the CMA warned that any government deal with “mercenaries” would threaten the 2015 peace agreement. Were the Azawad conflict to reignite as a result, we might expect the Junta, aided by its new Russian allies, to treat the Tuaregs with even greater brutality than the previous government did.
While the current security arrangement in Mali is deeply flawed, the presence of the Wagner Group would be far from helpful. At best, counterinsurgency operations will intensify in their ruthlessness, and the Junta will entrench itself deeper under the protection of foreign fighters; at worst, a new Tuareg rebellion could ignite, further dividing the country and perpetuating the civil war