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Mali’s Political Crisis: The French Drawback, Russian Deployment Fallout

French military drawdown and the presence of Russian Mercenaries are complicating an already fragile political and security situation in the West African country.

Amid protracted insecurity, Mali is grappling with a political crisis brought by the country’s twin coups, in addition to a French military drawdown and backlash following the deployment of Russian mercenaries.

The Malian flag was recently hoisted to replace the French flag during a handing over ceremony that took place at a strategic base in Timbuktu, as part of the re-organisation of French operation in the Sahel, after almost a decade of campaign against rebels and extremist groups with links to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

French troops and equipment left Kidal and Tessalit, before the December withdrawal from Timbuktu. The city was where former French President, Francois Hollande, in 2013 declared the start of France’s intervention to roll back the insurgency which first erupted in the north of the country in 2012 with a Tuareg separatist uprising.

The intervention began with Operation Serval which morphed in 2014 into Operation Barkhane. However, the insecurity in the country has continued and spread to other areas.

The French recalibration in Mali was preceded by President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a scaledown of troops in the region to about 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers over the long term. French forces will shift focus towards the volatile tri-border area bordering Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. 

According to Mali’s foreign affairs ministry, Chad plans to deploy 1,000 additional United Nations (UN) peacekeepers to Mali to reinforce its contingent in the country. 

As of Oct. 1st, 2021, 159 fatalities and 426 serious injuries were recorded by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) established by a Security Council resolution in April 2013 to support political processes in Mali and carry out security-related tasks.

The Malian flag is hoisted during the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base from the French to the Malian army in Timbuktu, on Dec. 14, 2021. Photo: AFP.

This is happening at a time when Mali is facing backlash from Western partners over the deployment of members of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organisation run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an Oligarch with close ties to the President Vladimir Putin. The group has been accused of serious human rights abuses.

In fact, the European Union (EU) has imposed sanctions on Wagner, accusing it of serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic  (CAR), Sudan, and Mozambique. The EU has also suspended its training mission for soldiers in CAR.

On Jan. 6, Reuters reported that Russian troops have deployed to the base in Timbuktu to train Malian forces. A Radio France Internationale report on Jan. 5, indicated that Malian security forces and Wagner operatives had a clash with Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) -affiliated Katiba Macina fighters. 

The United States Department of State in mid December said the reported deal worth 10 million dollar per month diverts funds that could be used to support the Malian Armed Forces and public services to pay for the deployment of the Wagner Group, which are known for their destabilising activities and human rights abuses.

The Department of State further lamented that the invitation to Wagner would disrupt efforts by the international community to support the fight against terrorism and could put at risk the contributions of more than 20,000 international peacekeepers and troops who serve Mali at no cost to the people or government.

On Dec. 23, more than a dozen countries including France, the United Kingdom, and Canada condemned the deployment of the controversial mercenary Group. However, Mali’s government denied the deployment, stating that “Russian trainers” were in the country as part of the reinforcement of the operational capacities of the National Defence and Security Forces.

HumAngle has documented the actions and atrocities of the mercenary group in the CAR, where they are participating in the government’s fight against rebels. The country has been engulfed in unrest for years despite multiple international interventions.

Mali’s evolving political crisis

The impact of the twin military coups has contributed to the tense political environment in the country and its relationship with the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International community. 

In May 2021, the regional bloc suspended Mali after an Army Colonel Assimi Goita seized control of the country’s interim civilian government established following an earlier coup led by him in Aug. 2020, which toppled then-president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

In November of the same year, ECOWAS imposed sanctions against Malian transitional leaders after they informed the regional organisation of their inability to meet the transition deadline of Feb. 2022. The second coup had disrupted the timeline to return Mali to civilian administration after presidential and legislative elections. 

In late December, a National Conference on Reform recommended elections be delayed by between six months and up to five years. The junta has communicated the extension to the West African body. 

This move to prolong the military-led government’s stay in power could aggravate the tensions between Mali and its partners. The planned extension of the election timetable has already been rejected by a coalition of political parties known as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP).

Nigeria’s former President Goodluck Jonathan has been shuttling back and forth between parties in his capacity as the head of ECOWAS Special Envoy to Mali since the first coup in the country. 

Apart from providing support including logistics to Jonathan’s mediation mission in Mali, Nigeria is contributing to MINUSMA through the participation of its military and police personnel in the mission. A contingent of 62 Nigerian medical personnel was recently deployed to Mali.

Nigeria scaled-down personnel in Mali shortly after a Rwandan was appointed as commander of the UN mission that took over from the Nigerian-led African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA).  Although the redeployment was stated to be due to the Boko Haram insurgency.

What’s next for Mali

Further, political turmoil and Russian activity in Mali could continue to deepen friction with western countries, besides the impact on the nature of security and development assistance available to the junta.

It’s unclear what the broader implication will be for the G-5 Sahel force and Takuba Task Force, a European military task force, composed of eight European countries and led by France, which advises and assists Malian Armed Forces.

The fragile atmosphere in Mali, if not managed properly, could exacerbate the instability in the country and create a favourable environment for transnational criminal and terror groups capable of threatening regional security.


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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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