Russia’s gamble in Mali: PMCs and the New Scramble for Africa

by Lucas Asmelash

1. Introduction

The latest announcement made by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, of pulling national military forces out of Bamako’s territorial borders has lifted the fears of international actors on future political and strategic evolutions in the Western Sahelian region. These reasonable concerns which span through tactical engagement to more complexed deliberations revolve around the future power vacuum of Paris’s absence and its lead towards severe regional and international repercussions. Evidence of events that will undoubtedly affect the balance of power of an already stretched and heated international forum. The very recent employ of Wagner Group mercenaries by Colonel Assimi Goïta has been welcomed by local supporters as a declaration of Bamako’s independence, nonetheless to many Western counterparts the use of Private Military Companies (PMC) can somehow create a precedent of a Russian infiltration in the Sahel, thus causing a severe expansion of Moscow’s areas of influence outside the neighbouring MENA region. However, before analysing the conditions at stake, a brief explanatory summary of Mali’s territorial and political setup can help us in reframing the debated features of the current scenario and understand its packed present obstacles.

2. Un peuple, un but, une foi

One people, one goal, one faith. As far as it proudly echoes through concise yet distinctive words, the national motto of the Republic of Mali unveils the typical weaknesses of a West African nation and its genetical struggles to maintain a degree of political, public, and religious unity among its peers and communities. Conquered and shaped by Paris as part of the Scramble for Africa gains in late 19th century, to connect the proudly Algerian cores to the sunny shores of Mauritania, and lost it subsequently the 22nd of September 1960 (date to which the present Republic of Senegal distanced itself from the Mali Federation), the Republic of Mali counts approximately eight recognized ethnic groups with respective idioms (here in order of proportion: Mande, Bambara, Malinke, Sarakole, Peul/Fulani, Voltaic, Songhai, and Tuareg) distributed into three different religious baskets (Islamic, the predominant, Animist and Christian faiths). After facing 50 years of military coups and civil turmoil, majorly due to territorial and water disputes in-between Mopti-based communities, with the 2013 presidential elections the country seemed to have finally rallied around a democratic fire. A sentiment which was later reconfirmed, in 2018, with the reelection of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the centre-left political representative of Rally for Mali (RPM) party. However, on the 18th of August 2020 President Keïta he was deposed by mutinous leaders of the Malian Armed Forces who ended the relatively short dream of an uncanny peaceful transition.

Picture 1 - Malian Protest – Source : BBC

3. The most promising and rich nation in the desert

From a Human Development Index (HDI) perspective, the Republic of Mali is the second youngest population in the world with a median age of 15.8 and an average mortality rate of 59 years. The youth unemployment rate absorbs a grand total of 16,6% and the national poverty rate of people living below the minimum wage is 41,9%. All these factors which do highlight the promising, yet underperforming, rate of future Malian generations is severely bound to the surge of Violent Extremism (V-E) phenomena that ravages in the northern areas, targeting the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. These epicenters of instability are characterized by acute insecurity, often manifested through high levels of armed robbery, ethno-religious militias, kidnapping and other inter-group clashes. With little prospect in life, many youngsters prefer to join the ranks of fighters, opting for a mere utilitarian choice thus forcing a domino effect which hinders possibilities of change and transformation. From the point of view of natural resources, Mali is the fourth major producer of gold in the entire continent and even though some mining, oil and gas contracts are published, there is no formal policy on publication to date. This means that licenses for extractions are awarded on a ‘first come first served’ basis. A bleeding deep cut into Mali’s economic infrastructure which tolerates unregulated infiltration of international competitor