Updated: Feb 28
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.
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 competitors, who, beside technical expertise in the mining field, do hire multiple Private Security Companies (PSCs) to supervise and protect company premises. According to the intensity of local faced dangers, many PSCs can turn easily into PMCs if more tactical knowledge is required to keep the economic flow going.
4. The French Umbrella
Warmly welcomed in 2013 to fight off the Touareg’s mercenary rebellion in the north and Al-Mourabitoun’s operations around the Gao desert (Operation Barkhane), the nearly 5,000 French troops, with their sudden departure, have left behind a trail of nine years of fierce fighting and containment in the dunes with unrivalled jihadists and local armed group militias. Even though military operations have never ceased to hold ground against the hasty attacks of guerrilla warfare, via the support of drones and hi-tech recognition tools, the presence of foreign troops on Malian soil has always been perceived by local communities as a double degree problematic that somehow threatened their pre-existent status. On one hand, the overall number of terror attacks and casualties have steadily increased from 2012 to present days, with a peak reached in 2021, as openly displayed by ACLED figures.
On the other, the heated arguments between the French government and Mali's military junta have wiped out any chance of democratic recovery after the second overthrown of a civilian government in eight years. This quite seemingly paradoxical outcome of a failed international support mission can be traced in the rising level of local resentment towards “occupying foreign forces” and by the super effective recruiting campaign of fresh and better organised insurgent groups, namely the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the al-Qaeda's affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). This densely structured and mobilized Islamist militant network has also consistently spread to other countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger, with insurgents raiding all over the region from their heartland niches in the Sahara Desert.
5. PMCs in the Black Continent
Since World War II, the military sector and the industrialised production of armaments by nations have progressively flown from the public to the private sector. After the inhumane cost of mobilising drafted manpower in major conflicts and the speedy technological progress in terms of accuracy and destruction potential, governments have steadily relied on groups of professional fighters to conduct swift and precise tasks to avoid excessive hazards or to prevent the escalation of plausible conflicts. On African soil, the use of mercenary companies and PMCs is a longstanding practice which dates back to the Congo Crisis (1960-65), when Dutch, Irish, Rhodesian and South African companies were constantly hired by both opposing sides to infiltrate in highly insecure areas and smoke out enemy fighters with relativecollateral damage. After almost 60 years, very little has changed and with the unsurpassed asymmetric challenges of today’s War on Terror, the effectiveness of PMC has massively increased on value. The Wagner Group, run by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin nicknamed the “Chef” of Vladimir Vladimirovič Putin, is just another adding piece of this worldwide designed intricated puzzle. Comprised mainly by experienced Russian veteran personnel, in its records, the Group counts various international redeployments that do reflect the different waves of Moscow’s foreign agenda. Libya, Syria, Ukraine (Donbass conflict), the Central African Republic and Mali are just few examples of their rare and documented movements.
6. The Russian winter storming through the Equator
The use of PMCs as pivoting pawns for the concretisation of a “New Scramble of Africa” plan is the prevalent strategy adopted by the Russian hard-core expanding machine in the continent. To understand Moscow’s invasive policy, in proportion to other international rivals, we must therefore bring the attention on Russia’s impact in terms of military support on commercial deals and especially on local governments. Totally exempt from post-colonial guilt and the derived moral debt to African communities, Russia is slowly gaining the upper hand in securing profitable deals in the Sahelian perimeter by providing strategic assurances which were failed on first place by previous European and US partners. In October 2019, in Sochi was held the first ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum where more than 3,000 delegates from fifty-four countries took part in meetings and private discussions. During the summit, the Russian Geological Research Institute (VSEGEI) signed agreements with South Sudan, Rwanda, and Guinea to search for carbon resources on their territories, with additional plannings on gold, uranium, diamonds, and iron in Namibia. In addition, Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, stated that it was preparing to explore Mozambique's offshore oil resources. All these profitable dealings are anticipated, backed, and tightly followed by steady PMCs’ engagements. An all-inclusive package which reassures the interests of both local ruling classes and international contractors.
According to classical thinking, the reconfiguration of spheres of influence is a common revanchist sentiment which surges in every historical era. Whether it involves the redefinition of the rules or the partition over a source, the change within the system occurs in any given time and always with opposing teams. At the present time, this process of extensive and extended invalidation is commanded by the excluded, the authoritarian regimes such as Turkey, Russia, and China, which feel that the terms of Africa’s exploitation should be extended to other participants and include their gains like the ones of other beneficiaries. So far, the feeble governance of many Sahelian nations and their valuable natural resources have lured the preferences of many international actors. Powerful governments that have the firepower and crude military capacity to advance deep into hostile grounds despite the flourishing armed threat of irregular militia. Russia’s violent penetration in Mali does not differ to others’, however its presence adds and unpredictable player to the table that could further debilitate the already uncertain future of Mansa Musa’s people.