Washington, DC – Reports that the Malian military junta have negotiated a possible deal to bring in 1,000 Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner group are anything but surprising.
Russia has been trying to extend its influence in Mali for several years. The disinformation campaigns first seen in 2019 helped fuel the protests that toppled democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020.
In addition to slandering Keïta, the messages of these campaigns were anti-French, denigrating democracy, and pro-russian. Oddly enough, dozens of people who took to the streets after the coup were waving signs depicting the Russian flag. In addition, several of the coup plotters had just returned from extended security assistance training in Moscow. And the Russian Ambassador to Mali, Igor Gromyko, was one of the first foreign officials to be received by the junta. So, the potential deal with Wagner can be seen as a continuation of that streak.
With the coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goïta at the helm, Mali is particularly ripe to be chosen as part of Russia’s campaign of asymmetric influence in Africa. Borrowing from its playbook on Syria, Moscow has followed a parachuting model to support politically isolated leaders facing crises in regionally pivotal countries, often endowed with abundant natural resources. These leaders are then indebted to Russia, which assumes the role of regional intermediary.
Gasoline is an irresponsible junta leader vying for irresponsible mercenaries.
This elite co-optation sequence is facilitated when it involves an autocratic leader who lacks other checks and balances. In the case of Goïta, who staged two coups and systematically ignored ECOWAS stipulations on the transition, he is not even beholden to a constitution.
The essence of the potential deal with Wagner, then, is an irresponsible junta leader vying for irresponsible mercenaries. It’s not hard to imagine how this could go wrong.
A roadmap to ruin – RCA
The experience of the Central African Republic (CAR) provides a roadmap. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra hosted 400 Wagner “instructors” in 2018 allegedly to help repel a set of rebel groups. Wagner made a deal with some of the rebels to secure the diamond mines in the north of the country. (These were later integrated into Wagner’s illicit trafficking network linking western Sudan, CAR and the coast of East Africa).
The Wagner agreement compromises the sovereignty of the Central African Republic
As part of the arrangement, Touadéra has appointed a Russian as his national security adviser and Wagner is his presidential guard. Central African officials who worried about Russia’s undue influence have been replaced.
Eager to keep its ally in power, Russia shamelessly supported Touadéra’s controversial re-election in December 2020. Wagner’s troops in CAR, now estimated at around 2,300, have been accused by the United Nations of human rights abuses. human rights, including extrajudicial killings, attacks on civilians, torture. , and rape.
While the instability was not addressed by Wagner, the sovereignty of the CAR has been compromised. This is what is at stake in Mali if Wagner comes into play, at a cost of $ 11 million per month for the Malian taxpayer.
Who does it benefit from?
Meanwhile, Russia is gaining a foothold in a part of the continent where it has not historically been very present. Comprised of former Russian defense intelligence troops, Wagner is not so much a private military contractor as a coercive tool under the radar that Moscow has used to expand its influence in Africa (and other parts of the world. ). Although justified for security reasons, it is the regime and not the security of the citizens that Wagner is there to support.
By being the man of Moscow in Mali, Goïta equips himself with a foreign security force that will help him consolidate his hold on power. He has touted the role of the military government since coming on the scene, despite Mali’s appalling and long track record under the leadership of military leaders. It also secures leading external support with a seat on the UN Security Council. Once such an arrangement is in place, neither Goita nor Russia will be pressured to move forward with the agreed transition to democratic and civilian rule.
What is happening with the Wagner agreement is therefore a decisive moment for Mali and its prospects for a return to democratic rule.
What should be done
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has a central role to play in blocking the Wagner Agreement. Allowing Wagner in Mali would have profound long-term implications for Mali’s sovereignty, security, governance and foreign policy, with repercussions for the entire region. Since Goïta’s only claim to authority is that he seized power extra-constitutionally, it should not be up to him to drag Mali down this slippery slope.
As guarantor of the transition in Mali, ECOWAS must specify that the primary role of Goïta is to facilitate a transition and, as such, any agreement with foreign actors, in particular with such a grim track record, should wait. that there be an elected, democratic government in place.
If Goïta resists ECOWAS leadership, the regional body should declare Goïta in violation of the agreed transition protocol. He and other members of the junta should then be sanctioned and the recognition of their role as leaders of the transition should be revoked. Recent warnings from ECOWAS that Mali’s transition remains on track for the February 2022 elections and that anyone seen as obstructing those preparations will face sanctions is a positive step.
Ecowas will need to be backed up, however. The international democratic community should also be prepared to deny the coup plotters access to the sovereign accounts of the State of Mali. This would underline the fact that the junta depends on international recognition for its continuity.
Stabilizing Mali requires maintaining a responsible security and governance presence
ECOWAS and the African Union can also invoke the African Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 1985, prohibiting States from authorizing mercenaries on their territory. Declaring Wagner a mercenary force identifies them, appropriately, as an illegal entity, which should be prohibited from operating in Mali (or other parts of Africa).
France, Germany and other European countries rightly signaled to the junta that there would be costs to security and economic support if they tried to move forward with the deal. Wagner. European actors must however ensure that a possible withdrawal from Mali does not create an even greater void to be filled by Russia. Western displacement, after all, is a key dimension of Russia’s geostrategic interest in Mali.
Given that security remains a primary concern in Mali, international partners must be ready to extend their support for security in Mali provided they continue the movement towards a democratic transition. Stabilizing Mali, of course, is much more than firepower. This requires maintaining a responsible security and governance presence in contested areas in order to restore trust with local communities.
Pro-democracy and civil society actors must also raise awareness of the serious risks of responsibility and sovereignty associated with Wagner’s authorization in Mali. Malians are naturally tired by the current instability and may be tempted by the mirage of 1,000 mercenaries bringing stability. Unfortunately, stability is not what Wagner brought – to Libya, CAR, Mozambique or Ukraine.
In the current context of extra-constitutionality in Mali, popular sentiment will be an essential factor in shaping expectations for a timely transition to democratic government. Pro-Russian news platforms in Mali have already started touting the deal.
Mali is vulnerable to bartering its sovereignty to a foreign power because it has a serial coup leader playing the role of head of state. Concretely, this means that Mali is at the mercy of the whims of a single unelected individual rather than a system of laws or a reasoned consideration of its national interests. The lack of seriousness with which the junta has prepared a transition to a civilian government further reveals the naivety of entrusting a political transition to military actors with an interest in retaining power.
This error should not be amplified by allowing Wagner to gain a foothold in Mali.
Joseph Siegle is the Research Director and Daniel Eizenga is a Research Fellow at the African Center for Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed are theirs.