I am slowly working on an analytical piece about Mali, France, and Russia, but in the interval it is crucial to simply attempt to keep up with developments and narratives as they unfold.
Two major atrocities have been reported in Mali in the past month or so. Alongside these atrocities is an information war involving Mali’s ruling junta and the associated transitional authorities, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), the French state, the Kremlin-aligned mercenaries in the Wagner Group, the Russian state, journalists of various persuasions, and a host of other actors.
The first recent atrocity occurred at Moura (Djenné district, Mopti Region, central Mali) in late March. The most informative things I have read are:
- Human Rights Watch, “Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers.” A key excerpt: “Malian armed forces and associated foreign soldiers allegedly summarily executed an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022…The men were among those detained during a military operation that began on March 27. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict. Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that over the course of several days in late March, Malian army forces and foreign soldiers – identified by several sources as Russians – executed in small groups several hundred people who had been rounded up in Moura. A Malian defense ministry statement on April 1 said that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 ‘terrorists’ and arrested 51 more. The statement said the army had acted on intelligence suggesting that armed Islamists were planning a ‘meeting with different Katibats [battalions]’ in Moura.”
- Read more interviews with/testimonies from residents and survivors here and here.
- Deutsche Welle analyzes how hard it is to get accurate information about Moura in a climate of crackdowns by Malian authorities on dissenters and independent voices.
- France24 on the information war.
- Hannah Armstrong gives crucial context, examining the Moura massacre in light of the overall trajectory of Mali over the last decade. Note that it’s possible to say both that Russia is making things worse and that France failed in Mali: “Mass-casualty violence cropped up on the back of counterterrorism efforts. Intercommunal clashes and ethnic violence flared as self-defense groups—sometimes with French support—donned the counterterrorism mantle to target their rivals, often among the Peul ethnic minority, in central Malian sites like Ogossagou and along the Mali-Niger border. As insecurity spread, the inflows of cash deepened corruption and discredited political authority. Despair drove many Malians to support the coups d’état in 2020 and 2021 and the subsequent security partnership with Russia.”
The second recent atrocity occurred at Gossi (Gourma-Rharous district, Timbuktu Region, northern Mali) in April. French forces handed over a military base at Gossi to Malian forces on April 19, part of a series of such transfers over the past six months or so. A good piece of reporting on the handover, and on some locals’ anticipation that security might degrade and jihadists might be empowered in the wake of the French withdrawal, can be found here.
Days after the handover, the French military released drone surveillance footage appearing to show Wagner Group personnel burying bodies near the Gossi base (I am briefly quoted in the linked piece). According to the French, the Wagner Group’s intent – Russia’s intent – was to smear the French and accuse the French of having covered up atrocities in the north. This is certainly quite plausible. The corpses at Gossi are thus now very much a geopolitical issue – this, from Clingendael’s Anna Schmauder, is well said. In any case, here’s a few other important items:
- The official statement (counter-statement?) from FAMa is here. The FAMa’s version is that after the handover, a patrol of theirs stumbled upon the mass grave, and now an investigation is underway.
- RFI (April 23) gives Malians’ reactions, noting that – as with Moura – the relative silence from some politicians and civil society actors speaks to the overall chill on free speech in Mali in recent months under the junta’s and transitional authorities’ crackdown on dissent.
- Yvan Guichaoua notes that the French have now changed the dynamics of the information war, but in so doing the French have risked highlighting some unanswered questions (where did the bodies come from?) and also highlighting their own surveillance capabilities, potentially feeding “the already disproportionate paranoia in Bamako.”
- For some pre-scandal background, here’s a piece of reporting from Gossi (French) from 2019.