Mali: Some Glimpses Behind the Scenes in Bamako (?)

A few press reports over the last month or so offer a look at some alleged, very grim events.

Cyril Bensimon, “Au Mali, « la mort programmée » de Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga” (Le Monde, 11 April). The upshot: the death of former Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga on March 21, after seven months in detention, raises a lot of questions. Maïga’s imprisonment was part of a larger crackdown by Malian transitional authorities on prominent politicians and critics, and Maïga would have been a front-runner in any eventual presidential election in Mali. Maïga’s family is essentially accusing Mali’s authorities of allowing Maïga to die by refusing him basic medical care until the end.

Benjamin Roger and Fatoumata Diallo, “Moussa Diawara, le « mauvais génie » de Bamako” (Jeune Afrique, May 2). Roger and Diallo chart the rise of Diawara from National Guardsman to Director-General of State Security. The article goes through multiple convoluted incidents, including a lavish 2019 birthday party that caused scandal; Diawara’s alleged ties to northern narcotraffickers; Diawara’s possible betrayal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita during the August 2020 coup; his role as adviser to transitional President Bah Ndaw (in power September 2020-May 2021); and, finally, his present whereabouts in a “five-star jail” at the Gendarmerie School.

Jason Burke and Emmanuel Akinwotu, “Russian mercenaries linked to civilian massacres in Mali” (The Guardian, May 4). What is new here is not the substance of the allegations but the nature of the evidence – leaked Malian army documents.

Internal Malian army documents seen by the Guardian reveal the presence of Wagner members – referred to as “Russian instructors” – on “mixed missions” with Malian soldiers and gendarmes during operations in which many civilians have been killed.

[…]

Another internal memo described a clash on 23 April between militants and “a joint patrol of FAMA and Russian instructors” between the villages of Mondoro and Boni. “Provisional losses” amounted to “two dead – one FAMA and one Russian – and 10 wounded – six FAMA and four Russians”, said the memo, sent some hours after the incident. Details of “enemy losses” were “unavailable for the moment”.

As has becoming clearer in the past few weeks, the Russians are taking some casualties themselves.

These three pieces all reinforce the picture of a really grim scene in Bamako – intrigue, mistrust, authoritarianism, and a regime that is attempting to project power beyond the capital with the help of Wagner, but which (if these snippets of reports are any indication) doesn’t necessarily have that much visibility on what is going on in many parts of the country. If Maïga was effectively allowed to die, moreover, it makes me wonder what consequences the junta will reap for changing the “rules of the game” in Bamako – in Malian politics as in many other countries’ politics, the key players seem to expect they will always be allowed a chance to make a comeback. Take that chance away and intra-elite relations could get very tense indeed.

Four Recent Pieces on Russia in Africa/The Sahel

A lot of analysts and journalists are writing “Russia in Africa” pieces these days, and the quality – and the politics – of those pieces varies considerably. Here are four:

Jalel Harchaoui and John Lechner, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Affects Its Meddling in Africa” (Lawfare, May 1). This is a good and straight-shooting piece that avoids hyperbole and sensationalism while still taking very seriously Russia’s (negative) role in several of Africa’s conflict zones. The piece also convincingly calls out Washington as talking tough but doing little to really push back on Russian influence – and then, refreshingly, calls not for tough actions but for judicious and continued engagement with African governments. An excerpt:

Punishing poor African governments, like those of CAR or Mali, for their Russian connections by reducing U.S. and European aid will not alter their behavior or protect civilians. It will only amplify Russian influence and erase U.S. leverage, while bringing further harm to populations already in the grips of a severe food crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States should avoid this type of overreaction given that security deterioration in those territories, along with the growth of actors more toxic than the Russians, might well force the United States to come back asking for cooperation from the same local authorities in the medium-term future.

Mucahid Durmaz and Murtala Abdullahi, “‘White hands’: The Rise of Private Armies in African Conflicts” (Al Jazeera, April 28). As the title indicates, this piece is not merely about Russians or the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, but it is useful for thinking about Russia in Africa. It is not “whataboutism,” in my view, to consider that other mercenaries from the “global north” and beyond – including French, British, Israeli, and South Africa – also operate in Africa and get into their own scandals involving corruption, abuses, child soldiers, usurpation of state functions, etc. On one level, the “Russia in Africa” story is just that; on another level, it’s a story about the hollowing-out of African states and the opportunities that opens for multiple private-sector plays to cash in.

Carley Petesch and Gerald Imray, “Russian Mercenaries Are Putin’s ‘Coercive Tool’ in Africa” (Associated Press, April 23). This piece represents the now-standard narrative; worth a read, but more as a reflection of the dominant view in Washington and Paris than as adding much new to conversation. On Twitter, Durmaz (co-author of the previous piece) called the AP piece “full of lazy, unimaginative, uncritical, sensationalist and biased reporting on African countries’ complex ties with rest of the world.” Harsh but not unwarranted.

Danielle Paquette, “He’s Pro-Russian, Anti-Zelensky and Rallying for Putin in West Africa” (Washington Post, April 21). I actually found this piece the worst of anything I’ve read on the topic recently. The article is a profile of a 30-year-old Burkinabè man whom the journalist condescendingly presents as an absolute dupe, someone completely brainwashed by Russian disinformation; basically, the guy showed the journalist a few sites he likes, and it becomes a story about how Russia is winning in Africa. It’s not that journalists need to be political scientists (heck, I’m not even a proper political scientist), but to extrapolate so much from a sample size of one (!!) is ridiculous, as is the idea that Russian propaganda is the most significant variable at play in shaping how this man thinks. After all, it turns out “he indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford.” That’s not much. And what is the effect of the propaganda on his political action? He ultimately attends a pro-Russia demonstration where “only a couple dozen men had gathered.” The piece also glosses over France’s failures in the Sahel, implicitly poo-pooing the kind of frustration this man feels; I’m not saying he’s right to be pro-Putin, but in the hands of some Western journalists and policymakers, the “Russia is taking over Africa” narrative easily becomes a means of grossly oversimplifying how the situation in the Sahel got so bad.

Mali: Roundup on the Massacre at Moura, the Mass Grave at Gossi, and the Surrounding Information War

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.

Piece on Mali and the Wagner Group for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft

Along with nine colleagues, I’ve joined the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft as a Non-Resident Fellow, which is a real honor – Quincy is doing a lot to advance alternative and less militaristic thinking in U.S. foreign policy. As part of this new role, I’ll be contributing from time to time to their online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, where I’ve written a few pieces in the past. My newest is about Mali and the Wagner Group. Here’s the conclusion:

Whether it is a calculated threat or an imminent deal, part of what gives Mali’s Wagner Group negotiations such power over Western governments is the mantra of “great power competition” in Washington and beyond. Russia is a second-rate power, with a gross domestic product for 2020 ($1.5 trillion) than was considerably less than that of France ($2.6 trillion), to say nothing of the U.S. economy. Despite all the talk of misinformation on Russia’s part, Western capitals have deluded themselves about Russia’s strength, including in Africa — and that perception blinds Paris, Washington, and others to the harms of the status quo. Mali’s trajectory under current policies, local and Western, is a bigger problem than Russian influence, real or imagined.