The Mali military government use of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries has been a disaster for northern and central Mali because the Russians can’t halt the expansion of Islamic terror groups. The military government expelled the more effective French counter-terrorism forces and troops from neighboring countries that still work with the French. While the French presence was good for the average Mali citizen, it was bad for the military government because the French troops protected journalists reporting on the situation in Mali. This included the corruption and poor administrative skills of the military government.
Without the French-led counterterrorism effort in Mali, the Islamic terrorists are expanding the territory they control while also terrorizing civilians, killing soldiers and peacekeepers. They are also fighting each other. The larger Islamic terror group, an al Qaeda coalition called JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems), is gaining control over more of Mali and even making more frequent attacks near the capital Bamako down south.
In the north ISGS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) Islamic terrorists near the Niger border have taken advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces in 2021 by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began with more attacks on the Niger border. The departing French and G5 counter-terrorism forces had kept the Islamic terrorists out of Mali. The Mali army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. ISGS is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the region. When they showed up in 2018, ISGS operated mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, especially the area where the three borders meet.
Since late 2022 ISGS have been working to take control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded with soldiers and a handful of Wagner Group mercenaries but that was unsuccessful. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were needed elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and sought to negotiate a deal with ISGS. Appearing in 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) that changed in 2021 when ISGS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate. The ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists are far more violent than the more numerous al Qaeda. This also means casualties for the 12,000 UN peacekeepers. ISGS violence involves attacks on Islamic terror groups that refuse to take orders from ISIL.
The tri-border (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape any effective counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government underestimated how important the French forces, with their airmobile troops, UAV surveillance and ground attack aircraft were in keeping the Islamic terrorists from establishing themselves inside Mali. The current Mali military government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation and are withdrawing their counterterrorism forces south, to protect the capital and the more prosperous and populous south.
The neighbors see the reliance on Wagner Group as the main cause for more Islamic terrorists operating in Mali and spreading to neighboring countries. This includes Algeria, which has been largely Islamic terrorism free for over a decade. Now Algeria is seeing a return of Islamic terrorist activity because of the growing number of active Islamic terrorists across the border in northern Mali. Despite this, Mali does not want the French back because that makes it easier for foreigners to document the growing corruption of the military government. These corruption reports lead to more countries imposing individual sanctions on officers running the military government and profiting from the corruption. So far the Mali military officers running the government strategy is to abandon northern, and portions of central, Mali to the Islamic terror groups. Complaints from the neighbors are ignored even though that means less foreign aid for Mali. The source of all these problems is corruption.
Measuring The Mess
Corruption has long been a major problem for Mali. Corruption and misuse of foreign aid are the main reasons for many other problems. The international aspect of this can be seen in the worldwide surveys of nations by Transparency International to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. The most recent (2022) corruption rankings had Mali a dismal 137th out of 180 countries. This was a three-way tie with Russia and Paraguay. All three had a CPI (Corruption Perception Index) of 28. The five most corrupt nations have CPIs of between 12 (for Somalia) and 16 (for Yemen. The five least corrupt nations had CPIs of between 90 (for Denmark) and 83 (Singapore). In 2018 Mali ranked 120 and that declined to 130 in 120 in 2019. Back in 2016 the Mali rank was 116 and a decade ago it was 105. Increasing corruption, more frequent military governments and more Islamic terrorism all seem to travel together.
February 27, 2023: The head of the Mali military government visited neighboring Burkina Faso, which also has a military government because of a September, 2022 coup. As with Mali, the Burkina Faso coup was justified by paranoia about France planning to intervene militarily to reinstate the ousted president. That was not true, but the Russian Wagner Group promptly stepped up and offered military assistance, for a price. The new military government accepted the Russian offer, becoming the fourth African to hire Wagner. Mali and Burkina Faso brought in Wagner, at great expense, to deal with the growing Islamic terrorist threat in both countries. France carried out operations to suppress Islamic terrorism more effectively than Wagner and did it for free. But the French troops witnessed the corruption and atrocities committed by the military governments and reported that to international and local organizations that could recommend sanctions. Mali and Guinea, there were already sanctions problems with ECOWAS (Economic Community of fifteen West African States) and the international community. The Mali military government was feeling the pressure and members of the military government were concerned about their growing economic problems and losing control over more and more of the country because of Islamic terrorists. The military governments accused ECOWAS of doing the bidding of foreign countries, particularly France, the former colonial ruler. ECOWAS acted according to what its African members wanted. Those African countries wanted fewer corrupt military governments that lose control of counter-terrorism efforts because they are too busy enriching themselves.
February 24, 2023: In central Mali, Islamic terrorists attacked a village and killed thirteen people.
February 23, 2023: American aviation authorities issued an upgraded warning about private or commercial flights operating over Mali at any altitude. Previously aircraft were warned to stay above 20,000 feet (six kilometers) except when landing or taking off. This is an advisory notice and does not ban commercial flights into or over Mali, if points out the increased risk to aircraft because of the growing number of heavily armed factions operating in Mali.
February 21, 2023: In central Mali, three peacekeepers were killed and five others wounded when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. Being a peacekeeper is a dangerous job in Mali, where peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 have left 168 peacekeepers dead and over 300 wounded. Mali is the most dangerous peacekeeping operation the UN operates. Losses were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Part of this was due to the efforts of the separate French Barkhane counterterrorism force which is now gone from Mali. The 5,100 French counterterrorism troops were always separate from the UN Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. UN peacekeepers mainly defend and are rarely given permission to search and destroy. Since 2018 popular support for Barkhane in France declined and that led to efforts to get other nations to replace the French force completely or partially. Because of all this, the official end of Barkhane was not surprising. Neighboring nations that contributed peacekeepers as part of the G5 coalition to deal with Islamic terrorists in Mali have also left, even though those operations were paid for by European nations. It was not a matter of if, but when. Western nations have long contributed small contingents who operate transport helicopters and surveillance UAVs. Sometimes they send small teams of special operations troops. The growing Russian presence is what threatens the continued presence of the peacekeepers. This is because the UN presence also enables investigations of alleged atrocities committed by Mali soldiers or police. This has been a problem for decades and led to the 2011 rebellion in the north, then the military coup, and finally military intervention by France to keep the north part of Mali. The military government can now block some of those investigations because Russia will use its UN veto to block certain investigations.
February 19, 2023: The AU (African Union) completed a summit meeting in Ethiopia and announced that Mali, along with Burkina Faso, Guinea and Sudan would remain suspended from the AU.
February 8, 2023: In the north, the CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) coalition has agreed to put aside their disagreements and form a unified group. CAM had long been a pro-government Tuareg coalition that had not resolved all their clan and family disputes. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). The 2015 peace deal ended the Tuareg support for Islamic terrorism, but not the tribal animosities. These local, and often ancient, disagreements and feuds are often not connected with the 2012 rebellion in the north nor the continuing Islamic terrorism problems, but they do cause security problems that interfere with rebuilding the economy and much else. The Tuareg peace deal was stalled for years because the black majority in the south did not want to even consider granting as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied (because of lack of support from the corrupt government) down south and took control of the capital. The army is still in charge and not showing any signs of confirming the old peace deals with the CMA.
February 5, 2023: Mali expelled UN officials for criticizing the presence of the Russian Wagner Group in Mali. This is not the only way the military government of Mali assists Russia. Mali is one of the few countries that support Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. Those supporters have a lot in common with Russia as they tend to be aggressive and warlike dictatorships or those with ideological or economic reasons to back Russia. In addition to Mali, these supporters include Belarus, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. All these supporters agree that” the West” is a problem for them and Russia and this is why Russia continues to insist that its operations in Ukraine are part of an effort to defend Russia from growing NATO efforts to destroy Russia.