The past few years have seen major political upheaval in the West African nation of Mali, with two coups in as many years. The most recent transition took place in May 2021, when President Bah Ndaw was ousted by his vice president and former special forces colonel, Assimi Goïta. The newly established junta, as recently as December, promised that elections would be on the way by February of 2022. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc dedicated to economic integration and peacekeeping set a deadline of February 27th for elections. The junta announced a five-year transition plan, which would see a constitutional referendum in 2023, but no legislative elections until 2025. This plan was widely rejected by political and civil society organizations as well as ECOWAS and resulted in condemnation from the international community.
Tensions began to boil over as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the Goïta junta “illegitimate and irresponsible” resulting in the Bamako government expelling French ambassador Joel Meyer in protest. The Goïta government proceeded to demand the withdrawal of all French forces stationed in the country. France has already begun the several month withdrawal of its over 2,000 strong deployment in Mali. This decision effectively ends Mali’s participation in Operation Barkhane, an 8-year French-led regional anti-terror campaign, as well as Operation Takuba, a newer European-Sahelian security force established in 2021.
These decisions show a remarkable break in longstanding Franco-Malian relations, particularly in the field of security cooperation. The Malian junta further demonstrated its desire to look elsewhere for global political affiliation by hiring mercenaries of the Russian-backed Wagner Group, to take over some of the responsibilities of the now-departing Western forces. This rapid re-alignment leaves the region in a place of newfound uncertainty and begs the question of what comes next for the West African nation.
A Washington-based European official familiar with the matter, described some of the concerns the international community has regarding these developments.
“The new authorities in Mali which came to power by coup – so unelected – are now following a path that we think can be dangerous for security in the region. We have forces there that are at the request of the locals, so we are redeploying them in the region, in the war on terror there. There will not be deployments of European troops in a country which does not want them. We fully abide by the sovereignty of countries. (…) People are not born jihadists, they were attracted to the opportunities these terror groups offer because of lack of real economic opportunity.”
The primary concerns of the international community have been the persistent issue of terror in the northern part of the country, as well as the encroaching influence of authoritarian states such as Russia. Moscow’s quiet development of ties with several African states has raised eyebrows in Washington and Europe.
The same official elaborated on concerns regarding the presence of the Wagner Group mercenaries which have also been used by the President of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. While Mali has denied the presence of these mercenaries, their existence on the ground has been largely confirmed by western media and intelligence.
“We have seen what the Wagner Group is capable of in Africa, in particular in the Central African Republic. They pay themselves through raw materials in the country, such as gems, gold, and so on. We have seen this in the C.A.R with diamonds. They commit atrocities such as rape, assassinations, and war crimes. They also commit crimes against the opponents of the leaders”
The official finished by commenting “we thought, or we hoped, the era of coups in West Africa could have been over, but it is not the case. In the end, the ones who suffer most are the populations of these countries”.
Mali’s very public divergence from its historical partners has opened a well of uncertainty and concern, with potential Russian intrusion in the country signaling a new frontier for global power rivalries. The recent uptick of coups in West Africa threatens to undermine security and development in the region, while also placing constraints on the foreign policymaking abilities of western nations. The Malian back-to-back coups present a clear challenge to the espoused values of liberal democracies. The antagonism of the Goïta government may even be a bargaining tool meant to extract concessions and toleration of its illiberal governance from western powers fearing Russia’s encroachment in the Sahel.
Mali, however, is in no strong position of leverage itself. Foreign aid constitutes over half of the government budget, and trade with ECOWAS states is similarly vital for its economy. While Russia can be an alluring international patron that refuses to impose even moderate demands for democratic and governance reforms, its ability to support Bamako financially is deeply questionable. The deployment of Wagner-group mercenaries and military assets may project strength, but in reality it reveals the inability of Moscow to match European and American soft power through investment and foreign aid. To put in context, the United States alone provided $38 billion in worldwide developmental aid in 2021, while Russia’s total amount was approximately $1.15 billion. Security aid may be useful to embattled autocrats, but it cannot substitute the value of developmental and advisory aid.
Goïta has taken a risk but also benefits from a certain degree of anti-colonial populism. Historical grievance with France’s colonization of the region can be tapped into by leaders seeking legitimacy by positioning themselves as a national hero standing against foreign intrusion. This populism may even draw on legitimate concerns, but can be used for decidedly illegitimate ends, such as propping up strongmen and putschists. The question now is whether he is capable of realigning Mali in a way which produces results in the fight against terror and insurgency or proves profitable in economic terms. Alternatively, committing to this path while failing to deliver these results will leave Bamako isolated, in the camp of pariah authoritarians without a return ticket.