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As Russia’s Wagner Group Operates in Mali, the Country’s Civilian Deaths Multiply

Col. Assimi Goïta, the interim president of Mali, wrote on his Twitter page on Jan. 19, 2022: “I had a long telephone conversation with the SG of the United Nations @antonioguterresthis evening. I conveyed to him our commitment to a return to normal, peaceful and secure constitutional order and invited him to encourage the international community to support our country.” Meanwhile, the UN reports that the number of civilian deaths has risen exponentially in the first quarter of this year compared with the previous period. 

The number of uninvestigated civilian deaths in Mali is rising but regional bodies and the governments responsible are not willing to take action.

From 2018 to 2021, an independent Malian-based news site, sahelien.com, recorded six incidents where 43 civilians were killed in mixed operations between France’s Operation Barkhane and the Malian military. Only one such occurrence — airstrikes on wedding guests in Bounti — was investigated by the United Nations, but it is unclear if Mali or France followed up on the findings, in which 22 people were killed.

The report recommended that the French and Malian authorities “profoundly examine the processes and precautions they take in preparation for such strikes” to “conduct investigations into possible violations of international humanitarian law and human rights” and compensate the victims.

France denied the findings of the report. In the five months of Mali’s new partnership with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, 456 deaths have been recorded by Armed Conflicts and Event Data Project (Acled) and other nongovernmental organizations in the country.

A just-released report on human rights from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, called Minusma, found that in the first quarter of 2022, the number of violations and abuses by Malian defense and security forces rose from 31 in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 320 in the first quarter of this year. The forces reportedly killed 248 civilians, including 18 women and 6 children.

A total of 812 civilians were directly affected by violence, representing an increase of 151 percent compared with the previous quarter, and the largest category of violations was the killing of civilians, or a 324 percent rise. The UN said: “The Malian Armed Forces have increased military operations to combat terrorism, with occasional support from foreign military elements.”

Although the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the largest political and regional body in the region, expressed concern over the arrival of the Wagner Group in Mali, during its 60th ordinary session in December 2021, it fell short of calling out Malian leaders and their Russian partners for alleged reports of extrajudicial killings across central Mali. Ecowas is due to hold a summit on Mali on June 4.

Pauline Bax, the deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, a private entity focused on preventing war, said that Ecowas was unwilling to raise the issue of the Wagner Group and human rights with the Malian military to keep channels of communication open on Mali’s plans to transition to civilian rule after its two coups since 2020.

“You could say that Ecowas should condemn Mali for using Wagner troops, but at this point, it may not want to deteriorate its relations further with the Malian government,” Bax told PassBlue during an exclusive interview in May. “So it’s trying to keep some channels of communications open to make sure that the Malian military leadership agrees to hold elections at some state in the near future rather than five years from now as it is planning to do.”

The country underwent a coup in August 2020 and another one in May 2021. Col. Assimi Goïta is now the interim leader of the military government. Since the 2021 coup, Ecowas has used sanctions to coerce the junta to give up power to a civilian regime. While the 15-member Ecowas, which is currently led by Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo, frets over the military rule in Mali, its silence on the human-rights front and the impunity of Malian, Russian and French troops in the country appear to be frustrating the work of investigators risking their lives to uncover the civilian toll of the fight against jihadists in Mali.

Responding to the findings of the UN investigation of the airstrikes in Bounti in early 2021, Françoise Dumas, the chairperson of the French parliament’s defenses and armed forces committee, reportedly described the UN report as “information warfare targeting our credibility and legitimacy.”

The Wagner Group has worked in or continues to operate in Libya, Sudan and Mozambique — where the government canceled its contract after eight months — as well as in the Central African Republic, Mali and numerous other countries. In the Central African Republic, nongovernmental organizations and private investigators told PassBlue that they were scared to go to places where the Russian mercenaries have apparently committed atrocities. Residents say their mobile phones are taken away by the group when it enters a community, to stop locals from capturing footage of their actions.

A UN panel of experts working for the Security Council wrote a detailed report of some of the accusations. Russia denied them and prevented further investigations by the panel, which was disbanded by Russia through its Council seat. A new panel has been constituted, but it is unclear if the members will be able to do their work in the Central African Republic, which is rich in diamonds and gold that are apparently profiting the Wagner Group.

While observers on the ground say that Barkhane, the operation under which French troops were sent to northern Mali to fight jihadist incursions, Minusma and European Union forces have brought a semblance of governance to the region, the same hope is not held for Wagner.

European Union training forces announced this spring that they are leaving Mali, based on souring relations with Goïta and interference by Wagner in their work. “Russia does not give money, it only supplies security assistance,” Bax of the International Crisis Group said. Payment for that security will come from Mali’s gold, she contended. “The idea is that Wagner is a self-financing operation. So it comes in, and with the revenues from mining concessions they can pay their troops and operation in a country.”

A recent closing ceremony at the Koulikoro Training Center, after weeks of training provided by the European Union for Malian armed forces. The overall European mission has announced it is leaving the country. EUTM

On the ground, media reports and several demonstrations in Bamako, the capital, since January 2021 indicate that Malians were desperate to see French troops withdraw from their country. But Abdoul Salam Hama, the co-founder of Sahelien.com, said Malians in the north, where the French have largely operated, actually prefer to have Barkhane stay.

“Majority of those in the North are not in support of the French leaving,” Hama said. “There was little government presence when the French came in 2013. The French did projects in the region and employed some of the locals.” His remarks are corroborated by a senior military commander who operated in the region until 2021.

Most of the military operations carried out by Wagner so far have occurred in central Mali, where they were reported to have led the campaign in Moura, in which more than 300 people were killed, including 60 to 100 unarmed terrorists. The just-released UN report also said that Malian forces allegedly raped, summarily executed and arbitrarily detained civilians in the military operation in Moura, which occurred from March 27-31. Malian transitional authorities announced that they have opened an investigation into the allegations of human-rights violations reported in Moura, but Minusma is still barred from doing its own onsite probe.

Unconfirmed reports say the mercenaries have been using the airport in Timbuktu, in northern Mali, to airlift supplies and fighters into the area. While this information cannot be independently verified by PassBlue, a sense of unease permeates the ancient city, which was captured by Tuareg fighters in 2012 who were then expelled by the French.

“We feel threatened, we are seeing strangers we don’t recognize,” a civil society advocate in Timbuktu told PassBlue by phone. The advocate, a teacher, asked to remain anonymous. He said that terrorists operating at the fringes of the province keep a hit list of local political activists.

Timbuktu is the headquarters of governance in northern Mali. It is largely protected by UN peacekeepers and Malian soldiers, but the widespread nomadic camps elsewhere in the mainly arid region still bear the brunt of terror attacks and coercion from jihadists. Although no fights with terrorists in the north have been reported recently, a mass grave that the French government accuses the Wagner Group of framing for digging was sighted in Gossi.

France had recently handed over a military base in Gossi to Malian troops and said the corpses buried at the gravesite came from a military patrol in Hombori, in central Mali. Aid workers accused Malian soldiers of shooting at a crowded marketplace in the area, retaliating for an ambush, which caused the death of a Russian paramilitary. The Malian government said it would carry out an inquiry into the grave in Gossi.

This month, the Security Council must renew the mandate for Minusma, and an African diplomat at the UN told PassBlue that negotiations in the Council, led by France, are aiming to bolster the role of human-rights investigations by the peacekeeping mission. Yet such ambitions could jeopardize political negotiations with the junta leaders and Russia, a permanent Council member. Journalists and residents in northern Mali said they did not know if the Wagner Group had arrived yet to fill the vacuum left by exiting French and EU forces.

“We are asking questions, we have asked for information about the Wagner Group from the governorate, but the government does not give appropriate information,” the Timbuktu teacher said.

Mali is battling local conflicts between the pastoralist Pule and sedentary Dogon in the central region as well. It is also fighting jihadists in the north and border areas with Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Yet the country is increasingly isolated, as it recently withdrew from the Group of Five Sahel coalition counterterrorism force, leaving Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger to do that work on their own, however minimal the group’s accomplishments have been until now.

At the end of the day, Mali’s civilians are left to suffer the consequences of Ecowas sanctions and military impunity. Beyond boots on the ground, the former military commander who spoke to PassBlue, requesting anonymity, said that land management and climate policies aimed at ending nomadism will help restore some peace to the stressed, fragile country.

Although Bax admitted that the French mission failed to bring peace to Mali, she said the failure of France and other foreign partners in the country “to not try to push the government to do more for its population while fighting the jihadists” created the impasse that has enabled the Malian military to become more ruthless with civilians in its joint operations with the Russian mercenaries.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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