LAGOS — A little more than 11 years after a jihadist and Tuareg separatist alliance stormed northern Mali and wrested control of the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal from the Malian state, the two sides are set to take arms against each other again.
The Malian military government, bolstered by a closer alliance with Moscow and public support for its nationalist policies, is preparing to discard the past decade’s French-led peace strategy for a risky renewed war that would rely on Russia against rebels and jihadists, à la Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
On Feb. 6-7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the Malian capital, Bamako, marking the first visit of a Russian foreign minister to the country. He announced at a press conference, after receiving the title of Commander of the National Order of Mali, that Russia “will enhance the combat capacity of Malian defense forces, and train the military and law enforcement officers.” He also stated that Moscow intended to send “shipments of wheat, fertilizer, petroleum products, and other strategic products as soon as possible.” He added that he would encourage Russian businesses to invest in “geological prospection, mineral resources, energy, transport, infrastructure, and agriculture” in Mali.
Lavrov’s visit was a boon to the military government, which has overseen Mali since it seized power in a coup in 2021. “We’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Your arrival has fulfilled the expectations of the Malian people,” Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said to the press, referring to Lavrov. “Russia is responding efficiently to Mali’s needs in terms of reinforcing our defense capabilities, and we would like to expand that economically as well.”
As the Malian military government, led by transitional President Col. Assimi Goïta, solidifies and expands its ties with Russia, aiming to become a privileged Kremlin ally like Syria and the Central African Republic, it is also pushing to unravel the Algiers peace accord, the 2015 agreement that established a semblance of stability in the country by granting some autonomy to the armed groups that occupied the nation in 2012. Several of them, reacting to the transitional government’s rejection of meeting outside Mali (to gauge its commitment to the peace process), have started to pull out of the Algiers deal and threatened to ally with the Malian-led jihadist group JNIM, who maintain a stronghold in the far-northern city of Kidal and are also fighting the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel.
The end of the Algiers accord appears to be part of the Malian transitional government’s larger strategy to establish more military strength to take back control of the north and force the rebels to renegotiate the treaty from a position of weakness. The strategy depends on two tracks: having a willing outside partner, which they have found in President Vladimir Putin, who continues to need more allies to bolster Russia’s global standing as it wages war in Ukraine; and to stymy French and Western influence in Africa.
The second track will also count on the support of the Malian public, most of whom have never accepted the country’s north being run by separatist Tuareg and Arab groups. Today, the foreign-led Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and the Malian-led JNIM are the main forces occupying the north. Other armed groups who were signatories to the Algiers accord signed an agreement on Feb. 8 to unite under a single command, a signal that they are readying for renewed war against Bamako as well as the Islamic State.
“Sadly, the country is heading towards a civil war,” a former top United Nations official told PassBlue in an interview, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. “If they have the opportunity from the government side, they would like to get back to Kidal. It’s an old wound, and if they feel they have a chance of getting back to Kidal and being superior there, they will try to do so.” Likewise, Russia has “the capacity to supply Mali with equipment.”
“Just the fact that this would stir up the situation more would serve their purposes,” he added. “They can see the benefits and they have the means for it.”
A renewed war against rebels and jihadists who broke off from Mali and seized the northern two-thirds of the country, in 2012, before being chased from main population centers by French, Chadian and Malian forces a year later, will be popular in Bamako. But potential fighting poses an explosive risk to the security of the region and faces major hurdles to succeed.
The first is that Mali could lose any offensive against an alliance of rebel and jihadist groups, who rely on asymmetric warfare and know the terrain better than their counterparts in Bamako. A loss on the battlefield would likely spell an end to the current government and open doors for jihadist groups to march into Bamako.
A military strategy modeled after Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his 12-year civil war would mean large-scale offensives with no regard for civilians. Major bombing campaigns like those that Russia has led with its Syrian ally in Syria would kill many innocent people and significantly worsen the disastrous humanitarian situation in Mali, forcing up to hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. Joint operations between the Wagner Group, the private militia run by the Putin crony Yevgeny Prighozin, and Malian army attacks have killed at least 500 civilians, according to Acled data.
Renewed war also relies on either a military-friendly leader winning the scheduled presidential elections in February 2024, or the elections not taking place at all. Based on the logistics required to hold elections in the vast country and the clear focus of the government to build its military might, it is unlikely that such voting will be held a year from now, as promised to the regional Economic Community of West Africa States, in exchange for lifting its harsh sanctions against Mali. Reneging on the promise will pose another problem to the regional group, which will probably reimpose sanctions, ratcheting up tensions between the bloc and the junta government and further deteriorating relations between the Ecowas powerhouse country of Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
In tandem with sidestepping elections is the steady march toward an authoritarian regime and a cult of personality around Colonel Goïta. On Feb. 6, the government declared the human-rights chief, Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali, of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, persona non grata, after his reports on civilian casualties and other human-rights violations became a thorn in the government’s side. His booting from the country followed a Jan. 27 speech by a briefer through videoconference in the UN Security Council, criticizing the civilian toll by the transitional government and Russia’s counterterrorism efforts.
The remarks, by Aminata Cheick Dicko, head of the human-rights organization Kisal, based in Bamako, incensed Foreign Minister Diop, who was physically in the meeting that day. Indeed, the government’s defenders vehemently criticized Dicko’s speech, and the government spokesperson, Col. Abdoulaye Maïga, declared that Kisal is a “non-declared foreign association that has no right to work in Mali,” despite that it has been working in the country for many years and criticizing French counterterrorism actions as well.
In his press conference in Bamako with Lavrov this week, Diop outlined his government’s commitment to crafting a narrative that equates criticism of human-rights violations to foreign destabilization agendas. “We know that these days, human rights are instrumentalized and politicized for hidden agendas, or barely hidden, to overturn political regimes and achieve certain political goals,” he said, standing beside Lavrov. “We work with Russia to depoliticize human rights and make sure they are not instrumentalized.”
The transitional government’s online cheerleaders already crowd out critics of the junta leaders, calling them lackeys of France, and many critics in the country have become afraid to say anything negative about Colonel Goïta and his team in public arenas. The military has gradually weakened opposition political parties and prohibited a protest march that the opposition was planning to hold in Bamako last week, citing security concerns.
Avoiding the politicization of human-rights violations is nearly impossible, as Mali, Russia and France are known to rarely admit wrongdoing in public regarding Mali. When a report by the UN peacekeeping mission, Minusma, described how a French airstrike in Bounti, in the center of the country, killed dozens of people attending a wedding last year, the president of the French parliament’s defense commission, Françoise Dumas, qualified the report as part of “a constant information war aimed at undermining our credibility and legitimacy.”
As French journalist Rémi Carayol noted, the French government had tried to replace Ngefa-Atondoko Andali of Minusma from his position many times after his reports criticized Operation Barkhane, the French counterterrorism unit based in Mali, which has since left the country. The French government’s newfound position as defender of human rights in Mali since Russia has become its key ally rings hollow for many Malian civilians.
Another stumbling block to Colonel Goïta’s potential plan to retake the north by force is the will of Algeria, Mali’s largest, most powerful neighbor. Algeria played a major role in the peace negotiations and wants Mali to stick to the Algiers accord, named for the capital in which it was signed. Fresh fighting in northern Mali could destabilize southern Algeria, with which it shares many cultural ties. It could also prompt Algeria to intervene militarily. “It’s not their first option to get involved there,” the former top UN official said.
Algeria maintains good relations with Russia, so a Malian offensive that relies on the Wagner Group could encounter Algerian diplomatic opposition through both of their well-established channels in Moscow. But Algerian opposition would only go so far if Russia found that its self-interest in West and North Africa outweighs good dynamics with Algiers.
“It depends how important it is for Russia,” the ex-UN official told PassBlue. “Their goals could be to create confusion and then back off. But if it’s a deal that has more at stake, like access to gold mines, then they could press on. It depends on their strategic objectives.”
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Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.