Russian roulette in Mali

The Malian transitional government led by the military has strong evidence that France has failed them, say the writers. Graphic: Dieter Bertram/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The Malian transitional government led by the military has strong evidence that France has failed them, say the writers. Graphic: Dieter Bertram/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Feb 4, 2022


By Koffi Kouakou and Charles Matseke

If growing diplomatic rumours that Russia has warned France and Ecowas against any military intervention in Mali are true, the geopolitical implications of such rumours are considerable.

The context is everything and tells it all. West Africa is in turmoil, again.

The dreaded spectre of coup d’états is again raising its ugly head in West Africa in the past six months. Burkina Faso is the latest country to see the military overthrow a legitimate government, adding to a rising list of disruptive changes in government.

Even “Operation Barkhane” famously known as the number one counterterrorism cluster costs more than $1 billion annually has been unable to create security stability in Mali and the Sahel with its large battalion comprises of almost 5 000 French troops and has at least resulted in the deaths of 45 French troops since 2013.

To counter the proliferation of ostensibly Jihadist groups in the northern region, the Malian and neighborhood governments with the help of France and the UN deployed more than 20 000 international and local troops comprised of 45 000 French troops, 13 000 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers and at least 5 000 troops affiliated to the GS Sahel - an initiative spearheaded by France, alongside the likes of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The last decade has seen a rise in terrorism in the Sahel with devastating effects in many countries of which Mali is now paying the ugly price. Recent military coup d’états in Mali, Guinea and lately in Burkina Faso are the depressing signs of the deep political, economic, insecurity and social crises in the region. For decades now, these crises have grown and engulfed mainly the nations of the former colonial power, France.

They have morphed into grave and intractable security challenges that even France is incapable of fixing. Given the longevity of France’s ’forever war’ in Mali, there has been a growing indigenous resentment of the French troops both in the country and the Sahel region in general. France’s luck lustre eight-year military presence in Mali and in the Sahel is being blamed by the Malian military leaders.

They are asking difficult questions about the growing and bloody terrorist attacks in the Northern part of Mali, a country split in half, devastated by rife insecurity, torn into a social depression and a seemingly hopeless future.

The Malian transitional government led by the military has strong evidence that France has failed them and demands a different approach to dealing with the insecurity in Mali. As such, it has asked France to take a backseat for Malian to fix their own problems. In short, they want Malian solutions for Malian problems.

Unfortunately, the negotiations between Malian leaders and France have gone sour and are bordering into ugly public and international spats and confrontations. Recently at the UN, the Malian prime minister Choguel Maiga stated that “France has abandoned Mali in mid-flight.

The statement was poorly received by France. President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign Affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in a brutal rebuttal, castigated Mr Maiga and threatened to withdraw French troops from Mali, leaving Malians baffled, caught off-guard and angry.

Helpless, it seems, Malian leaders had to find a rapid solution to their insecurity problems and seek reliable partners for help. They turned to Russia, an old ally, after having seen their security success in the Central African Republic. Russia agreed, and sent military advisors, hardware, and deployed a contingent of security soldiers to meet the Malian demand.

The French, unhappy and suspicious of this Malian-Russian alliance, are livid. Rightly so. It is becoming very clear, someone said, that “the noose is tightening around France and its Ecowas allies against Mali.

After threatening Mali with a possible military intervention in the event of the departure of the Malian authorities to give power to civilians, Ecowas, France, Washington and the EU receive an unambiguous and clear message from Moscow.” So, things are heating up in Mali and their renewed partnership with Russia in West African and in the Sahel signals major geopolitical implications.

Mali is presenting herself as the symbol of a nation trying to free herself from French domination and seeks new partners on her own terms beyond Ecowas bullying sanctions for democratic elections.

Again if true, the rumoured diplomatic warning of Russia to France and her allies exposes worrying geopolitical backcurtains that raise many questions. Will Mali and the Sahel become the future theater of a potential wider and global war that might start on the African continent?

Is Russia deploying a part of her Africa strategy and pushing into Africa in Mali? Will Russia be a trusted ally to Mali away from soon to be

deposed France? But most important, is Russia really playing a potentially lethal geopolitical game of chance in Mali - Russian roulette?

The unstable context, the depressing issues, the slippery insecurity challenges, the belligerent protagonists, the nature of the crisis in Mali, the war scenarios have grave implications for Africa and the world.

These are worrying times. But also potentially liberating.

* Charles Matseke, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg

** Koffi M Kouakou, Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China, University of Johannesburg

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