Russia’s Wagner Group in the Sahel

Sahara ,Sahel

Published on Thursday, 31 March 2022 Back to articles

Much of the news from the Sahel is coloured by developments in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the impact on the region. The two news items that have been most coloured by Russia’s invasion are: the presence of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali; and the possible resurrection of the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP) which could eventually carry gas from Nigeria to Europe, via Niger and Algeria, as part of the effort to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies. We look first at issues surrounding the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali.

According to regional and Western officials hundreds of the Wagner Group’s Russian mercenaries — wearing army fatigues with no flag and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles — have arrived in Mali over the last three months. They guard the presidential palace, track extremists in the scrubland, and providing a shadowy source of protection as Mali’s alliances with the West unravel. In Bamako, protestors wave Russian flags and photographs of President Vladimir Putin. Signs declare ‘I love Wagner’ and ‘Thank you Wagner.’

The Wagner Group — which is subject to US sanctions and has been widely accused of war crimes — is a semi-covert extension of the Kremlin. Its forces arrived in Mali after the latter’s 2020 coup d’état began to isolate the country from its democratic Western partners. As it invades Ukraine, the Kremlin is pushing to amplify its global influence and ostensibly private military groups like Wagner offer a deniable way to advance its goals. According to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Russian mercenary footprint has increased from four countries in 2016 to 28 of which 18 are in Africa.

The US Navy’s Rear Admiral Milton ‘Jamie’ Sands III, who heads Special Operations Command Africa, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: ‘Wagner comes in, further destabilises the country, ravages the mineral resources and makes as much money as they can before they choose to leave. Every time, the country is left poorer, weaker, and less secure.’ 

Mali’s military junta denies having hired Wagner and insists that they are only army instructors from Russia which is a ‘historic’ partner. In February, Putin made no mention of a military agreement when a reporter asked about mercenaries in Mali. He only acknowledged that there were ‘commercial activities’ and claimed that the Kremlin had ‘nothing to do with the companies working in Mali,’ and that ‘If Mali has opted to work with our companies, it has the right to do so.’ 

Officially, Wagner Group does not exist as a single registered business but is a nebulous tangle of entities connected to the Russian military and Putin’s oligarch friend, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who is wanted by the FBI on charges related to interfering in the US’ 2016 presidential election. The former head of Ukraine’s main security agency has referred to Wagner as Putin’s private army.

US military officials focused on Africa put the number of Russian mercenaries now in Mali at 800-1,000 while France has put the number at 1,000. Since they started arriving in Mali in late December new rules have hindered international missions against the Islamist insurgency. According to officials close to Western military operations: surveillance flights now require 72-hour notice; and Mali’s military partners have been ordered to avoid those areas where the Russians are deployed. Western, regional, and business leaders say that the mercenaries are performing a variety of duties, including: embedding with Malian troops; upgrading telecommunications; and running an off-limits supply hub from the international airport.

On 3 March it was announced that Sweden would pull its 220 soldiers out of the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA) in June 2023 which is a year earlier than planned. No reasons have been given for the early withdrawal, but Stockholm previously said that the presence of Russian military contractors in the country was making Swedish troops presence untenable.

Pro-Russian groups in Bamako have long demanded stronger ties to Moscow — insisting that the Soviet Union was Mali’s first real ally after it achieved independence from France in 1960 — but recent demonstrations have been full of Wagner memorabilia. One February rally featured portraits of the 19th century antisemitic German composer Richard Wagner, whose stoic face circulates in online mercenary circles.

Adama Ben Diarra — a member of the Conseil national de la transition (CNT) and one of five Malian officials hit with European Union sanctions this year — said that the number of Russians in Mali is a ‘defence secret.’ He insisted that Moscow sent them under a formal ‘state-to-state’ agreement and ‘and the world must prove otherwise.’

How the mercenaries are being paid in Mali remains a murky secret. General Stephen Townsend, head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), said in a recent video conference that ‘I have reason to believe that the Malian government tab for Wagner’s services is US$10 million a month,’ and added ‘I think they will have to trade in kind with natural resources such as gold and other minerals.’ Besides being Africa’s third-largest gold producer, Mali also has large reserves of lithium, used in smartphones, and uranium which is used in the nuclear sector. The junta is believed to be negotiating mining concessions with the Wagner Group. 

In late 2021, when the world began to become aware of Wagner’s Mali deal, there was talk of Algeria helping to foot the bill. There has been no further evidence of this beyond the belief that Algeria may be supplying Wagner with supplies including fuel.

Well-informed sources say that about a third of the Wagner forces in Mali have embedded with the Forces Armées Maliennes in the centre of the country where violence has surged in recent years. They have been tasked with cornering suspected fighters and staging strikes in overwhelmingly rural areas.

Meanwhile Mali’s European and West African security partners have lost access to those areas that are being patrolled by Wagner. The 72-hour requirement for surveillance flights began in January, preventing allies from sending aircraft above villages in danger of imminent attacks which was meant to deter assailants. ‘We get the impression there is something to hide’ said one official in the country.

Further north, Russian military contractors have moved into an airport at Timbuktu which was previously used by the French military forces. According to a well-informed local source, they were ‘doing telecommunications work’ — setting up phone lines and Internet — and fixing the Malian army’s armoured vehicles. In Bamako mercenaries are guarding the presidential palace and operate a military supply hub from a sealed-off area of the international airport.

Wagner numbers in Sub-Saharan Africa fluctuate. The US military estimates that 3,000-5,000 are active on the continent with the largest number usually being in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya. They tend to shuttle from one conflict zone to another and recently some were transferred from Libya to Ukraine via Syria. While they have a visibly very high profile in the CAR, they maintain a much lower profile in Mali. 

Rise in civilian deaths since Wagner Group arrived

On several occasions Mali’s army has previously been accused of human rights abuses which it has always denied. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in mid-March, however, that there had recently been a surge in the killing of Malian civilians by both soldiers and jihadists. It said that at least 107 civilians — including traders, village chiefs and children — had been killed in central and south-western Mali since December which is the period during which the Wagner Group has been operating in Mali. Soldiers have been blamed for at least 71 civilian deaths during this period while jihadists were linked to 36 deaths. HRW called it a ‘dramatic spike’ that needed to the investigated.

Mali to stop broadcasts by French radio and TV stations

The junta’s response to these allegations made by HRW and Michelle Bachelet,the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2018 — that the army and the Wagner Group have been killing civilians and committing other abuses against the local population — has been to take France’s state-owned RFI radio and France 24 television off air because they have been broadcasting these allegations. Bamako, which accused them of reporting false allegations, also banned Malian news websites from posting articles from the two news agencies.

France Médias Monde — which is the parent company of RFI and France 24 — said that it ‘deplores this decision and reiterates its attachment to freedom of information and to the professional and neutrality of its journalists.’

The junta’s move has exacerbated the current deterioration in bilateral relations between Paris and Bamako. It is also drawing international attention to the fact that, not only has the security situation worsened since the arrival of the Wagner Group and the departure of the French forces, but also that the abuse of the civilian population has increased. 

These atrocities fit the pattern of Wagner’s presence in Africa. Last year, United Nations experts urged the CAR to cut ties with Wagner and accused it of violent harassment, intimidation, and sexual abuse. It is still early days in Mali but it appears as if the UN’s warning to the CAR might just as well now be directed towards Mali.

On 17 March, speaking at a House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee hearing, AFRICOM’s General Townsend said that Mali’s transitional government invited Wagner because it thought it would do a better job than the French in tackling the violent extremism plaguing the country. Townsend told the committee that when he heard about Mali’s invitation to Wagner, he travelled to Bamako to meet the junta leader, Colonel Assimi Goïta and urged him not to invite Wagner in just before it did so. Townsend added: ‘Wagner obeys no rules. They won’t follow the direction of the government. They won’t partner more effectively. I think they will only bring in bad.’

This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

The March 2022 issues of Sahara Focus also includes the following:

Wagner Ggoup

  • Russia’s Wagner Group in West Africa
  • Implications

Sahel

  • Bid to relaunch Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP)

Mali

  • No end to security crisis
  • Former prime minister Boubèye Maïga dies in detention
  • Mali’s UEMOE debt defaults increase to US$180 Million

Niger

  • Jihadists rebuff President Bazoum’s peace efforts
  • Savannah Energy to build Niger’s first wind farm

Chad

  • On-off pre-dialogue negotiations with rebels
  • Government plays hardball in approving ExxonMobil-Savannah deal

Mauritania

  • Tension in Mauritanian-Mali border area
  • Mauritania and UAE to develop the iron ore sector

Burkina Faso

  • Three-year transition is approved
  • Security crisis continues

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