Mali: The CMA says it will take up arms against Russian mercenaries

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Friday, 1 October 2021 15:10

Tuareg CMA fighters drive near Kidal, northern Mali in 2016. AFP

The prospect of an agreement between the Malian authorities and Russia's Wagner Group is worrying the former rebel groups in the 'Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad' (CMA). The coalition believes that such a deal would undermine the 2015 peace agreement.

The Malian authorities are no longer hiding from it. After France’s ‘absolute abandonment’, which is how prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga described the announced restructuring of the Barkhane operation on 25 September, Bamako must now move on to its ‘plan B’ to ensure its security.

As discussions get underway with Moscow, the possibility that Mali may make a deal with the Wagner Group’s mercenaries already has some countries up in arms. Among them are Western countries, led by France, and northern Mali, where the CMA has warned Bamako about joining forces with mercenaries.

The CMA, which brings together several groups from the former independence rebellion, is clearly opposed to this possible deal. “It is the civilian populations – that have already been battered and weakened by a decade of crisis – who will pay the price for employing mercenaries from the Wagner Group, [which is] known for committing serious human rights violations in the countries where they [their mercenaries] are deployed,” the CMA says in a statement.

Russia is a sovereign state, which intervenes within a legal framework that is set by international standards; but who really knows what Wagner is, who it answers to and what its operating procedures are?”

Present in Libya, as well as in the Ukrainian region of Donbass, Wagner is regularly singled out for its abuses. “Wagner has distinguished itself in Syria and the CAR, as it has committed all kinds of abuses, predations and violations,” France’s foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, told members of France’s parliament on 14 September.

The CMA also argues that entering into an agreement with the Wagner Group would undermine the 2015 peace agreement that was signed by the rebels and the Malian authorities. “The intervention of an organisation that is neither a state nor a peacekeeping mission goes contrary to the provisions made, and [Wagner] has no reason to be present in Mali,” says Attaye Ag Mohamed, head of the CMA delegation to the Comité de Suivi de l’Accord. He also told us that if they ignored the agreement, then the Malian authorities would have to “accept the consequences”.

According to an expert on the issue, these comments have fuelled uncertainty about the future of the peace agreement. “We have to take the context into account,” says our source, who requested anonymity. “The CMA leaders on the ground are facing pressure from young people, women and figures who never wanted the agreement and who feel that its implementation has been delayed. If an excuse to challenge the agreement arises, such as the arrival of Wagner’s mercenaries, then the CMA may well seize [the opportunity] so that it can legitimise its presence on the ground.”

Wagner, an object of speculation

This analysis has not been contradicted by the CMA, which has stated that the pact signed in 2015 only remains valid if the authorities in Bamako respect its provisions. “The agreement is not a document that the CMA has imposed on the Malian government. What the CMA proposed in Algiers was federalism, but it complied with this agreement because it is a pact, born out of a consensus, of a dialogue,” says Mohamed. “We don’t want to push for war, but we have an agreement and if it is not respected, we will not wait.”

The scope of the intervention by Wagner’s mercenaries, who are known for unofficially doing Moscow’s dirty work, is the subject of speculation. “Some fear that the populists in Bamako are in a spirit of revenge and are asking Wagner to do ‘the job’ that France and others in the northern part of the country have refused, in order to recover certain territories that the Malian state has failed to, Kidal in particular,” says the Sahel specialist mentioned above.

Illegal subcontracting

“We will hold the Malian state responsible for whatever Wagner does. In our eyes, if Wagner violates human rights, then it will be the Malian state’s responsibility. We will not remain observers forever. If there were Russian mercenaries on Malian soil, then we would go after them, just like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Islamic State,” says Mohamed.

However, he clarifies that this categorical ‘no’ to recruitment of mercenaries did not mean that he was against increased security cooperation with Moscow. “Russia is a sovereign state, which intervenes within a legal framework that is set by international standards; but who really knows what Wagner is, who it answers to and what its operating procedures are? Any subcontracting with local or foreign mercenaries is illegal. If a state were to do so, it would be held accountable.”

The same is true of Western governments, which see an official agreement with Russia as an opportunity to fill in the gap left by France’. “Russia is obviously not a neutral partner, but Bamako already has a fairly strong partnership with Moscow and strengthening it would help reinforce the Malian armed forces, which in itself is a good thing,” says a Western diplomatic source. “The problem is not Russia, the problem is Wagner.”

There is also a scenario where the Malian authorities backtrack. “I don’t think the government will go so far as to risk an inferno in the northern part of the country and economic sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States. [However,] by leaving it unclear [as to] whether Wagner will come or not, it can give itself additional leeway in its discussions with the international community,” says a Sahel specialist. Thus, Bamako, by ruling out any mercenary involvement, could ask the international community to turn a blind eye to extension of its transition period, an action which – until now – had been firmly rejected.

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