At 2pm on 29 October, the tar was burning in Bamako. As the mosques emptied, thousands of people gathered at Independence Square. In the processions that led them to the rallying point, the Russian flag accompanied the national colours. The words ‘France, get out’ and The Malians’ slogan ‘Long live the Russians’ appeared on some of the posters and signs that the demonstrators proudly brandished.
Hostile slogans against France and the Barkhane military force punctuated the sovereignist speeches, which glorified Assimi Goïta, the transition government’s president. Independence Square and its surroundings became crowded. There had not been a gathering of this size since the fall of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) on 18 August 2020.
This time, the demonstrators were not hitting the streets to protest against a regime, but rather to express support for the transition government. The movement Yerewolo-Debout sur les Remparts, which initiated this demonstration, regularly protests against the French military presence in Mali, which prefers to work with Russia.
At the podium, members of the Conseil National de Transition (CNT) rubbed shoulders with leaders from the Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) and key figures from Yerewolo, including its spokesman, Adama Diarra (aka ‘Ben the Brain’).
In Bamanankan, and sometimes even in Russian, these protagonists addressed the crowd. “We reject the international community’s diktat, particularly that of France and Ecowas,” said Pape Diallo, Yerewolo-Debout sur les Remparts’ communication secretary. The tone had been set.
This pro-government demonstration appears to be a referendum for or against the arrival of the Wagner nebula. In mid-September, as Barkhane forces were preparing to return power to the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) stationed in Tessalit, Timbuktu and Gao, the news that a contract might be signed between Wagner and the Malian state worried and displeased Western countries, especially France.
Fiercely opposed to this initiative, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, via Florence Parly, his minister of the armed forces, sent a clear message. “If Mali enters into a partnership with mercenaries, it will isolate itself and lose the support of the international community, which is very committed to it,” she said.
Russia has been publicly committed to Bamako since the first days of IBK’s fall. On 21 August 2020, coup plotters gathered within the Conseil National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP) to meet with Igor Gromyko, Russia’s ambassador to Mali, for the first time. Even though people were aware that this visit had happened, nothing was said about it. Gromyko was not very talkative and tersely informed the cameras that “we discussed security.”
But what security was he talking about? The upcoming delivery of Russian military equipment (four MI-171 helicopters and weapons were indeed delivered a year later)? Had Wagner’s name already been mentioned during this interview? Officially, Moscow wants to dissociate itself.
“[Wagner] is not the state. It is a private company that extracts energy resources, gold and precious stones. If its interests conflict with those of the Russian state […], we will have to react and we will do so,” said President Vladimir Putin in late October. Nevertheless, in light of what is happening in the CAR, it is difficult today to draw a line between this company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin – an oligarch close to Putin – and the Kremlin.
Since the Sochi summit in 2019, one of Moscow’s strategies to increase its influence in Africa has been to target and fund opinion leaders. In Mali, Wagner has already deployed its propaganda through relays, such as Yerewolo.
Last September, when Malian opinion was still questioning whether the famous contract had been signed, ‘Ben the Brain’, the movement’s leader, said: “50 Russian military experts have been in Mali for over a month. They have submitted an expert report.”
The activist, who is also a member of the CNT, said: “In the contract, [the Russian experts] assured that they would end the war in Mali within six months. This is what we and Russia […] have agreed upon. That is the truth.”
Is this propaganda or serious information? For several years, ‘Ben the Brain’ has made a name for himself by tapping into popular discontent over the stalemate in the conflict and calling for Russian military intervention, which – he claims – would be more effective than that of the Barkhane forces.
Other figures within Yerewolo have also played their part. Amina Fofana, also a member of the CNT, is one of them. In January 2021, during an appearance on Afrique Media, a Cameroonian channel that is known for its pro-Russian propaganda and whose content is massively diffused by Yerewolo’s antennas, she made news by accusing France of having lied about the reasons that led to the deaths of Chief Brigadier Tenerii Mauri and first-class soldiers, Dorian Issakhanian and Quentin Pauchet.
In December 2020, these three French soldiers died when their armoured vehicle, which had rolled over an improvised explosive device, exploded between Hombori and Gossi.
Although the tensions surrounding Wagner’s arrival have exacerbated this communication war, Russian influence in Mali is nothing new. Even before Yerewolo’s rise to power, the Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GPM) was already at work.
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In January 2019, this group claimed to have submitted a petition with 8 million signatures to the Russian embassy in Bamako, calling for increased cooperation between the two countries. The aim was to “counterbalance the Minusma and Barkhane”, Tania Smirnova, a researcher at the Centre FrancoPaix in Montreal, told us. “The GPM activists are tapping into the population’s daily frustrations.”
Even though it is difficult to prove that Russia actively supports its activities, sources indicate that MOC figures met with Ambassador Gromyko last June.
Since the Sochi summit, Moscow has launched an extensive recruitment campaign using the Prigozhin network’s soft power tools. The latter regularly holds conferences and seminars with pro-Russian opinion leaders. These meetings are often organised by institutions, such as the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (Afric) and the Foundation for National Values Protection. Prominent individuals in the fight against France-Africa often attend these seminars, such as activist Kémi Seba.
READ MORE CAR: ‘I have nothing to hide about the Russians,’ says President Faustin-Archange Touadéra
In Bamako, the African Back Office, an informal think tank launched by Prigozhin, “proposes leitmotifs that are grafted onto local nationalisms,” says someone familiar with Mali’s social movements. It was notably fuelled by political scientist Alexandre Douguine, a master of Russian influence and an expert in disseminating conspiracy theories.
Many Russian media outlets have also set up a French-language edition so that they can reach as many readers as possible in Africa. This strategy has paid off in Mali.
READ MORE Mali: Why is France taking troops out?
In a study published in July 2021 on Les Pratiques et Récits d’Influences Informationnelles Russes en Afrique Subsaharienne (Russian informational practices and narratives in sub-Saharan Africa), French researcher Maxime Audinet showed that Mali was the most popular country in French-speaking Africa on the Russia Today France website, with 16,628 visits per month in 2020. During the same period, Sputnik France’s audience steadily grew in the country, with 107,360 visits per month, just behind Cameroon.
Just like it is doing in the CAR, Russia is using local media to extend its network of influence in Mali. Ever since it was revealed that Wagner and the Malian state were in negotiations, many news sources have adopted an increasingly pro-Russian editorial line. They also willingly relay the information disseminated by Russia Today France and Sputnik France.
READ MORE From Russia to Africa: The trail of Wagner
The Franco-Malian site Maliactu (owned by Séga Diarrah, who studied in France and Switzerland) probably did the most. On 5 October, it published an exclusive interview with Alexandre Ivanov, head of the Communauté des Officiers pour la Sécurité Internationale (Cosi), an organisation based in Bangui.
We deal with all the information that might interest our readers. If a private company that is about to sign a contract with the Malian state reaches out to us, there is nothing to prevent us from working with it.
Known to all in the CAR, Ivanov is responsible for legitimising the role of Russian ‘instructors’ in that country. During his visit to Bamako, he unsurprisingly spoke about Wagner’s arrival in Mali. “We are the targets of an information war because we are destroying the neo-colonial system […]. We will continue to help those who need us,” he said, praising the Wagner group’s “prowess”, while condemning France as “it is not interested in developing national armies.”
“This interview with Ivanov is the first article in which a Russian personality begins to spread the word about Wagner in Mali,” says Audinet. “As part of their strategy of seduction, the Russians are trying to bring together narratives rooted in their country, such as defending sovereignty, and narratives already rooted in Africa, which denounce Western interference and Françafrique.”
How did this Malian website get a hold of this influential man? Usually, Ivanov only speaks on Lengo Songo, one of Bangui’s main radio stations, which is reputedly financed by Prigojine. The Maliactu boss, Diarrah, denies receiving financing from the Russians. His approach, he asserts, is aimed at getting away from “conformism”.
“We deal with all the information that might interest our readers. If a private company that is about to sign a contract with the Malian state reaches out to us, there is nothing to prevent us from working with it,” he says. Thus, for several months now, Maliactu has been regularly giving a platform to ‘Russian experts’ that it can’t put a face to.
Diarrah “doesn’t believe that Wagner will come to Bamako” and is convinced that “if Barkhane and Minusma leave, […] it will be all over for Mali.” He continues to publish all the information that Russian experts send him.
Russia hopes to regain a prominent position in Africa by taking advantage of discourse that is increasingly hostile to France. Moscow is becoming more and more interested in the media dynamics of the sub-region, as it hopes to extend its tentacles to all media in West Africa.
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