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Mali: “If Wagner was not Russian, the reaction would have been different” – Babacar Gaye

By Marième Soumaré, in Dakar
Posted on Monday, 13 December 2021 15:35

General Babacar Gaye in Damascus
General Babacar Gaye in Damascus, May 2012 © REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

The Dakar Forum - an open space for discussions on security issues - has left Senegal's General Babacar Gaye satisfied. The former chief of staff of the Senegalese army, a seasoned military veteran of peacekeeping operations who regularly participates in such events and conferences on collective security, is pleased to see that the heads of state have "set the tone" of the meeting.

From South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, who bluntly denounced the “greed” of European countries on the issue of vaccines against Covid-19, to that of his Nigerian counterpart Mohamed Bazoum on the fight against terrorism, the Forum allowed African leaders to express themselves on the health and security situation on the continent.

The former head of the Minusca also heard the criticism of the chair of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, judging the current peacekeeping model to be “obsolete”.

He spoke to us at the end of the meeting.

During the Dakar Forum, several heads of state firmly affirmed the need for African countries to redefine their relations with their partners. Is this type of event a way to do this?

Babacar Gaye: Absolutely. Asking for a redefinition of the debates is a first step towards affirming one’s identity. Unfortunately, we are very often in a position of demand, but we want to play a more important role in solving the problems we face.

The French Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, has not failed to point out that Paris takes a very dim view of the possible presence of Russian mercenaries from Wagner in the region. Do African states have the right to want to diversify their partners?

States have the choice, or rather should have the choice, to select their partners. Each country should be able to define its strategic choices, provided they are relevant.

Unfortunately, this is usually determined by experience. But nobody can tell Mali what to do. Obviously, if this private company were not Russian, the reactions would not have been the same. It is regrettable to see Africa once again become a strategic issue in a cold war that ‘dares not say its name’. In any case, it is tragic that a state is reduced to having to call on a private security company. That is the real tragedy.

Florence Parly also mentioned Wagner’s “destabilising potential” in the Central African Republic, a theatre of action that you know well. Do you think her arguments are relevant?

To form an opinion on Wagner’s men, you have to rely on the reports on them, such as the one recently produced by the European Union (EU) [the European External Action Service established last November that mercenaries control certain units of the Central African army].

The issue of terrorist pressure on coastal countries was also discussed at the Forum. What concrete actions are being taken to counter the threat?

At the time of the Serval operation, carried out [by the French army in 2013] to protect Bamako, all the West African states became aware of their weakness. They asked themselves “what can we do for Mali?” and realised that there was not much they could do. They had to reflect, adapt their legislation, strengthen their intelligence services and improve their coordination.

In public opinion, the effort deflated a little. It’s normal, you can’t always have a knife between your teeth. But the defence budgets of West African countries have been revised upwards. The countries have understood that they are playing for their own survival. Unfortunately, it is not enough to just buy equipment. What makes them valuable are the men, and it takes time to train them.

The attack in Inata on 14 November highlighted the fact that Burkina Faso’s soldiers were left to fend for themselves in a country under heavy jihadist pressure. How can this situation be explained?

If a detachment runs out of food, runs out of water, it is clear that there is a problem. The president of Burkina Faso [Roch Marc Christian Kaboré] has rejected the conclusions of the investigation report, asking that this dysfunction be explained.

What role can Mali and Guinea, in the midst of transition after coups, play in improving the regional security situation?

One might expect countries temporarily governed by the military to make a special effort on security and defence issues. But this is not always the case. The political instability created by transitions is obviously unfavourable to the security climate. But if they are the only remedy for unpopularity and bad governance, then we have to live with it, and hope for a quick return to normality.

I believe that this is what both ECOWAS and the AU are advocating. Although supported by the people, these coups d’état cannot be a way of devolving power, which is in no way a form of progress.

Should we regret the absence of official Malian and Guinean delegations at the Dakar Forum?

I think we should let the authorities put their country in order. They have other priorities.

Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum gave a remarkable speech on 6 December, insisting on the asymmetry of the war waged by the Sahelian states. Do you share his analysis?

In these intra-state crises, armed groups are able to take the initiative from regular armies, for which investments are lacking. They are able, with the media coverage of their actions, to deal them very hard blows. In the event of an attack on a contingent that is not supplied, a soldier tells himself that he will not be evacuated and will die on the spot. This is very bad for the morale of the troops.

Are these armies well equipped to face their adversaries?

When a fighter plane of a northern partner monitors a column of motorbikes belonging to jihadists and fires an extremely precise ammunition, at a safe distance, against these men, who it does not know if they are leaders or lower ranks, it uses a rocket that can cost up to twenty times the ‘price’ of the targeted devices.

The difficulty of armies to adapt to counter-guerrilla warfare is well known. They were not designed to deal with rebel gangs and have to set up methods of action that seem almost ‘disorganised’. They therefore try to form small, cohesive units. Hence the creation of special units, which work in difficult circumstances, in small groups, and which can take the upper hand.

Is this need sufficiently taken into account by states and their partners?

The key to cooperation is the transfer of expertise. Where we have one officer to do something, a northern army may have five who think, ten who design and others who develop equipment to enhance the captain’s action in the field.

How do you view the “transformation” of the French Barkhane force?

The Malian theatre of operations includes a UN force, a so-called parallel force with Barkhane, the Malian army and the joint G5 Sahel force. If these entities had been more integrated, if people had worked together, we could probably have avoided the current situation. But for that to happen, the political agendas would have to be harmonised.

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