The power play between France and Mali in the second half of 2021 brought the activities of the Russian private military contracting company Wagner in West Africa into the spotlight. Largely ignored by European officials until last summer, the possible deployment of Wagner private military contractors (PMC) forced usually reluctant actors like Germany to take position on the issue and led to a EU parliament resolution condemning the group’s activities in December 2021. Compounded by the tensions between Russia, Europe, and the United States as well as by France’s waning influence in the Sahel in West Africa, Wagner became an unexpected leverage asset for West African countries and another Russian sanctions’ target for the EU and the United States.
The use of third party assets for leverage is a classic of political power plays, and the presence of PMCs in Africa, Asia, and the Middle-East is common. However, the particularity about Wagner is both its bloated importance given by external actors and how it masks broader foreign policy actions taking place in various African regions. As such, Wagner could arguably be described as a “MacGuffin” in the new power struggles major world powers are engaged in on the African continent.
Although PMCs themselves are often apolitical, their deployment can have a far-reaching and significant ripple-effect on foreign and security policies, bilaterally and multilaterally, especially PMCs close to state power structures like Wagner. This impact is one of perception and implementation, and it is quite visible in the re-framing of the current counter-terrorism strategy for the Sahel, western relations with African states, and the broader power dynamics between China and Russia and theirs with the West.
WAGNER AS A LEVERAGE ASSET
Defeated in Mozambique, more effective in killing civilians than rebels in CAR or engaging combat in various African mining regions while achieving very limited success in Libya and Syria, Wagner’s contribution is mitigated at best. If anything, Wagner’s presence arguably results in more insecurity than actually restoring order or stability. Hence, perceiving and framing the group as a potentially effective security alternative or a threat to the international missions in conflict areas is operationally unfounded.
Although the group’s operational activities in Mali currently remain very limited, Wagner personnel have been deployed to the country for several weeks. What is more intriguing however is the European uproar surrounding its presence in Mali because the group’s gruesome and violent activities in the Central African Republic (CAR), its strongly rumored discussions with Nigerian and Burkinabé governments, its presence in Libya, and its former mission in Mozambique were largely overlooked and did not raise any major concerns in Europe. In fact, Wagner’s presence in CAR would likely not be possible had France not supported two exceptions to the weapons embargo on the country granted by the UN Security Council, which allowed Russia to deliver weapons to CAR in 2018 and 2019 while denying the same request to China in 2019.
If the group’s effectiveness is doubtful and its actual operations are historically of limited political concern, then France’s and Europe’s issue with Wagner’s involvement in Mali must be one of location and timing. In other words, the problem is the Malian regime using Wagner to successfully call France’s political bluffs.
Ironically, France itself created the conditions for Mali to effectively use Wagner as leverage against it. Although talks with the organization’s representatives became more serious in February 2021, they accelerated in June and July following the so-called “second putsch” in Mali in May 2021. During this period, France accepted and recognized the new government in neighboring Chad when it took power with a de facto putsch following President Idriss Deby’s death in April. However, at the same time it condemned the removal and detention of Mali’s official President Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, making France’s regional double standards obvious.
In reaction to the coup, France tried to use its military presence in Mali to put pressure on the regime, first by threatening to withdraw and then by announcing the end of its “opération barkhane” and its withdrawal from the country. Rather than having the coercive effect it had hoped, this decision accelerated the discussions between the Malian regime and Wagner, and the possible deployment of Wagner PMCs in Mali was framed as the replacement for the outgoing and disliked French. Simultaneously, the Malian regime successfully concluded talks with the Chinese government for a one billion dollar arms deal, further weakening French leverage in the country. Confronted with political blackmail, Malian leaders simply employed the classic move of using one’s opponents as leverage to disarm a threat and get the upper hand, and based on France’s reversal, successfully.
THE RAPIDLY CHANGING SECURITY LANDSCAPE IN WEST AFRICA
While the short-term political gains of using Russia and China as leverage have been significant, the mid- and long-term impacts are likely to be negative due to military, political, and economic factors. First, as outlined above, Wagner’s overall track record does not suggest effectiveness in creating secure and stable environments, and its indiscriminate approach to operations suggests that in a region where accusations of human rights abuses by security forces are already high, it could actually stand out as the most abusive security actor. This would obviously reflect poorly on the current regime, the same way that links are made between abuses by Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) personnel and the French and international presence in Mali.
Second, while the focus erroneously remains largely on Mali when it comes to discussing Sahel security issues in European policy circles, the reality on the ground is that the Sahel conflict dynamics are expanding rapidly and are now progressively engulfing coastal states like Benin, Togo, the Ivory Coast or Senegal. Additionally, the eastern progression of the conflict dynamics out of Burkina Faso and Mali, through Al Qaida and IS linked groups among other actors, raises legitimate concerns about a conflation with the conflict dynamics stemming from the Lake Chad region, which have themselves expanded westward into the conflict zones of northwest Nigeria. In this context, it is highly unlikely that Wagner’s presence in Mali – or potentially in Burkina Faso or Nigeria as rumored – will be a game changer for security in the region. It should neither impact the effectiveness of the regional security response nor is it likely that Wagner would expand its activities to the full West African region. More importantly, it won’t address the key sociopolitical and socioeconomic drivers that allow insecurity to grow exponentially in the ECOWAS region.
Beyond terrorism, another factor of insecurity is the ongoing minerals conflict between Russia and China in Africa, of which Wagner is a big part. Both, in CAR and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), attacks by Wagner and Russian actors on Chinese owned or managed mining sites have been reported, while allegations of similar attacks in other African countries like Guinea have increased in number and weight over the last twelve months. This problem has been a factor in the significant increase of Chinese PMCs in Africa since April 2021, notably in the DRC, which suggests the conflict is becoming important for China as well. Wagner’s track record on this issue over the last two years suggests that their involvement in these side operations could not only catalyze conflict dynamics in mining rich sites in the Sahel but also create conditions for greater Chinese involvement in the region as well, which the EU and the United States are unlikely to approve.
SHORT-TERM BENEFITS FOR MAJOR LONG-TERM COSTS
Fully committing to Wagner and Russia would create a steep political price for the Malian regime, internationally as well as domestically, even if the short-term benefits such as avoiding the strings of human rights or security sector reform are appealing. Regionally isolated after the January 2022 ECOWAS sanctions, the impact of the border closures and the suspension of trade with landlocked and impoverished Mali will either force the Malian regime to submit to ECOWAS and international conditions or to turn to Russia and China for political and economic support. Should Malian leaders choose the latter option, the recent history of Russia’s and China’s policies in the region show that they will impose conditions on the regime which will shackle Malian authorities for decades through loans and “monopoly for services” or “monopoly as loan guarantee” deals. This situation would also allow Russia and/or China to fully dictate terms, and the leverage Malian authorities believe they have would evaporate.
Domestically, the combination of Wagner’s minimal impact on security combined with an increase in human rights abuses is unlikely to win over a population already desperate for better living conditions and weary of the military contribution of international actors. More importantly, the conflict dynamics in Mali and the Sahel are part of a highly complex socioeconomic and sociopolitical ecosystem with various shades of gray that limit the outright categorization of local actors as friend or foe. This is a distinction that many Malians themselves refuse to make, as exemplified by numerous declarations Malian officials have made since January 2020. In such a context, it is difficult to foresee Wagner’s usual indiscriminate, heavy-handed approach as being effective and positively disruptive for this ecosystem on which the local population is dependent.
In recent years, the symbiosis of formal and informal economies, a core component of this ecosystem, has been reinforced due to terrorism, including the “economic warfare” strategy waged by the Islamic Sate and Al Qaida entities, which targets telecommunication towers and imposes communal blockades, natural disasters, and the absence of institutional support among other factors. This is particularly true for the “tri-border region” of central and eastern Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and southwestern Niger, which is the area most affected by the conflict and where Wagner personnel are expected to be mostly deployed. Should the group employ the same tactics it uses in CAR in the tri-border region, it could disrupt the ecosystem’s fragile economic infrastructure, putting additional strain on one of the world’s poorest regions.
Finally, Wagner personnel’s disregard and lack of respect for local security forces, combined with clear demonstrations of racism, limit effective collaboration with local armies and police. Furthermore, as the group’s involvement in CAR has shown, it could actually represent a security threat to those forces. Thus, in a region where strong cooperation between security forces and militias has become essential and standardized, a functional operational collaboration with Wagner becomes even more problematic. In combination, all of these factors could further weaken popular support for the regime and the army as well as the military’s own credibility, while helping to create conditions for similar mass protests and social unrest like those that led to changes in government in 2019 and 2020.
THE FUTURE OF INTERNATIONAL MISSIONS IN THE SAHEL
Although France and the United States have committed themselves to security in the Sahel and West Africa, including exchanges and cooperation in the application of the so-called “Obama doctrine” which focuses on the use of UAVs and special forces units in foreign security operations, the actual European and American commitment to West African security remains lukewarm. Beyond France and the USA, there’s little or no real understanding within European states as to why international intervention is needed and what the situation on the ground is. Additionally, considerations of what the consequences of the expansion of terrorism in Africa – where both Al Qaida and the Islamic State entities are currently their respective organizations’ strongest ones – will be on the continent’s populations and on European interests are non-existent or disregarded. Finally, many countries, like Germany, have no clear goals or purpose guiding their policies for the region and are satisfied with following France’s fluctuating policy trends, rendering the European approach towards the Sahel vague and hollow.
As a result, the door is wide open for major powers like Russia or China to play a greater role in a region Europe still condescendingly considers its “external border” and “sphere of influence”, and both countries are maximizing the opportunity economically and militarily. If the leverage Wagner provides to states in their power dynamics with major international players is to be reduced, European states and the USA must develop precise policies for West Africa, which are supported by reliable purposes at the national level and clearly answer the question why are we intervening?
With the European Union targeting Africa as an economic and security priority for its “strategic autonomy” ambitions, a reassessment of the European missions in Mali and the Sahel is reasonable. However, as with the US’ Africa policy, the answers must deliver more than countering Russian or Chinese influence, which are short-term goals. They should focus on long-term alternatives that incentivize countries like Mali to choose European and/or American support over the short-term benefits of turning to Russia or China for help. This would be a more effective policy and deterrent than over-hyping the value of an ineffective actor such as Wagner.