On March 27, as herders converged on the central Malian village of Moura (population: 10,000) for the weekly Sunday livestock market, helicopters carrying Malian soldiers accompanied by men suspected of belonging to the Wagner group linked to the Kremlin arrived and started shooting. They sealed off the exits from the village and fought their way through it in an anti-terrorist operation that lasted five days and left between 200 and 400 dead. Human Rights Watch called it “the worst atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.” Armed actors have proliferated in Mali since separatist militants in the north rebelled in 2011, only to be sidelined by an al-Qaeda affiliate. The Malian army, in a statement describing the same event, claimed to have neutralized 203 terrorists in a manner consistent with international law. Eyewitnesses, however, described indiscriminate killings and targeting based on ethnic appearance or dress.
The massacre came two months after President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of French forces, which have played a crucial role in a convoluted Mali-focused Sahel stabilization mission for nearly a decade. Tensions between France and the ruling junta have risen steadily since 2020: amid a chorus of cries that French troops were no longer welcome, Malian army officers used years of European military training to seize the state (twice), expel the French ambassador and contract with Wagner. Since rising to prominence fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, the Kremlin-linked paramilitary force has expanded its footprint in African countries, supporting client regimes and ensuring access to extractive resources.
Western failure in Mali
Since France first deployed troops in 2013 to repel the southward advance of al-Qaeda-linked militants, Paris has led a multidimensional intervention in Mali that combines counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and security-building. the state. In recent years, violence against civilians has skyrocketed at the hands of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-backed groups, Malian security forces and self-defense groups, and the fiction of an eventual military victory over terrorists collapsed. Meanwhile, the burgeoning Western security and development architecture seemed bloated, aimless and helpless.
Despite the tactical victories of the French forces, the state continued to lose ground. The number and attacks of the jihadists have increased, as has their theater of operations, which has extended into central and southern Mali and infiltrated across the borders into Niger and Burkina Faso.
More worryingly, massive violence has emerged in the wake of counterterrorism efforts. Intercommunal clashes and ethnic violence erupted as vigilante groups – sometimes with French backing – took on the mantle of counter-terrorism to target rivals, often from the ethnic Fulani minority, in sites in the center from Mali such as Ogossagou and along the Mali-Niger border. As insecurity spread, influxes of cash deepened corruption and discredited political authority. Desperation drove many Malians to support the 2020 and 2021 coups and the ensuing security partnership with Russia.
Punish the junta
The contours of the recent Russian engagement are beginning to take shape. Where the French model of crisis management has fallen due to the arrogance of its own ambition, the Russian model adopted by the junta appears narrower and more focused on stifling dissent and targeted counterterrorism operations in the center of Mali. Encouraged by France, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on the country and targeted sanctions against members of the junta more than a year ago. The punishment pushed the junta towards alternative partners like Russia as it took an authoritarian turn, harassing and arresting critics and opponents and massacring people in central Mali.
The ruling junta in Bamako seized power in August 2020 after months of protests that saw people rally with a broad coalition of political, civil society and religious leaders to denounce the incompetence and corruption of the elected government. in a dubious way. In May 2021, Vice President Colonel Assimi Goita stripped the civilian President and Prime Minister of their powers in a coup in the coup that strengthened the military’s grip on power and eroded some of its popular appeal.
The junta initially seemed keen to relaunch overdue peace processes with northern rebels and dialogue with jihadists, and to experiment with more inclusive and democratic forms of governance. He rewarded himself with a generous five-year timetable for the transition to civilian rule.
In response, Paris has pushed the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the European Union to impose sanctions, which weigh on a fragile economy at a time of global inflation, and to punish a landlocked population by closing land borders and by blocking regional remittances. For many in Mali, the sanctions ostensibly aimed at accelerating political transition seem vindictive compared to the light slaps inflicted around the same time on military leaders in Chad and Guinea for similar power grabs.
For years, Russia has sought to expand its influence in Mali, focusing on the capital Bamako, paying activists and influencers, sponsoring pro-Russian protests and using fake and hacked social media accounts to amplify pro-Russian messages. Malians are showing themselves to be more and more receptive, especially in the capital. After all, many have wondered what decades of Western-backed democratic rule had brought?
Without guaranteeing a tighter electoral timetable, the sanctions only further stoked resentment against France and support for the junta. The sense that the Malians chose Russia seemed to deepen the French impulse to punish them. And the punishment seemed to push the junta further into the Russian camp.
turn to authoritarianism
The junta’s embrace of authoritarian shows of force this year suggests it could take inspiration from its new Russian partners. In recent months, he has launched a brutal military campaign in central Mali and cracked down on dissent and civil liberties. With apparent support from Wagner, the Malian armed forces launched counter-terrorist offensives in the center of the country. Two weeks before the Moura massacre, Human Rights Watch reported that Malian government forces had killed at least 71 civilians, mostly in central Mali since December 2021, nearly twice as many civilians as killings linked to armed groups. Islamists. A week later, transitional Malian authorities suspended French radio and television broadcasters RFI and France 24 after reporting allegations that the military and Wagner were killing and torturing civilians.
Meanwhile, prominent opponents and critics are being detained or left for dead. Left-wing political party leader Oumar Mariko, filmed calling for accountability for the series of mass murders, has been in hiding since government forces burst into his home. On March 24, former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga died in custody after authorities ignored pleas from his family about his deteriorating health. Maiga, one of Mali’s most esteemed political authorities, was arrested for fraud during a purge shortly after the 2021 coup.
As the resources and attention of Western capital shift to the crisis in Ukraine, this authoritarian turn is accelerating. Is there more pressure in the form of sanctions and disengagement from the West, whose last hopes of saving face at this point are that the junta runs out of money or is overthrown by more friendships, or that Wagner transfers his resources to Ukraine, the best way to stop him? Probably not.
But that may be the most likely outcome. The Islamic State carried out massacres against civilians on a similar scale in the Ménaka region just a week before the Moura killings. While violence from militant Islamist groups has dominated media and human rights reporting in Mali for the past decade, few outlets have published anything about this latest killing, which shows how speed Ukraine has hijacked the Western appetite for narratives that focus on Islamic extremists who commit violent crimes. to those who introduce Russians. For Western players aware that a decade of stabilization efforts may have had the opposite result, making the Russians the new main villain is a convenient way to get away from the swamp they helped create, even if the isolation and punishment further increase the junta’s dependence on Russia. .
Meanwhile, on April 10, Russia blocked a UN Security Council request submitted by France for independent investigations into the killings. Closing ranks around its new partner, the Russian Foreign Ministry called reports of the massacre “disinformation” and praised Mali for its “important victory” against terrorism.