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The Wagner wars: Malian edition

One year on from the arrival of Russian private mercenaries in Bamako, we investigate their role in the heart of Mali’s domestic security activities.

Three Russian mercenaries in central Mali [AP | SIPA]

A little over one year ago, on 23 December 2021, Canada, along with several EU countries, issued a joint statement strongly condemning the deployment of mercenaries by the Wagner Group in Mali, a first of its kind in modern times.

Prior to this, Wagner’s presence had never been openly acknowledged by official Western sources, much less specific countries. However, for them, there can be no doubt: the Russian-based private military outfit has indeed set foot in the land of Soundiata Keïta.

Western intelligence services are sure: several Wagner Group executives have since been seen throughout the country, engaging in scouting missions. Additionally, a base for the Group was recently inaugurated on the tarmac of Bamako airport to accommodate Wagner’s mercenaries and, since the beginning of December 2022, Russian Air Force Tupolev 154s and other Ilyushin-76s have operated to transport materials to wherever it was necessary.

The Malian authorities, upon being questioned on these developments, immediately denied what they dismissed as unfounded allegations. They have not deviated from this stance, even with the demonstrated evidence of Wagner Group mercenaries on Malian soil alongside Malian military, as well as Russian comments to the contrary, beginning with President Vladimir Putin himself.

“We work with Russian consultants, not Wagner; we have never worked with Wagner,” says Colonel Souleymane Dembélé, Director of Information and Public Relations for the Malian Armed Forces.

These remarks may come as a surprise from an officer that has previously demonstrated a quick trigger in denouncing what he deems to be disinformation produced by certain media outlets, and for good reason. For a year, Wagner’s mercenaries have been at the heart of the geopolitical and military strategy of the junta led by Colonel Assimi Goïta.

Wagner’s mercenaries have essentially served as auxiliary ground forces, enabling Colonel Goïta to shift alliances from France to Russia. “They are, above all, the life insurance allowing [Goïta’s forces] to remain in power,” says a senior French official, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity.

From Bamako to Menaka

Despite claiming no connection with the Yevgeny Prigozhin-owned private military outfit (Prigozhin being an oligarch with close ties with President Putin), the Kremlin has always used Wagner as its armed wing abroad. When they faced difficulty during Russian military actions in Ukraine in March 2022, Moscow called in Wagner reinforcements.

Several contingents, including those in the Central African Republic, were therefore depleted, save for Mali, which increased at the beginning of December to around 1,400 men, the target set between Mali and Russia at the end of 2021.

Elsewhere, Wagner divides their mercenary groups into assault detachments (DA). In Mali, Wagner’s 4th and 9th DAs, each with several hundred fighters in their employ, are based in several towns and localities throughout the country: beginning with Bamako, through Sofara, Mopti-Sévaré, Timbuktu, Hombori, Gossi, Gao, Ansongo, and Ménaka.

The mercenaries involved are largely made up of Russian contractees, with others from neighbouring regions or countries, including Chechens. Mercenaries currently receive a salary ranging between €1,800 ($1,894) and €2,300, depending on their role in combat activities.

Spending several months in the field, mercenaries are then subject to relief, save for last October, when Russian troops were under so much pressure in Ukraine that almost no Ilyushin-76s were seen approaching Bamako to provide reinforcements.

Suiting up for battle

In Mali, the Wagnerians are led by Ivan Alexandrovitch Maslov, their 40-year-old commander-in-chief, a formerly non-commissioned special forces officer in the Russian Navy. He first served in Ukraine – where, interestingly enough, intelligence services accuse him of having committed assassinations in the Luhansk Region – then in the Central African Republic before arriving in Mali at the end of 2021 to prepare for current operations.

Reporting directly to Prigozhin, Maslov supervised military operations and propaganda actions alongside Valery Tcherkalov, responsible for combat logistics. He also maintained close associations with several Malian officers: General Alou Boï Diarra, chief of staff of the Malian Air Force, and Colonel Sadio Camara, minister of defence. These two men essentially serve as liaisons between the Wagnerians and Malian Armed Forces.

On the ground, Wagner benefits and relies in part upon the Malian Armed Forces;for instance, if they were to have arrived with small arms, assault rifles, and ammunition, the Wagnerians essentially function using tools provided by their Malian hosts. The same applies to vehicles and aircraft: the Wagnerians patrol armoured vehicles, six MI-171 helicopters and Albatros L-39 fighter planes provided by Moscow.

Based in Bamako, Mopti, or Gao, these aircraft are sometimes Wagner-run. On 4 October, a Russian Pilot was also killed in an SU-25 crash in Gao. Among the other equipment delivered by Russia to Mali, capitalised upon by the paramilitary forces, are two SA-22 surface-to-air missile defence systems, installed at Bamako airport, and P-18 mobile radars.

A history of abuse

Wagner mercenaries are, without a doubt, a conspicuous presence in Mali, carrying out joint operations with Malian soldiers. Some of the soldiers have demonstrated a certain level of resentment to the idea of having to take orders from foreigners. “They scout and pinpoint targets, but never really remain in place to secure the area,” says an observer.

Regional rivalries and disputes are especially delicate here, as traditional Dogon hunters are often employed to assist in certain raids against Fulani community members, wrongly associated with jihadist groups in the area. As Dogon – or dozos – have been known to show enmity with the Fulani, it takes on a more weaponised rivalry when called into service.

If the current Malian political situation is dry gunpowder, the Wagnerians are a lit match, and this has come with great concern to human rights observers, with violence increasing in recent months. “It’s as if the Wagnerians’ arrival further reduced the Malian Army’s inhibitions, whose methods were already strongarm enough” says a security source.

In Dangere-Wotoro, 30 civilians were doused with gasoline and burned alive. In Mouri, between 300 and 400 civilians were subject to chain executions for several days. In Nia Ouro, many women and young girls are reported to have been subject to rape and other forms of sexual assault. Within just a few short months, Wagnerians have demonstrated their brutal reputation to be exactly as expected, if not worse.

When not executing citizens on the arbitrary basis of a family name, the length of a man’s beard, or the size of someone’s shorts, these foreign mercenaries arrest and torture those whom they suspect of being affiliated to jihadists. Mopti serves as the location for the Sofara Base, shared between the Malians and Wagnerians, where most detainees are imprisoned.

Taken into custody alongside around 40 people in Nia Ouro on 9 September, Moussa* spent 48 hours in a warehouse at Sofara, bound and blindfolded, under Malian-Wagnerian soldiers. While there, he was interrogated, but not abused. He is one of the lucky ones, as many other villagers were violently beaten while in custody.

“They interrogated us one by one, accusing us of collaborating with the jihadists. I replied that it was false, that I had no connection,” Moussa says. “They took our IDs and removed our blindfolds in order to photograph us. They told us that if we came up in their database search, they would kill us.” Moussa was finally released, alongside those, who, like him, indicated no relationship with any jihadists. Of the 40 people arrested there, three never came home.

Losses to GSIM

Further north, the Wagnerians are much less visible, settling in formerly French bases in Timbuktu, Gossi, Gao, and Ménaka and rarely venturing out for combat expeditions. Circumstances somewhat differ in this region, where Wagnerians are able to work with the various armed groups experienced with combat. There has since been no confrontation with armed Tuareg groups or even the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (IS-GS), the latter running rampant in the Ménaka region.

Russian soldiers bury bodies near a Malian army base in the north of the country (image taken from a French army video). [AP | SIPA]

Between Niger’s interior delta to the Liptako-Gourma region, Wagnerian combat foes remain the same as before: the Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists within the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

After initially fearing Wagner mercenaries, Tuareg militant Iyad Ag Ghaly and his lieutenants quickly targeted them as foreign cockroaches to be exterminated and removed from their lands. They employed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Wagner convoys, ambushes, and all kinds of acts generally understood by occupying forces as terrorism.

Since their arrival in Mali, at least 20 mercenaries have been killed, with around a hundred others injured by GSIM jihadists.

Within the ‘Company,’ which is how the Wagner Group is referred to by its combat employees, there is no question as to whether these losses speak to operational difficulties in Mali.

One year after the Wagnerians arrived in Mali, results have been, at best, mixed; and at worst, a failure. Wagner’s 1,400 mercenaries have been unsuccessful in military action against the jihadists and restoring state-controlled security to the country.

Despite numerous operations, GSIM remains present, apparently further extending its territory towards the south. The large-scale GSIM attack, carried out on 22 July 2022 against the Kati military camp, demonstrated to Malian military colonels that Iyad Ag Ghaly was not as distant an enemy as previously believed. The threats continue to rise in the northeast of Mali.

However, the dead don’t matter, according to Prigozhin. The man known as Vladimir’s military chef is, above all, a businessman in search of profits. American intelligence services have suggested that Wagner is in the process of receiving around $120m a year from the Malian authorities in exchange for its auxiliary services.

In order to manage this military contract, Wagner established, at the end of 2021, Prime Security, a Malian-based company managed by Sergueï Baddkine. In the meantime, geologists Sergei Laktionov and Viktor Popov are engaged in the establishment of mining projects throughout the country.

According to our information, they are behind the creation of another Malian company, Alpha Development, through businessman Bakin Gassimi Guindo, present since the 2000s. The latter, however, upon being contacted by us, claims to be the sole shareholder, with no links with or around the Wagner Group.

Mercenaries on strike

In the weeks following these operations, things did not go quite as planned. In early January 2022, Malian authorities, continuing to be targeted by severe ECOWAS sanctions, were rapidly running out of cash and failing to honour their contract with their Russian partners. Over time, the situation would continue to become more complicated.

On the ground, from time to time, Wagnerians find their patience wearing thin,resulting in demands for their unpaid salaries. In June 2022, Wagnerians in Timbuktu and Sévaré went on strike, refusing to fight any further. Others, to mitigate their payment situation, would steal from the locals and sell boxes of sardines during fairs in Ségou or in Sévaré.

Even so, the Wagnerians are losing their patience. With the creation of a second mining company, Marko Mining, in April 2022, the French-speaking Lakitonov met with Malian officials, including Colonel Adama Bakayoko, a close associate and friend of General Alou Boï Diarra.

In their meeting, Lakitonov expressed his identification of several gold mines (located in Fekola, Loulo-Gounkoto, and Syama), located in Southern Mali, where Wagner would like to extract profit from. There remains, however, a caveat: those mines were already being exploited by mining companies B2Gold, Barrick Gold, and Resolute Mining, making contracts hard to break.

Undeterred, Wagner has stated its intention to recover all or part of these operating permits, according to sources in French intelligence. “Everything is possible with this junta,” says a high-ranking source based in Paris. “It is also in the process of setting up a legal framework to have a stronger role within the mining sector.”

On 17 November, the Malian government created a mining exploration and exploitation company, Sorem SA, entirely financed by the state with a primary objective to increase its mining revenues.

A few days later, on 28 November, the ministry of mines announced that it would be suspending mining permits, in order to “improve the process for issuing and monitoring authorisations”.

Lamine Seydou Traoré, Mali’s minister of mines, made several round trips to Moscow during the second half of 2022. Enough evidence has shown that the colonels are preparing to clean up a few mines for the benefit of their Wagnerian partners.

Enter Burkina Faso

The lifting of ECOWAS sanctions against Mali at the beginning of July 2022 allowed for the Malian authorities to regain the financial capacity to re-engage with Wagnerian compensation. Though still millions of dollars in debt to Wagner, Prigozhin’s men are not prepared to leave Mali.

“The Wagner economic model is balanced throughout the different theatres of operations where mercenaries are deployed,-” says a source. “Mali remains, at the moment, a losing investment, but continues to serve as a political gain in capital. The investment remains worthwhile.”

Could the ongoing difficulties in Ukraine be a game-changer for Russia’s military? “Russia is engaged in a global war against the West,” says a source at the Élysée Palace. “Putting France and the West in trouble is a part of the general strategy, which is why the Kremlin will likely continue to work in Mali.”

For now, Mali. In future, perhaps the rest of the African continent. Ever since Captain Ibrahim Traoré took power in Ouagadougou in October 2022, many have wondered if Wagner will expand to neighbouring Burkina Faso. For several weeks, Malian authorities have been lobbying for this to be the case, doing so through meetings throughout that November.

Burkina Faso appears to be following a similar trajectory as Mali, but it remains to be seen whether Wagner will, in fact, establish itself there.

Tinged with bitterness, a French diplomatic source, requesting anonymity, says the following in response: “Given the difficulties that the Russians are encountering elsewhere, it would be a symbolic victory that they would be foolish not to embrace.” Be it Burkina Faso or Mali, only the future knows the answer to future relations.

*Name has been changed for protection


(c) 2023, The Africa Report


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