Civil society caught in the crossfire of Mali’s row with France
Mali’s military junta recently announced that the activities of civil society organisations receiving French funding will be banned. It’s the latest salvo in its ongoing dispute with France, which the government once relied on to combat jihadists. French forces have been replaced by Russian mercenaries, who face credible accusations of committing numerous human rights violations. By banning civil society activity, the military regime looks even less committed to democratic transition than ever, since an independent and enabled civil society is a precondition of effective democracy. It should show it’s committed to respecting human rights by reversing the ban and stopping its use of mercenaries.
Mali’s military regime and the country’s former colonial ruler, France, have further stepped up their simmering dispute. Civil society looks like becoming – perhaps conveniently – collateral damage.
On 21 November, the junta banned the activities of organisations receiving funding or any other support from France. At a stroke both the vital work of civil society and its autonomy from the state were compromised.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) provide vital support to the many people affected by Mali’s long-running jihadist insurgency, which has so far displaced around 1.26 million people. They provide humanitarian help to those affected, including emergency food and water aid and healthcare. Now CSO will struggle to do this work. Dozens of organisations are reportedly affected by the ban.
The ban will also affect CSOs working to scrutinise the military government and hold it to fundamental human rights standards – something the junta might feel quite happy about.
A coup and an international row
The regime’s latest move came shortly after the French government announced it was suspending its aid to the Malian government, having previously reduced it, while continuing to provide support to CSOs. France has been a significant provider of aid, standing at an estimated US$121 million in 2020, but the two governments have been at loggerheads for some time now.
The immediate origins of the dispute date back to 2012, when in the chaos that followed the first Libyan civil war insurgents moved into and took control of northern Mali. The government asked for French help. French forces, working with Malian counterparts, reclaimed territory occupied by the jihadists. In 2014, France launched Operation Barkhane to combat jihadist forces across five countries of the Sahel region: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Despite the presence of around 3,000 French personnel, cooperation with domestic armies and support from other states, the insurgency wasn’t curtailed. Instead it spread, subjecting people to insecurity and appalling human rights violations. Security forces were also accused of causing civilian casualties: over 20 people were killed in a French airstrike on a wedding ceremony in Mali in January 2021.
Relations between France and Mali soured following an August 2020 coup that forced out President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. His ousting followed two months of protests over flawed parliamentary elections, amid anger at corruption, insecurity and the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A mixed civilian/military transitional government was installed the following month, but hopes for progress were dashed in May 2021, when the new president, Bah N’daw, tried to change the cabinet. The military dismissed him and installed coup leader Assimi Goïta as president instead. The junta vowed to hold elections in 2022, but in January it announced they might be held as late as 2025. Since then it’s promised a constitutional referendum in March 2023 and presidential election in February 2024.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the key regional body, reacted to the second coup and postponement of the transition by imposing sanctions. The European Union, then chaired by France, backed ECOWAS’s position. Both institutions have been tested by recent coups not just in Mali but also in two bordering countries, Burkina Faso and Guinea.
Demonstrations mobilised in support of Mali’s coup, at least in part because people were weary of insecurity, could see the current approach wasn’t working and thought the army might do a better job. Pro-coup mobilisations also voiced anger at the French presence in Mali. This isn’t new: numerous protests against French troops have erupted over the years. They’ve also taken place in other countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.
Such protests were partly about the evident failure of France’s mission. But they were also about colonial legacies and what some saw as the colonial nature of France’s continuing intervention.
France was once the dominant power in Central and West Africa, responsible for systematically impoverishing and perpetuating the underdevelopment of the countries it conquered. And even after independence France enjoyed heavy cultural, economic, military and political influence in its former colonies, under the policy known as Françafrique. In return for this primacy, France helped prop up dictators and overlooked human rights violations.
France has moved away from the Françafrique approach but its legacy lingers, indicated for example by its control of the two common currencies used across 14 Central and West African countries, Mali included.
Multiple states in the region have recently sought to distance themselves from France, a domestically popular policy. In one recent signal of this shift, in 2022 Gabon and Togo joined the Commonwealth, an intergovernmental alliance of mostly former British colonies.
In 2021 France announced its plan to withdraw its troops from Mali, to be replaced by a more international force. But as relations deteriorated, the pace of events accelerated. In January 2022 Mali expelled the French ambassador. The following month, France and its allies said they could no longer operate in Mali due to ‘multiple obstructions’ from the military government. In March Mali insisted that withdrawal should happen as soon as possible. The last French soldiers left Mali in August. In November, France announced that Operation Barkhane had ended. Around 3,000 French troops remain in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
The gap created by French withdrawal has been filled by Russian mercenaries. The Malian government continues to claim the only Russians present are military advisers, but the truth has become increasingly obvious: Russian mercenaries are fighting alongside Malian forces, and sometimes independently.
It’s hard to know how many are involved, because everything about the Wagner Group, supplier of the mercenaries, is secretive. The group doesn’t even officially exist, but is thought to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Wagner’s involvement in the war in Ukraine has forced it into the spotlight, but the group has been active in Africa since at least 2017. Mali isn’t its first port of call: it’s also involved in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, among others, and it’s played a role in conflicts in countries including Libya and Mozambique.
Prigozhin has also been linked with pro-Russia disinformation campaigns in several African countries. Wagner’s involvement in Mali was preceded by a concerted public influencing campaign that helped intensify unhappiness with France and build support for Russia.
It must be possible for Mali to be neither a neo-colonial subject of French paternalism nor a tool in Russia’s global propaganda war. The challenge is that a different path is only possible with democracy.
For Russia, the incentives seem clear. The use of private companies rather than the state brings deniability, however closely Wagner and the Kremlin are entwined. Wagner extracts resources – it’s often paid in gold or other precious minerals – that flow to Russian elites. But it’s also a cheap way for Russia to buy influence. It helps position Russia as an apparently anti-colonial alternative to France. It’s happy to work with military regimes and has no interest in holding governments to the democracy and human rights standards western partners might.
For Putin, the alliances built with African governments, often reinforcing connections forged in the Cold War era, could be crucial for offsetting pressure from elsewhere over the Ukraine war.
At United Nations (UN) sessions, multiple African states have consistently avoided criticising Russia. At a UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in August, 19 African states abstained, among them CAR and Mali. In a speech at the General Assembly that month, Mali’s prime minister, Abdoulaye Maiga, lauded Russia for its ‘exemplary and fruitful cooperation’ – grotesque praise for a country waging an imperial war. All this helps Putin portray the condemnation coming his way as biased and partial.
At least some Malians support what the prime minister said. There, and in other African countries, people have welcomed Russian mercenaries. When Wagner forces arrived in Mali this year, some members of the public waved Russian flags and held photos of Putin aloft.
But if people see the mercenaries as offering a more efficient response to violence and insecurity, there’s no evidence of this, while there are ample indications Russian mercenaries are committing human rights abuses. In CAR, where Russian mercenaries are long established and help prop up a repressive government, they’ve been accused by a UN Panel of Experts of violations including mass summary executions, enforced disappearances and torture, among other acts of violence against civilians.
It’s increasingly clear that civilians aren’t just being caught up in the conflict: they’re being targeted. According to research by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a civil society research initiative, around 500 civilians have been killed by Wagner forces in Mali – both when involved in joint operations with the army and when acting on their own. And civilians are the main target: they have been targeted in 71 per cent of violent incidents involving Wagner. In the most notorious case, over several days in March, Malian forces and Russian mercenaries rounded up and summarily executed around 300 people in town of Moura. These same forces could be deployed to crush any demands for democracy.
Meanwhile the UN’s peacekeeping mission, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), has complained the junta is restricting its operations. The US government has accused Mali of denying MINUSMA access to large parts of the country. In November, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire, Germany and the UK announced they were withdrawing from MINUSMA. The UK government said the junta had tried to interfere in the UN mission. German forces also reported growing obstacles.
A different way forward?
The junta downplays reports of rights violations, insisting these are western disinformation. It’s keen to portray its change of direction as a success, regardless of the carnage and any evidence of its lack of impact in curbing the insurgency, which continues to advance. Disinformation has also been used to discredit French forces. France meanwhile has shared what it says is drone footage of Russian mercenaries burying bodies on a former French base with the aim of falsely attributing the deaths to France.
There are good grounds to question the French government’s intentions: for example, France condemned the coup in Mali but continues to support Chad’s repressive military regime. But it must be possible for Mali to be neither a neo-colonial subject of French paternalism nor a tool in Russia’s global propaganda war. The challenge is that a different path is only possible with democracy, when the big calls the government makes are open to full public debate and scrutiny.
This is when an independent civil society is most needed. It can play a key role in documenting human rights violations and keeping up the pressure for democratic transition. That’s what makes the decision of the junta to tell CSOs what they can and can’t do so suspicious.
If the government wants to show it stands by its timetable for transition to democracy, as a first step it should recognise that an enabled civil society is a fundamental building block of democracy, and reverse its ban.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Mali should end its ban on the activities of civil society organisations that receive funding from France.
The government of Mali should end its use of Russian mercenaries, and work with the international community to develop a sustainable approach to security.
The United Nations should step up its scrutiny of the role of foreign mercenaries in African countries.
Cover photo by Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters via Gallo Images