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Will crackdown on Mali over Wagner mercenaries actually do anything?

This week the U.S. Treasury sanctioned several government officials for dealing with the Russian guns-for-hire.

Analysis | Africa

The Wagner Group’s presence in Mali has accelerated a crisis in the country that dates back to 2012 and beyond. 

On July 24, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned three of the most senior officials within the Malian government and military over their roles in “facilitating” the Kremlin-linked mercenary group. These men are Defense Minister Sadio Camara, Air Force Chief of Staff Alou Boï Diarra, and Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Adama Bagayoko. Camara is particularly prominent, as one of the five core members of the junta that came to power in Mali in 2020. 

There has been extensive reporting about the roles of Camara and Diarra, in particular, in managing Mali’s relationship with Wagner, which began in late 2021.

Used by the junta as a brutal “counterterrorism” force that accompanies Malian soldiers, Wagner troops have been credibly implicated in a wave of massacres in central Mali, most infamously at the town of Moura in March 2022, but also much more recently. The mercenaries’presence has abetted some of the military’s worst tendencies, namely a tendency to lash out at civilians in combat zones and thereby make Mali’s insurgencies even more severe. 

More importantly, the junta and Wagner have not managed to genuinely secure Mali’s restive central regions, and they have effectively abandoned parts of the far eastern parts of the country to jihadists.

The sanctions against Camara and his colleagues are part of a series of prohibitions targeting Wagner and its partners in Mali, the Central African Republic, and beyond — which are in turn part of the wider U.S. effort to undermine Wagner and Russia during the Ukraine war. 

In May, the Treasury department sanctioned Ivan Maslov, a Russian national who leads Wagner’s operations in Mali. In June, the agency added sanctions against several gold companies operating in Africa, as well as against another Russian national, Andrey Ivanov, accused of acting as a facilitator for Wagner vis-à-vis Mali. 

The sanctions against Camara, Diarra, and Bagayoko, however, are much more overtly political than the others, and shift the spotlight from Russian nationals to Malian ones. The junta members have faced targeted sanctions before, due to the simple fact that they had taken power unconstitutionally and refused to honor their initial timetable for a democratic transition, but those sanctions felt like part of the standard process of attempting to pressure the junta, rather than a mechanism for singling out one individual junta member.

Whether the latest sanctions make sense is unclear, ultimately, because Washington appears to lack a coherent strategy for dealing with Mali. Is the U.S. narrowly interested in constraining Wagner in Mali, or do the sanctions fit into a bid to shape the junta’s actions, or even to try to help restore democratic rule in Mali? Is the U.S. trying to punish and isolate the junta as a whole? Is the U.S. attempting to widen apparent differences within the junta? (The recent dismissal of Mines Minister Lamine Seydou Traoré, who happens to be Camara’s brother-in-law, has led to speculation that Camara and military head of state Assimi Goïta are not getting along.) 

What is Washington’s calculation about how the junta is going to approach the transition of 2024, when it is supposed to hold elections and give up power to civilians? What if Goïta runs, as he appears likely to do, and the junta then holds power — in another guise — for a five-year presidential term, or two?

These questions matter, and the long-term view matters, because without a connection to a broader strategy, the sanctions are likely to serve mostly as an irritant rather than as a catalyst for change. 

Overtly political sanctions against individual senior officials carry the possibility of both rewards and risks. Perhaps the U.S. could make Camara toxic to the junta, and specifically to Goïta.

In the immediate term, however,  the U.S. has already  inadvertently provided the junta with yet another rhetorical tool. The junta presents itself to the Malian people as the torchbearer of sovereignty and national dignity, and has lashed out at France again and again partly as a means of shoring up domestic legitimacy. In a harsh statement condemning the sanctions, the Malian government deployed similar rhetoric against the U.S.

Meanwhile, Goïta is already in “pre-campaign” mode and, in an atmosphere of intimidation against citizens and opponents, it appears the presidency is his for the taking if he wants it.

There is little indication that U.S. thinking on Mali extends very far into the future, even into 2024. The Biden administration has released broad strategy documents for Africa and for West Africa, but these vague documents simply assert that the U.S. can and will do it all — promote democracy, support struggles against terrorism, promote economic development, counter Russia and China, etc. 

With Mali, it is very unlikely that all of those objectives can come to pass at once. U.S. attention to the embattled nation (and other countries in the region) is intermittent and fleeting, viewed often more in terms as geopolitical pieces on a chessboard. If Washington wants to turn up the pressure (non-violently) and try to discourage the junta from running one of its own in 2024, now is the time to do it; otherwise, Washington may find that its narrow focus on Wagner proves counterproductive. 

The best-case scenario for these sanctions is that they could chip away at the Malian junta’s enthusiasm for Wagner and amplify whatever Wagner skeptics may exist within the government — although Goïta, it should be noted, has signed off on Wagner’s activities too. The worst-case scenario is that the sanctions merely antagonize an already insular clique of officers who may stay in power for a very, very long time, a scenario that Washington needs to think through carefully.

Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of two military coups and new interim president, poses with the lawyers during his inauguration ceremony in Bamako, Mali June 7, 2021. REUTERS/Amadou Keita
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