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How will EU approach Mali's security in 2023?

Priyanka Shankar
January 2, 2023

With violence continuing into the new year, security experts have called on the European Union to push for a more local approach in Mali.

A French soldier watching over the Menaka camp for the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa's troubled Sahel region, at the Menaka base
After France and its European allies announced their plans to withdraw forces from Mali, security risks increased.Image: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Disputes with Mali's ruling military junta and their close relationship with Russian mercenaries over the past two years have caused France, Germany and their EU allies to wind down security operations in the West African country this year, signaling further security risks in the country. 

In February, France announced that French forces in Mali would withdraw over a period of months after nearly 10 years of fighting unrest in West African country. Relations between the two nations began deteriorating when Mali's ruling military junta took power in a coup in 2021.

"We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share," said French President Emmanuel Macron at the time. He added that French troops and French-led missions would be deployed elsewhere in the Sahel, a vast semi-arid region separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south.

Two months later, the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borell announced that the bloc's military training mission, called EUTM, would suspend its operations after noting the military junta's cooperation with Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military organization with close ties to the Kremlin. Wagner operatives have been accused of serious abuses in countries like Syria and Ukraine, as well as in Mali.

Meanwhile, Germany has spent months debating the issue of their troops' presence in Mali.

German forces have been involved in two missions in Mali, both the EU training mission and the UN's peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA. But the African nation's close ties to the Wagner Group caused the German government to agree it would start pulling out troops by mid-2023 and completely withdraw its soldiers by May 2024.

The announcement came after the UK said it would withdraw its contingent earlier than the planned date of December 2023. 

Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and Defense Minister Colonel Sadio Camara have welcomed bilateral negotiations with European partners who wish to cooperate in maintaining security in the country, and African Union President Macky Sall has called for more solidarity with African nations in the Sahel.

"If there's no peace and security in Africa, then the world won't have peace and security," he said in a DW interview in February, shortly before France announced the withdrawal of its troops.

West Africa expert Jonathan Guiffard, a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank, told DW that the impact of each country's withdrawal had been different so far.

"The French withdrawal is the end of the Barkhane military operation, which was a very aggressive military operation against the jihadist group in Mali," he said. "Since then, France has proposed a new way of continuing to work with Mali's authorities. But they refused and currently, cooperation between France and Mali does not exist.

"On the other hand, the British and German troops were part of the UN and EU operations and their presence involved more military training but not really battle operations. So the hard blow mainly came from the French withdrawal," he added.

Security situation in Mali deteriorating

Since 2012, the security situation in Mali has been murky, with several separatist groups fighting against the government and instigating coups and jihadi forces killing scores of people in north and central Mali.

While the military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita continues to remain in power, the security situation on the ground is very dramatic according to Guiffard, especially in north and central Mali.

"In the northern part of the country, there are almost no Malian military forces. So the jihadist groups have all the freedom to do what they please. They are also currently fighting each other in the north, posing further security risks which could get worse in the near future," he said. 

"Meanwhile in central Mali, the country's armed forces are fighting the jihadist forces. But the military junta's operations are also in coordination with Russia's Wagner Group, making it dangerous for the local population, who no longer feel safe," he added.

In 2013, the UN's peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, comprising around 15,000 soldiers and police personnel, was set up in Mali. The EU also set up a military training mission with 1,000 soldiers who were deployed to train Malian armed forces. German soldiers were a part of both these missions.

French troops were deployed a year later to fight terrorism in Mali in Operation Barkhane, which was further supported by Task Force Takuba in 2020.

But the arrival of the Wagner Group in 2021 and France's tense relations with the military junta instigated the withdrawals of EU troops.

Prior to the EU-Africa Summit, the EU's Josep Borrell told reporters that the EU "is not abandoning the Sahel."

"We are just restructuring our presence," he said, adding that the EU's support would also depend on the political situation in the country.

Children watch soldiers of the German Armed Forces
German troops are scheduled to pull out from Mali throughout 2023Image: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Virginie Baudais, senior researcher of the Sahel West Africa program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told DW that while the EU's military training missions had a positive impact, and officials planned to continue evaluating their presence in Mali and the Sahel region, local armed forces were dissatisfied with the EU's capacity to listen.

"We conducted interviews with the local Malian armed forces a while back and they didn't criticize the EU's training mission but called on the bloc to pursue an equal partnership with them. They're keen to participate in the discussion about the security of Mali with international troops," she said.

'Kremlin keen to continue its presence in Mali'

The government of Mali has denied using Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, and after a meeting with the French president in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin also told a news conference that the Kremlin had nothing to do with Russian military contractors in the West African country. 

But Guiffard highlighted that the EU has begun addressing the issue of Mali's military junta collaborating with Russia's Wagner Group.

"Europe understands Russia's playbook in Africa. They know that other countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad are also Russia's next targets. So countries like France have been having diplomatic dialogues in this region to prevent any new strategic aggression triggered by Russia, in West Africa," he said.

"The war in Ukraine has had an impact on Russian forces and their proxies, making the Kremlin keen to continue its presence in Mali through its mercenary, the Wagner Group. But the EU has begun taking action on both a political and diplomatic level. For example, the Russian group runs disinformation campaigns in social media channels in West Africa which the EU has begun tackling," he added.

Baudais also explained that while Mali's desire to claim its sovereignty is understandable, the diversification of alliances in this manner is detrimental for the local population and will be in the coming year as well if there is no further international support.

"With Wagner, the problem is that the number of civilians killed by armed groups continues to grow, and the humanitarian situation is getting worse. So that's really violence against the population which is increasing every day. Without any support from the EU, its going to be challenging to tackle violence from jihadist groups, maintain the economy and also protect the local population," she said.

Pathway ahead

The withdrawal of foreign troops has outlined an unclear future for peace and security in Mali next year. While some locals support more local authority in securing the country, others are keen to find new ways to collaborate with foreign troops to effectively counter terrorism.

Guiffard also said the violence is spilling over to neighboring countries along the coast such as Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. This spread is not only due to jihadi groups, but also to the rise of local militias across the Sahel region. Often poorly trained, their presence is a counterproductive force.

"This is where Europe should increase its presence and where it can have maximum impact in protecting these regions along the coast," Guiffard explained.

"Within Mali, in 2023 the EU should push and maintain a very local approach, especially on development, economic cooperation, and social cooperation. The bloc should clearly act in a way more assertive manner, because when you talk with a lot of people in West Africa, they are still very open to cooperation with EU countries, with France, and they are just asking the Europeans to listen," he said.

Edited by: Maren Sass