Mali: Gold Fever


October 6, 2021: The military government continues threatening to bring in Russian military contractors to replace French troops. The reality is that Russia is too broke to provide foreign aid, and if you want Russian weapons or military contractors, you must pay for them, preferably in advance. The current military government in Mali is considered temporary and is supposed to be replaced by elections in early 2022. The five colonels who run the military government want to remain in power.

The Malian military has staged three government takeovers since 2012. The last one, in May 2021, was an internal dispute within the military. Since the May coup foreign donors have warned that most of the foreign aid will stop coming if Mali does not carry out a significant reduction in corruption, government ineffectiveness and overall instability. None of these three military takeovers were about corruption, but rather anger at the corrupt politicians stealing money meant to finance operations against Islamic terrorist and separatist minorities in the north. The unrest up there had been getting worse for several years before the 2012 coup. An increase in unrest in the north was not unexpected but the intensity of the violence up there was. By 2011, the fighting in the north was more than the army could handle. Mali never needed much of a military and that was reflected in how decades of corrupt rulers treated it as another source of jobs for supporters. Many of the officers were professionals who thought otherwise and argued for more realistic treatment of the military and the threats it was facing up north. That was ignored because the corrupt politicians feared being replaced by corruptible military officers,

Foreign aid donors agreed with the minority of Mali officers who called for more professionalism. The most popular, in the army, officers were both professional and corrupt and that’s how we got a military government that staged a coup in 2020 and another in 2021 against. That may turn out to be a coup too far.

The May coup was not well received by foreign aid donors. This includes France, which pays for its 5,100 counterterrorism troops who operate throughout the region. The military was not happy with foreign donor demands that they cooperate with political factions that made possible the 2020 coup. These groups and the coup leaders formed the interim (and foreign donor approved) CNT (National Transitional Council) government. The foreign donors insisted that a civilian lead the CNT with one of the military coup leaders as his deputy. The army and civilian members of the CNT did not get along. The main disagreement that triggered the May coup was about efforts to negotiate with Islamic terror groups and ineffective measures to prosecute corrupt politicians.

The May coup was led by the army colonel who was appointed deputy head of the CNT, and he replaced the civilian who originally held that job. The May coup promptly replaced many CNT officials with army officers or civilians known to be pro-military. When foreign donors, including France, criticized this, the army threatened to seek financial aid elsewhere. There was no elsewhere for the Mali coup leaders. The Mali officers’ threats said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid. The coup leaders did have one source of wealth, the Mali gold mines.

The Russian Option

The military government needs more money to survive the loss of foreign aid because of the two coups since 2020. They sought to address that problem in late 2020 when they announced that they were reviewing the existing contracts with mining companies. Since the 1990s, when Mali offered terms foreign mining companies would accept, Mali has become the third largest gold producer in Africa behind South Africa and Ghana. Mali exported a record 67 tons of gold in 2019. Gold production maintained those levels in 2020, a year in which gold prices rose and Mali income from gold went up 13 percent. Over ten percent of Mali GDP comes from gold and gold income represents most of the export income. The military government negotiations with the mining companies appears to have increased the military procurement budget and the military is threatening to expel French counter-terrorism forces, but not the AU peacekeepers. France has been reducing its counter-terrorism forces and replacing them with special operations troops from African nations also threatened by the growth of Islamic terrorism in Africa during the last decade. The local G5 Sahel counterterrorism forces is seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) and is capable of dealing with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel, which is the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert that extends across most of Africa. The problem is that the least effective G5 contingent comes from Mali, which has long had a reputation for the least effective military in the area,

G5 began operations in early 2018 after three years of planning and preparation. In late 2016 the countries involved agreed on the details of G5. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force was to be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West mainly uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. The G5 force has been most active in the three borders area (where borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet) and found itself spending more and more time in this terrorist hotspot. A successful G5 Force would enable France to shrink and eventually disband the force of 4,000 French troops it has deployed in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in Mali. Increasingly, central Mali is where there has been more and more Islamic terror group activity, not all of it violent.

The Mali military is trying to obtain foreign aid from Russia that could replace French efforts. Russia cannot and will not do so because the Cold War Soviet Union is gone and Mali is dealing with a Russia that is much different than it was before 1991. One of the things that caused the Soviet Union to go bankrupt and disappear in 1991 was all the cheap or free weapons they provided to African dictatorships in order to get their support in the UN and against the West. The Russians are back but looking for profitable sales opportunities. Russia offers cheap weapons as well as contractors who, for a price, will maintain and even operate aircraft. Russia also offers armed contractors, who work for Russian firms like the Wagner Group and a few others. The military government in Mali wants to spend $10.8 million a month to hire a thousand Wagner Group military trainers. These trainers will also accompany some Mali troops into combat zones but will not operate as combat units unless paid for that and the combat surcharge is more than what Mali is paying for training. Wagner Group had been busy during the last decade and still has, or recently had contingents in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic and Mozambique. Against poorly armed and trained local irregulars the Wagner personnel are effective, but against professionals. like Turks in Libya and Americans in Syria, they take heavy losses and back off. They took casualties in Mozambique because the government refused to use its own troops and sought to suppress an Islamic terrorist uprising using a small number of Russian and South African military contractors. That worked for a while but at the cost of heavy casualties among the contractors. This sort of thing is bad for business and recruiting and the contractors pulled back from Mozambique, which has brought in Rwandan troops.

October 3, 2021: France was told today that its military aircraft could no longer cross Algerian airspace to reach Mali, or anywhere else. The day before Algeria had recalled its ambassador to France because France had cut the number of visas granted to Algerians and Moroccans by half and Tunisia by 30 percent because all three countries refused to allow their citizens to be returned for being in France illegally. France and Algeria had been cooperating to deal with Islamic terrorists in northern Mali, who often tried to operate from Algeria.

October 2, 2021: In the north ( 200 kilometers north of Kidal) a roadside bomb was used to attack a peacekeeper patrol, leaving one dead and four wounded. The site of the attack, near Tessalit, has long been an area where Islamic terrorists from nearby Burkina Faso and Niger operate.

September 30, 2021: Russia delivered four Mi-8 type transport helicopters the military government had ordered in early 2020. The Russians donated some smaller weapons and ammunition as part of the deal. The U.S. and EU (European Union) cut off military aid after the August 2020 coup. The military already received two Mi-35 helicopter gunships and two more are on order. Russia supplied most of the military aircraft Mali purchased since independence in 1961. Low-c0st military aircraft from the Soviet Union ceased after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. By 2011 the Mali Air Force lacked any combat aircraft and it was French aircraft along with American and AU peacekeeper UAVs that provided air support for the last decade.

September 28, 2021: In the south, a mining company convoy guarded by soldiers was attacked while on the main highway to Bamako, the capital. Five people were killed and four wounded. Traffic on this road has seen several attacks a month by bandits, rebels and Islamic terrorists. Most attacks do not involve convoys with military escorts but apparently Islamic terrorists as well as locals unhappy with the military government realize that gold income is keeping the coup leaders in business.

September 24, 2021: I n the northeast (south of Gao) in the three-borders (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) area, French special operations troops, seeking Islamic terrorists operating in the area, lost one of their soldiers in a brief clash with the Islamic terrorists. Since 2012 France has lost 52 of their counter-terrorism troops in Mali.

September 20, 2021: In central Mali (Mopti) four soldiers in a military ambulance were killed by a roadside bomb. The ambulance and its crew of three were carrying an army officer wounded in another attack in the area.

September 15, 2021: France confirmed that it had recently killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader and one of founders of Islamic terror group ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara). Sahrawi was apparently killed over a month ago but it takes time to confirm exactly who a dead terrorist is. ISGS has been around since 2018 and is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) “provinces” in central Africa. ISGS was formed from Islamic terrorists dismayed with the failure of al Qaeda affiliated groups to make any progress. The loss of a senior leader tends to disrupt operations and recruiting for a while. There is also the possibility of internal violence before a new leader emerges.

ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older, and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP, which began as a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terror group, which saw itself as the “African Taliban” and has been around since 2004. For a few years Boko Haram was, in terms of people killed, more of a problem than any other ISIL group, including the combined ISIL operations in Syria and Iraq. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISWAP is undergoing some internal strife since their claimed takeover of Boko Haram this year. This took place because ISWAP killed the Boko Haram leaders and has been trying to absorb Boko Haram. That is encountering a lot of resistance.

There is also ISCAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province) which is only present in southern Africa and currently active in the southeast African state of Mozambique. The problem with ISIL in southern Africa is that Moslems are a small minority there, while the majority Christian and pre-Christian religions fight back, often while ISIL is trying to get established locally. Another tiny ISIL affiliate is ISS (Islamic State in Somalia) which was never popular with the local Islamic terrorists (al Shabaab). ISS spends most of its time and effort trying to survive in the northern mountains.




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