Mali: Gold Rubles Change The Rules

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April 22, 2022: While the Mali military government has forced French counterterrorism forces out of the country, they would prefer to keep the UN peacekeepers that maintains government control over the rebellious north. The UN threatens to withdraw its peacekeepers because Mali is paying for a growing force of Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) in Mali as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations. Russia is under severe economic sanctions because of its recent Ukraine invasion but Mali can get around that by paying Russia in gold. Mali is a major producer of gold and Russia has a large gold stockpile. In response to the sanctions Russia recently put its currency (the ruble) on the gold standard. Russia now offers one gram of gold for 5,000 rubles. This stabilized the purchasing power of the ruble inside Russia and made some foreign trade practical.

This cozy relationship with Russia threatens to end most foreign aid, including the 13,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers that have policed the north since 2013. This is where most of the Islamic terrorist and ethnic conflict has always been found. Since 2018 a lot of the violence has moved south to central Mali and the three-border area where the Mali army and tribal militias take most of the casualties.

Being a peacekeeper can be a dangerous job, especially in Malii where peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 were over 500 dead and wounded. Mali is the most dangerous peacekeeping operation the UN operates. Losses were much heavier among the Islamic terrorists. Part of this was due to the efforts of the separate French Barkhane counterterrorism force which is now gone from Mali. The 5,100 French counterterrorism troops were always separate from the UN Mali peacekeepers because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and has a license to kill. UN peacekeepers mainly defend and are rarely given permission to search and destroy. Since 2018 popular support for Barkhane in France declined and that led to efforts to get other nations to replace the French force completely or partially. Because of all this, the official end of Barkhane is not surprising. It was not a matter of if, but when. Western nations have long contributed small contingents who operate transport helicopters and surveillance UAVs. Sometimes they send small teams of special operations troops.

The growing Russian presence is what threatens the continued presence of the peacekeepers. This is because the UN presence also enables investigations of alleged atrocities committed by Mali soldiers or police. This has been a problem for decades and led to the 2011 rebellion in the north that led to a military coup in Mali and the military intervention of France to keep the north part of Mali.

The UN peacekeeper presence means the UN is able to investigate the growing number of incidents where the army is accused of terrorizing civilians in Central and northern Mali, usually because the civilians were suspected of supporting Islamic terrorists or tribal militias that had clashed with soldiers. The military government can now block some of those investigations because Russia will use its UN veto to block certain investigations.

The military government has also forced the French ambassador out and caused economic sanctions to be imposed. The officers running the military government seem unconcerned because they have access to income from Mali gold mines. Mali has become a major producer of gold.

Mali also has rich farmland in the south and exports a lot of food. There is a desert and semi-desert area north of the Niger river that has less than ten percent of the population and causes a disproportionate number of problems. Most of the northerners are Tuareg and a smaller number of Arabs. Both of these groups are ethnically different from the 90 percent of the 20 million Malians living in the well-watered south. The only reason the ethnically different north is part of Mali is because, when France organized its Mali colony, it incorporated the northerners because to the north of Mali were Arab majority nations that did not want more of those troublesome Tuaregs. The black African Mali majority does not want to cut the north loose, as many Tuareg want, because the northerners would still be a problem for Mali. The northerners are better fighters and have defied southern control since Mali became independent in the 1960s. Historically the Tuareg were responsible for many raids on the more populous and prosperous south.

This northern problem kept Mali from achieving peace and prosperity. In 2021 the situation got worse when there was another military coup. This one was an internal dispute among army officers upset about corrupt civilian members of the interim government and the prospect of the army losing power after new elections. Since the May 2021 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 colonels running the current military government are unwilling to step down and are trying to make it on their own, despite the large number of UN peacekeepers and French troops dealing with the Islamic terrorist problem up north.

The May 2021 coup was led by the army colonel who had earlier been appointed deputy head of the CNT (National Transitional Council). The colonel replaced the civilian who originally held the job as CNT leader. After that the military-dominated CNT rapidly replaced many existing 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.

For countries dependent on foreign trade and foreign aid, ignoring what the trading partners and aid donors think is a no-win situation. The trade partners can take their business elsewhere, where there are fewer problems. For the foreign aid groups, they are faced with a global situation where need far exceeds the aid available. That has led to triage, in which recipient nations or regions that use the aid less effectively, usually by diverting much of it to corrupt rulers or rebel leaders, get less. A military coup is usually a sign of problems and threat of damaging triage.

By 2022 most foreign aid was gone and Mali was bankrupt, but the military government was not. The threats from the military 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. In late 2021 protestors tried to block access to one of the largest mines but that effort only lasted a few days before the security forces cleared the roads.

In 2021 the Mali military government proposed spending $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. Wagner Group is unique among military contractors in that it was created by Russian president Vladimir Putin and reports directly to him. Putin asked a veteran spetsnaz (special operations) officer to organize and run the operation whose name comes from the radio call sign its commander once used. Wagner does not work for free; every customer has to pay and several African governments are doing so. Since Wagner Group personnel must get paid, they are largely unaffected by the new economic sanctions on Russia. Travel to and from Russia is now more difficult, time-consuming and expensive because of most nations closing their airspace to Russia. The banking sanctions made it more expensive for Wagner Group members to send money back to families or bank accounts in Russia. This makes Wagner Group more affordable because Wagner is currently on its own. Even with more affordable Russian mercenaries, the Mali military government is losing several thousand Western troops who handled training as well as counterterror operations. A thousand Wagner Group men will not replace all the expelled Western troops and will definitely not replace the 13,000 UN peacekeepers maintaining Mali control of the north.

Wagner personnel began arriving in December 2021 and their first task was to build a base near the airport outside the capital. The Wagner personnel flew in on transports operated by the Russian military. By the end of February, when the Russia air travel restrictions began, Wagner personnel were still arriving but the total number was about 500, not the thousand the Mali military government wanted. Wagner coped with the new situation as Russia preferred to be paid in gold, which Mali had plenty of. This has meant more Wagner mercs and Russian military equipment arriving by air.

Wagner Group also provides media and political support to local governments that hire them. An example of this is Russia and the Mali coup leaders both accusing the French of sustaining colonial rule. This angle serves the coup leaders and Wagner because it makes it patriotic to expel some contingents of European troops. Wagner is also foreign, but they have been hired by the coup government and thus considered serving Mali, not practicing some form of colonialism. French and foreign donor efforts against corruption are portrayed by the corrupt coup leaders as another example of French colonialism. This may seem absurd to outsiders but the coup government controls most mass media to justify attacks on hostile demonstration and protection of supportive ones.

The Russian presence is not the only problem the military has to deal with. At the start of 2022 Mali defaulted on more of its foreign debt. So far Mali is unable to make payments on $180 million in debts. This is partially due to the reductions in foreign aid because of the ongoing corruption and refusal of the military government to hold elections. The best the military government could do was promise elections in five years. That was answered with major cuts to foreign aid.

Islamic terrorists are a growing problem in Mali. A decade ago, most were in the north but now most of them are south of the Niger river and few are Arabs or Tuareg. African Islamic terrorists believe a religious dictatorship will solve the problem but that has never worked either. Captured Islamic terror group records always include complaints about corruption, and that occasionally makes the news when a terrorist leader absconds with a large amount of money. Islamic terrorism is another form of civil war, by religious zealots against an elected government or, more likely, a dictatorship or military government.

April 19, 2022: In central Mali (Mopti) am army patrol was attacked by Islamic terrorists using a roadside bomb and gunfire. The troops and one of the Wagner Group Russian military contractors returned fire and over a dozen of the attackers were killed. One of the Wagner Group men died, the first Warner Group fatality in Mali so far. Many Islamic terrorist groups are active in the area, most of them affiliated with al Qaeda and attacks on convoys occur at least once a month. More frequent attacks are directed at local civilians who will not cooperate with the terrorists.

Further north (outside of Gossi) France turned over its military base in the three borders area, where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. This area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape heavy counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The counterterrorism forces, especially the French Barkhane unit, search for and attack specific targets. The government is unable to maintain sufficient security forces here to provide a measure of law and order found in the rest of the country. To make matters worse French and other European counterterrorism forces are leaving the area, at the request of the Mali government.

April 18, 2022: Another shipment of Russian military equipment arrived by air. This shipment included two Mi-35 helicopter gunships and at least one 59N6-TE mobile radar system. The 59N6 is a new (since 2016) Russian truck mounted 3-D surveillance radar which can track aircraft up to 400 kilometers distant. Most of Africa has no ATC (Air Traffic Control) radar coverage and control. This makes it possible for anyone, including the currently heavily sanctioned Russia, to continue flying in anything and anyone it wants. This included

April 16, 2022: In central Mali (Mopti region) the government carried out two airstrikes that killed over a dozen Islamic terrorists, or unarmed civilians as some people in the area claim. The government claims to have killed over 200 Islamic terrorists in late march but many of the dead were apparently unarmed civilians. Russia used its UN veto to block efforts by the UN to investigate what has become known as the Moura Massacre.

April 14, 2022: In central Mali, the government claimed that three Islamic terror groups were crippled in the last three weeks as soldiers killed at least 19 armed men, wounded many others and captured weapons and equipment. The military government has banned foreign journalists from covering these operations or their aftermath. This is also useful to limit reporting on Wagner Group operations in Mali.

April 12, 2022: Germany warned the Mali military government European nations would not cooperate with the defense of Mali as long as the military government continued doing business with Russia.

April 11, 2022: The EU (European Union) suspended some of their military training efforts in Mali due to the presence of Russian Wagner Group military contractors. Mali insists there are no Wagner Group personnel in Mali.

March 24, 2022: In the northeast (south of Gao) French counter-terror forces detected a group of IGSS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members near the Niger border and attacked with air and ground forces, killing fifteen if them. Gao is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet.

March 22, 2022: In the north (outside Gao) a Mali Mi-35 helicopter gunship fired rockets that landed near British peacekeepers. There were no Islamic terrorists in the vicinity. Most of the Mali Russian helicopters are flown by Russian pilots with a Mali co-pilot who is learning how to operate the new helicopters. In response to this incident the UN threatened to withdraw all peacekeepers, who are essential to keeping the north under government control.

March 21, 2022: In northeast and central Mali several clashes between soldiers and Islamic terrorists left 16 soldiers and 37 Islamic terrorists dead. Another 18 soldiers were wounded. An unknown number of wounded Islamic terrorists got away as well as the bodies of some of those killed. Some of the dead terrorists were ISIL while other were al Qaeda affiliates.

March 18, 2022: In the south (the Mali capital) the Russian Defense Minister and the commander of the Russian Air Force secretly visited to discuss further aid to Mali and cooperation in maintaining security in Mali under the current military government.

 

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