AFPMalien soldiers march during a military parade in Bamako, in 2020.
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 19:46
Eva de Vries
Eva de Vries
The Malian army is advancing towards the north of the country, reinforced by forces from the Russian Wagner group. A military convoy of more than a hundred vehicles left the city of Gao at the beginning of this week for the Tuareg rebel stronghold of Kidal.
Since August, chaos has been increasing rapidly in the West African country. “The army feels pressure to perform and wants to show that it is still in control,” says Ulf Laessing, head of the Sahel program at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “But there is a chance that this advance will lead to a civil war.”
The advance of the Malian army towards Kidal follows the rapid increase in violence in the country. In September, the number of attacks by militants in the north of the country doubled. Just last Wednesday, Tuareg rebels reported that they had captured another army base from the Malian army, the fifth in a few weeks.
Struggle for an independent state
According to the Malian army the convoy is currently near the town of Anéfis, about 100 kilometers from Kidal. The city, which is located in the middle of the desert, is seen as the capital of the Tuareg in Mali, a Berber nomadic people. The militant movement, the Tuareg rebels, have been fighting for an independent state for decades. This was much to the dismay of those in power in the capital Bamako. They last tried to gain control of the city in 2014, but without success.
NOSIn Mali, the government army is fighting with various militias for control.
“For the Malian army, Kidal is the big, symbolic prize,” says Laessen. “And they urgently need a victory. To get the population on their side, in times of economic malaise and a deteriorating security situation in the country.”
The Wagner Group
Also affiliated with the convoy are soldiers from Russia’s Wagner group, although it is not clear exactly what their role is and who is in charge of the mission north. “The Russians would be quite coercive and even threaten the Malian soldiers if they did not cooperate,” says Mirjam de Bruijn, professor of African studies at Leiden University and Mali expert. “They also have to show their worth and achieve concrete successes.”
Unrest in the Sahel
Much of the Sahel region in West Africa is in turmoil. Several coups were committed in a few years, including in Mali (2021), Burkina Faso (2022) and Niger (2023). Anti-French sentiments play a major role in this. Many countries no longer want anything to do with their former colonizer.
Western troops are being sent away in several countries. This is also the case in Mali, where the French armed forces left last year, having supported the Malian army in the fight against jihadism for almost ten years. This summer, the Malian regime announced that it would also wind down the UN mission Minusma. And at the end of September, France announced that it would remove all soldiers from Niger, due to opposition from the junta.
According to De Bruijn, the explosion of violence has to do with the power vacuum that has arisen after the departure of foreign troops and the dismantling of the Minusma mission. “Since then, armed militias have managed to create more space for themselves,” De Bruijn explains. In addition to the Tuareg rebels, she also mentions jihadist militias affiliated with Islamic State and Al Qaeda and groups that side with the government.
All these different militias are fighting for control over certain areas and population groups. But De Bruijn says that they also seem to be joining forces more and more and that is not good news for the Malian army. For example, the Tuareg rebels and the militia affiliated with Al-Qaeda are said to work well together.
AFPThe city of Kidal, in northern Mali.
Back to the advance of the Malian army. Because will it succeed in taking Kidal and winning that “big prize”? Laessen is skeptical about the outcome. “The Tuareg really won’t give up. They will do everything they can to stop the advance and keep the army out of the city.” And if they do reach the city, they will be chased away. “It will probably lead to a civil war.”
There is also another risk, says de Bruijn. “If the army focuses on this mission in the north, then the jihadists have free rein in the center and the south.”
The residents of Kidal will also not welcome the army with open arms, Laessen adds. “People lean on the Tuareg leaders, they just want to live their lives and be left alone.”