Germany is sending more troops and helicopters to Mali to provide more support to the UN peacekeeping mission. The Federal Republic is trying to mitigate the consequences of the French military withdrawal. But the mission is becoming more dangerous: jihadists and the Russian military are spreading out near the German base.
The last French soldier is said to have left Mali by mid-August. In the city of Gao in the northeast of the country, where the Bundeswehr is stationed, the situation is still relatively stable thanks to the German presence. In contrast to the rest of the north, where jihadists have expanded again after the French army initially drove them out in 2013. The security situation there has deteriorated significantly, and the conflict with the jihadists has now reached the center of the country.
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Paris is withdrawing its troops after a dispute with Mali’s military government. This had brought Russian military and mercenaries of the notorious Wagner group into the country. France kept the jihadists at bay with its anti-terrorist mission, which unlike the UN troops actively fought, and ensured that major cities like Gao and Timbuktu remained under government control. But since the French army withdrew, the jihadists have regained momentum. The terrorist group Islamic State (IS) has brought parts of the border area to the neighboring country east of the Bundeswehr base under control. Apparently, word has gotten around among jihadists that France is also taking its attack helicopters with it, for which MINUSMA cannot find a replacement.
Despite the loss of French air support, the Bundeswehr considers the risk of the mission to be justifiable. The IS has not yet attacked any western troops directly. In contrast to the former colonial power France, Germany enjoys a good reputation, not least because the Federal Republic was the first country to recognize the state of Mali after its independence. Unlike French military vehicles, Bundeswehr patrols openly hoist the German flag in Gao because they are well received by the population.
But with the withdrawal of the French, the Bundeswehr, as by far the largest Western MINUSMA partner, will become much more visible than before, the military fear. Anti-Western demonstrations in the capital, Bamako, have already incited anti-France’s Western allies. Germany is now increasing its contingent to up to 1,400 soldiers, who will be deployed primarily in the medical sector and in securing the huge camp around Gao Airport, where the UN, German armed forces and, to date, French troops are housed. In addition, the Bundeswehr has brought helicopters to Gao to help rescue wounded UN soldiers from July.
The biggest concern of the Germans in this context is the question of the future management of the airport in Gao. Previously, this was under French management. This ensured that the airport was always available for MINUSMA. This is particularly important in order to be able to fly out the wounded and supply troops at any time. Western diplomats fear Mali could take over operations and limit air travel. The government has already issued no-fly zones for the UN in the center of the country where Russian military forces are fighting; they don’t want to be looked at.
Mali intensified security cooperation with Russia in December 2021 after tensions with France escalated. Diplomats estimate that there are now up to 1,000 Russians in the country, including mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which is already active in other African countries. Mali, on the other hand, always emphasizes that there are no Russian mercenaries, only regular soldiers in the country. Russian actors go on the offensive with the Malian army in central Mali to combat jihadist and extremist actors. Mali is of particular interest to Russia because of its access to important resources such as gold, but also because of its geopolitical importance.
In recent weeks, Russian actors have increasingly advanced into the Malian north. They had already moved into a barracks in Timbuktu formerly inhabited by the French in January, and then in May also the former Gossi base. Now they have arrived in the city of Menaka, which is east of the German army base. Diplomats fear that the Russians will also move into the former French camp in Gao. They would then be immediate neighbors of the Bundeswehr troops.
The UN Security Council is currently discussing an extension of the MINUSMA mandate, which expires on June 30th. Russia has veto power and diplomats say it could try to impose restrictions on the mission. Despite all the difficulties, the Bundeswehr mission is still important for stabilizing the crisis state. Without the Bundeswehr, MINUSMA would hardly be viable, since the Germans not only provide aerial reconnaissance and evacuate the wounded, but also supply the camp in Gao with electricity and food. There is a lot at stake for Europe in Mali: further destabilization would not least result in further waves of flight and migration.
Ulf Laessing heads the Sahel regional program of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation based in Bamako (Mali)