Mali and Burkina Faso: Parallel Paths in Navigating the Sahel Crisis

Burkina Faso and Mali have, from the outset of the crisis in the Sahel, been the region’s weak links in the fight against terrorism. In both countries, entire swaths of territory are beyond the control of the central state.

In Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements, an ex-rebel alliance, has dominated the area in and around Kidal, in the north, for the past decade. In the west, a civil conflict is taking place in the Ménaka region, in the Malian Gourma, between Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’, or JNIM (the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, in English) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS). And in the center of the country, Katibat Macina (the Macina Liberation Front), a JNIM affiliate group, has carried out repeated attacks in the regions of Mopti and Ségou.

As for Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam may be the principal terrorist organization, but there are also frequent attacks by IS-GS, as was the case recently in the north of the country, in Deou, Oursi and Tin Akof.

Coup after coup

Both countries each experienced two military coups in the space of a single year – Burkina Faso, in January and September 2022, and Mali, in August 2020 and May 2021. And with regards to foreign policy, coup leaders in both countries seem bent on cutting ties with traditional Western allies, above all with France. The common dynamics at play in the two countries offer insight into understanding the crisis that is shaking the Sahel in general.

Between them, Burkina Faso and Mali have had 13 coups since gaining independence. To say that their political histories have been marked by military intervention is an understatement.

In Mali, the May 2021 “coup within the coup,” which resulted in a sea-change on the diplomatic front, was first and foremost the work of “soldier-politicians.” Col. Sadio Camara, the Malian defense minister, is a case in point as he appears to have played a key role in Mali’s rapprochement with Russia. It was upon returning from Moscow, where he was in training, that Camara actively participated in the first coup d’état, of August 2020, that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

Mercenaries and militias

Gen. Yamoussa Camara, special adviser to the head of the Malian junta government, also advocated for bringing on new military partners, with a preference for Russia and the mercenaries of the Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group. Acting Prime Minister Choguel K. Maïga, the transition regime’s top ideologue, seems to have played an equally decisive part in this policy shift. His arrival was welcomed by the junta due to his membership in the Mouvement du 5 juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (the June 5 Movement, in English), which challenged the IBK regime until its fall. Maïga’s association with the putschists influenced the rapprochement with Russia, in this case as a “pragmatic” rather than “ideological” pivot, which can be explained in part by the shortcomings of the French-led Operation Barkhane, during which the security situation worsened throughout the Sahel.

The latest coup in Burkina Faso also sparked major changes in the fight against terrorism. Rather than mercenaries and the Wagner Group, the focus is now on civilian militias, as some 50,000 people have been allegedly recruited as Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie (Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland, in English) to assist the military. Not only does this move pose a high risk of abuses against civilians, as is also the case in Mali, but the strategy of resorting to auxiliaries, who are more or less well-trained, hardly guarantees an eventual victory in the fight against terrorism.

In sum, while Mali has turned toward the paramilitary Wagner Group, Burkina Faso is, for now at least, playing the popular militia card.

Following Mali’s lead

For the moment, there are no concrete indications that Wagner mercenaries will also operate in Burkina Faso, despite increased nudging by Russia. Still, when it comes to their respective geopolitical choices, Burkina Faso has tended to follow Mali’s lead, and there is a strong possibility that Bamako will push Ouagadougou with regards to Russia as well.

Indeed, Malian diplomacy has a direct impact on what happens in Burkina Faso, and a recent visit to Moscow by Burkinabe Prime Minister Appolinaire Kyelem – together with the junta government’s formal request to the Elysée that France withdraw its special forces – suggest that Wagner mercenaries could in fact arrive.

Moscow’s strategy, just as it is in Mali, is to work with local intermediaries. One such group is the Coalition of African Patriots of Burkina Faso (COPA-BF), led by Roland Bayala, a member of the transitional legislature. Bayala is close to the Malian Yèrèwolo movement of Adama Diarra, alias “Ben le Cerveau” (Ben the Brain), and was one of the first, starting in 2021, to demand the intervention of Wagner’s paramilitaries, which have had their eye on Burkina since the January 2022 coup of Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.

A path to peace?

Given that in both cases the transitional governments are likely to be extended, neither country is close to restoring democracy. The choice they’ve made, to address the security crisis, is that of war. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the pro-peace initiatives that existed prior to the coups in both Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali, there was an emphasis on “local dialogue,” also known as “survival pacts,” which were at times encouraged by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The mission, particularly at the time of the IBK government, saw those talks as a prelude to more ambitious peace mechanisms. Now, there are no peace talks whatsoever in sight in Mali. Efforts at dialogue also existed in Burkina Faso and were set to receive backing from a European Union mission just prior to Capt. Ibrahim Traoré’s seizure of power. Now, apart from a military victory, there are few alternative solutions on the horizon for solving the security crisis.

Both countries are thus at an impasse, with no real intention either to restore democracy or to resolve their security problems through dialogue. Various field studies suggest, nevertheless, that the military approach is limited in the Sahel, and that if there’s any hope of peace, it will require political negotiations involving independence groups and even terrorist organizations, namely the JNIM.

“Anything goes” politics

In that sense, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) – despite its serious financial problems – could play a crucial role in the peace process by encouraging the two transitional governments to commit to restoring constitutional order. And yet, in the case of Mali, there is a populist push for leaving ECOWAS.

The Malian and Burkinabe prime ministers, in order to work with military leadership, are taking an “anything goes” approach to politics and foreign affairs. One can imagine that they were selected to give the impression that the respective regimes are not entirely dominated by the men in fatigues. They both understand, however, that they must act in such a way as to hold on to their positions in the face of soldiers who in fact decide everything.

In sum, there are both similarities and differences in how Mali and Burkina Faso approach their security and political crises. The current strategy in both countries is to favor military solutions and seek new geopolitical alliances. Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that resolving the crisis in the Sahel will require political negotiations and an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders.

Themba Zuri is a Sahel researcher.

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