When you drive around Bamako, they immediately stand out: Russian flags, waving alongside the Malian tricolor. Small copies are sold as souvenirs along the side of the road, for the enthusiast there are also face masks, car stickers and key rings.
“It is our main ally,” explains tailor Oumar Sidibé. Previously, his work mainly consisted of sewing womens dresses, now his business largely revolves around the manufacture of Russian flags for protest marches. “And it insults the West, the French,” laughs Oumar. “When we say Long Live Putin, Macron trembles.”
Finally, many Bamako residents say, there is now a government in power in Mali that is not on the leash of former colonizer France. A government that listens to the people, rather than Paris.
“Indeed, gone with France,” nods Siriki Kouyaté, one of the leaders of the influential civic movement Yéréwolo. “France is no longer welcome here. Let them leave as soon as possible.”
Correspondent Saskia Houttuin traveled to Mali and saw how much Russias influence on the country is:
These kinds of sounds have become commonplace in the Malian capital. Many Malians are furious that it is still war. Large parts of the north and central provinces are ravaged by criminal gangs and terror groups, some of which are allied to Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Since ten years ago Tuareg rebels conquered the north, Mali has been trapped in a spiral of violence. So far, at least 10,000 people have died, more than 30,000 Malians have fled their homes.
The arrival of foreign forces, such as the French mission Barkhane, have failed to turn the tide. Especially around the tri-border area with Burkina Faso and Niger and in the central regions of Mopti and Ségou, hard fighting has been happening lately.
“What did the French do here?” says Mouctar Mariko, MP and chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. “The longer they sat here, the worse the situation has become. What happened?”
Under the new military regime, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta since last year, anti-French sentiments have reached a boiling point in recent months.
This has major consequences, especially in the military field: the French mission Barkhane will be expedited and completely disappeared from the scene next summer. Following this, the European mission Takuba and the EUTM training mission are also on hold: several countries, including Germany, are considering withdrawing their troops.
This turnaround has everything to do with Russia, which is gaining influence in Africa. But while other major powers, such as China, are doing so mainly through investments in infrastructure and mining, Russia seems to have set its sights on shadowy deals with the security sector above all.
In Africa, this happens in Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic, among others, and now also in Mali. At Bamako airport, one delivery after another arrives from Moscow: weapons, combat helicopters, radar equipment and recently also men.
Instructors, the Malian government insists. But everything suggests that they are mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military company that does not exist on paper, but which has close ties with the Russian army and the Kremlin. According to France, some 1000 Wagner paramilitaries are located in Mali.
What exactly do they perform there? That is difficult to find out, especially now that the Malian government is fighting foreign forces and observers from certain parts of the country. Journalists are also restricted in their freedom. According to sources, Russia is after Malis natural resources. The country is rich in gold, lithium and uranium. In exchange for military support, Russia would have access to mineral mines.
This military support is accompanied by a great deal of violence. Human rights organizations and journalistic publications say that Malian forces are involved in large-scale attacks, which also involve many civilian casualties. Eyewitnesses report that the army was assisted by Russian soldiers. The Malian rulers deny this. They say its about a “media hype”, calling it “a cleverly devised strategy aimed at destabilizing the transition government”.
While Bamako is cheering for the Malian army and the support of Russia is greeted with enthusiasm, Malians from the north are very concerned. Especially now that one foreign mission after another is in danger of falling over.
Zakaria Diallo, who fled the town of Douentza, is convinced: “When foreign troops leave, jihadists take control of the country,” he says from Faladié, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Bamako.“Then here it will be just like Afghanistan, like Iraq, Libya. Then its over.”