• American competitors such as Russia, China, and Iran try to undermine the U.S. on the continent at every opportunity.

    • The U.S. could find itself out in the cold quickly with important African countries.

    • The U.S. already has many long-running and consequential programs in Africa, but it should continue to innovate.

Joshua MeserveyJoshua Meservey

Senior Policy Analyst, Africa, and the Middle East

The government of Mali and a Russian mercenary organization were negotiating a deal in which 1,000 mercenaries would deploy to Mali to train its security forces and protect senior political leaders for a monthly fee of $10.8 million, according to reports.

Wagner Group, the mercenary organization, would also gain access to three mining deposits in Mali as “compensation for its services.”


Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Internet Research Agency, leads Wagner Group. He is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia will support Mali’s militarily and denies Moscow’s ties to Wagner Group.

Yet Wagner Group’s recent dealings align well with Russia’s strategic objectives in Africa, where Mali is situated west of Algeria and Niger. These include reducing Western influence on the continent and reestablishing Russia’s status as a global power by providing security services.

Wagner Group may also exploit Mali’s manganese deposits due to Russia’s shortage of this resource.

Because of the group’s supposed independence from the Kremlin, the Russian government can deny responsibility for its actions. That allows the group to violate human rights with less risk of the international backlash that a state would normally face, though the European Union did recently sanction the group due to its abuses in multiple countries, including several African nations.

Wagner Group’s intervention is especially troubling to France, which has maintained a military presence in Mali since 2013 at the request of its government. In July, France announced a withdrawal of about 2,000 counterterrorism troops from several African countries, including Mali.

Given that Mali remains plagued with security and humanitarian problems despite France’s support, some Malians question French troops’ effectiveness in the fight against Islamist terrorist groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. The disaffection sparked street protests against France’s military presence.

Wagner Group appears to have taken notice and pounced on the opportunity.

U.S. Must Be Vigilant About Competitors In Africa
America’s adversaries are building influence in troubled African nations like Mali. Pictured: A British army soldier from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG), tries to detect possible landmines, in Menaka, Mali, on Oct. 25. (Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images)

This development has rightly disturbed the United States and some European nations. Given Wagner Group’s destructive track record in countries such as the Central African Republic and its links to Moscow, its presence in Mali will likely further destabilize the country and inhibit Washington’s ability to advance its interests there. The U.S. and others have pressured Mali to spurn Wagner Group, though it is unclear whether they will succeed.

Mali’s case is important to the U.S. on its own merits—the country is the epicenter of an exploding Islamist terrorism problem that threatens the Sahel and regions beyond.

But it also demonstrates the need for American vigilance in Africa more broadly, and for maintaining and strengthening African relationships whenever possible and appropriate. American competitors such as Russia, China, and Iran try to undermine the U.S. on the continent at every opportunity, and the U.S. could find itself out in the cold quickly with important African countries.

The U.S. already has many long-running and consequential programs in Africa, but it should continue to innovate.

The Prosper Africa initiative, which has already led to over 800 investment deals and $50 billion in exports and investments between African countries and the U.S., was created by the Trump administration and has been expanded under the Biden administration. If it remains focused on its core objective—expanding two-way trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa—it could become another pillar of sustained U.S. engagement with Africa.

Relations between the U.S. and Mali have been relatively strong for decades due to their cooperation on counterterrorism matters and reducing poverty in Mali. The recent coups in Mali make it difficult for the U.S. to fully engage with the government, but it still has strong interests in fighting Sahelian terrorism and limiting Russia’s malign influence.

If the U.S. does not find ways in places such as Mali to maintain some influence even with problematic governments, America’s adversaries will exploit the opportunity.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal

Joshua Meservey

Joshua Meservey is the Senior Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation.

Joshua MeserveyHe studies African geopolitics, counterterrorism, and refugee policy. He is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Zambia and extended his service there to work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Afterwards he joined Church World Service (CWS) based out of Nairobi, Kenya, and traveled extensively in East and Southern Africa interviewing refugees. He ended his time at CWS as Field Team Manager responsible for a multinational team of nearly 100 staff. He later worked at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and helped write an Army concept paper, and then joined the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center before joining The Heritage Foundation.

He has testified twice before the Senate, four times before the House of Representatives, and once before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He is lead author of a monograph on al-Shabaab’s insurgency and contributed a chapter to the book War and Peace in Somalia published by Oxford University Press. He has written pieces for a wide range of publications including Foreign Affairs, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the National Interest, the Hill, and various journals. His commentary is often featured in various print and digital media outlets, and he has presented at the National Defense University and the State Department.

Meservey holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a BA in history from the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University.

He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children.

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