The European Union has decided to suspend crucial military training programmes in Mali, as relations between Western forces and the West African country’s transitional military government sour further.
Speaking at a ministerial meeting on Monday, EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell cited the presence of Russian-affiliated forces in the country, as well as reports of human rights abuses by Malian troops and foreign fighters, among the reasons for the decision.
“We are halting the training missions for the [Malian] armed forces and national guard,” Borrell said.
He added that developments in the country “have forced us to see there were not sufficient guarantees … on non-interference by the Wagner group,” which he said was likely “responsible for some very serious events which have led to tens of people being killed in Mali in recent times”.
The Russian private military organisation has been accused by Western countries of acting with impunity in the country. It is also an accusation that has been directed at French soldiers in the past across the Sahel.
The EU’s decision comes after Human Rights Watch released a report on the alleged killing of 300 people, mostly civilians from the town of Moura, in a military operation conducted by Malian forces alongside foreign fighters. The Malian army, which had previously said that about 200 “terrorists” were killed in the operation, said it had opened an investigation.
“The Sahel remains a priority. We’re not giving up on the Sahel, far from it. We want to commit even more to that region,” Borrell said, suggesting that other forms of training might be sustained.
The EU is involved in two training missions in Mali. The first one – the EU Training Mission – had more than 1,000 members from 25 European countries training Malian soldiers until 2024, according to its website. The other, the EU Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP) focused on police coaching with a mandate expiring next year.
The move does not have severe implications security-wise, noted Alain Antil, director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Centre at the French Institute of International Relations. “It’s better if troops are trained rather than not, but it’s not as if the EU has withdrawn a battalion,” he said.
“From a diplomatic perspective though, we can say that the EU is taking its distance in a very visible way and its warning that the collaboration is at a standstill,” Antil said. “We have to interpret this announcement as a political warning to the Malian government,” he added.
Antil explained that it could also be a prelude to a new European approach in future involvements in the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
MINUSMA has been supporting local forces in combating armed group rebellion maintaining more than 13,000 soldiers and 1,920 police personnel. But Western countries’ presence in Mali has been put into question since French troops pulled out of the country in February.
The withdrawal came as relations between France and Mali reached a new low after the Malian military seized power twice – in August 2020 and in May 2021.
Since then, European allies involved in MINUSMA have been deliberating on their next steps as the lack of French protection could further expose the UN troops on the ground.
On Tuesday, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock visited soldiers in the northern town of Gao before deciding on whether to extend Germany’s presence in Mali. More than 300 German soldiers are deployed as part of EUTM, and 1,100 are stationed in MINUSMA.
Before her departure, Baerbock said that the Malian government had “gambled away a great deal of international trust in recent months, not least by dragging out the democratic transition and intensifying military cooperation with Moscow”.
“To simply say ‘keep it up’ now would be misguided in my view,” she said.