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Mali has been criticised by ECOWAS for the deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group. The Mali government immediately rejected the accusation claiming that there was no deployment of mercenaries. However they admitted that there were some activities on their territory.

Now it is too early to ask whether there are really mercenaries preparing to operate in Mali. But I noticed another strange detail: the ECOWAS, and also this article at the end, state that the deployment of mercenaries would cost a lot of money to the Mali government. But do they have the resources to pay for a mercenary army?

I know that there are mercenaries from the Wagner group also in Central African Republic, but I thought that they were paid by the mining companies exploiting the rich diamond mines. On the other hand Mali does not have a lot of resources, all the oil is north of the border in Algeria, all the Uranium is East of the border in Niger, they have some gold which is almost their only export, but a GDP about 900$ per capita shows that it is not so much. Remittances from their citizens working abroad are not so much, the only other source of foreign money is international aid.

Since the Mali government denied the deployment of mercenaries to avoid speculations I don't want to know whether there are mercenaries or no. I would only like to know whether the Mali economy can produce enough to pay for an eventual foreign army without diverting aid money.

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  • A better Q would have been if the $10million/month is believable, although it's allegedly in "cash and minerals" theguardian.com/world/2022/may/04/… Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:04
  • Another piece says the CAR employs 1,890 "Russian instructors" by the saying of the Russian ambassador. The CAR military budget is officially only some $40 million, as far as I can tell. (That's an order of magnitude less than Mali's per the answer below.) Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 16:09

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Any government that can afford any kind of military force of its own can afford to pay mercenaries to carry out similar functions. The only issue is that you only get what you can afford.

Mali can certainly afford to pay for some mercenaries. As of the 2021 World Almanac's statistics, its total government budget for the country, converted to U.S. dollars, was $3.5 billion, including a defense budget of $727 million U.S. dollars equivalent which supports an armed force of 13,000 active duty military personnel (about $55,923 U.S. per soldier).

There is no reason to doubt that Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group with their associated gear, are more expensive per fighter, than home grown Malian soldiers with Malian government issue equipment. But, Mali can absolutely afford to hire some mercenaries. It is just a matter of how many they can afford to hire, and in what roles it is worth the money to do so, because the smaller number of mercenaries is more effective than the larger number of Malian soldiers who could be employed to carry out the same tasks with the same amount of money.

Typically, mercenaries, rather than replacing a country's home grown military, fill highly skilled and specialized roles that the country hiring them can't secure from its own military at any price. This may include state of the art training for ordinary Malian soldiers, knowledge of how to operate and maintain sophisticated modern weapons systems and vehicles, and elite special forces type operations. This might be carried out by a force of dozens, scores, or hundreds of mercenary troops, at the cost of many hundreds or thousands of local troops. But, if the budget is tight, the Malian government and the Wagner group's response is straightforward: still hire mercenaries, but be more selective about what they will do because the government can only afford a smaller number of them than they would like.

For example, suppose that the government of Mali diverted $72.7 million U.S. from its military budget (10%) by reducing its number of soldiers from 13,000 to 10,000 (more than a 10% reduction because there are always some fixed costs), and suppose that the Wagner group charges $363,500 per fully equipped mercenary per year, in light of the fairly low overall cost of living in Mali, even for foreign mercenaries. This would allow Mali to hire a mercenary force of 200 soldiers. Depending upon what those 200 soldiers provided in terms of military capabilities to Mali that it lacked before it hired them, this spending decisions might be worth it, even though those 200 mercenary soldiers might have to fill the hole created by 3,000 Malian soldiers. If the Malian soldiers replaced were, for example, as worthless and featherbedded as the soldiers of the national government of Afghanistan right before it fell to the Taliban when U.S. military backing was withdrawn, this still might be a wise choice (or might seem like a wise choice to Malian government officials even if they prove in hindsight to be mistaken about that point).

Also, keep in mind that mercenaries are businessmen. They could cut a deal.

For example, maybe what Mali really needs is to train its soldiers to use expensive missile systems that it received in foreign military aid that are worthless to it now because it because it doesn't have anyone who knows how to use and maintain them. It could send a dozen mercenaries to do that, paid for on a three year payment plan, with the missiles that are otherwise useless as collateral for their payment if the Malian government can't come up with the necessary cash.

Or, for example, maybe the government of Mali could pass a law authorizing the mercenaries to operate more or less like 18th century privateers and to take assets seized from insurgents whom they defeat in battle as partial compensation for their services.

Or, perhaps the mercenaries would offer to work at a reduced rate that only meets their out of pocket costs and to use Malian military equipment paid for with foreign aid instead of their own equipment, for a year or two, in order to allow them to prove their worth and show that they are indispensable as a way to build political or international aid group support to pay them at higher rates in future years.

Or, perhaps the Malian government, which is cash poor, but land rich, might pay some of the bill for their mercenaries with grants of government land at fire sale prices (which is basically how the Norman invasion of England was paid for in 1066 CE, and how many other wars have been paid for historically).

The possibilities are quite open ended.

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  • Most of the equipment of the Mali army was not paid by their government, but by military aid. Mostly from NATO countries.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 22:15
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    @FluidCode Well enough, but this doesn't really change the basic analysis at all.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 22:15
  • Hmm. You assume that the Mali government could pay their own military, which they didn't and upon that assumption you base the entire answer.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 22:18
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    @FluidCode The only assumption I am making is that they have a certain military budget which is a matter of public record. Even if foreign aid accounts for, say 50% of the Malian military budget, it doesn't all come from foreign aid, and the Malian government has some discretion regarding how it spends its own money. Maybe they can afford 200 mercenaries, maybe they can afford only 20. But it is clear that it can afford to hire some. The money doesn't need to come solely from its current budget either. It could raid the higher education fund or impose new taxes instead, for example.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 30, 2021 at 22:26

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