is an amicable settlement still possible?

On Tuesday night, the Ivorian authorities finally spoke out officially about the case of the 49 Ivorian soldiers who were arrested on July 10 on their arrival at Bamako airport, accused by the Malian authorities of being mercenaries. Abidjan delivered its version that corresponds to the UN, although some ambiguity remains.

Abidjan says it clearly: the 49 men are soldiers from the Ivorian regular army. They arrived in Mali “as part of the activities of the national support elements” under an agreement signed in July 2019, three years ago, between Côte d’Ivoire and the United Nations.

A version confirming that from the United Nations, which, through the voice of several different officials, had already specified that these 49 men were not part of the Ivorian contingent of blue helmets – they are not members of Minusma – but that they felt good about it. NSE mechanism, according to which a troop-contributing country can provide additional support to a contingent deployed within the mission.

We will nevertheless note the dubious statement by a UN spokesman in New York yesterday, who, if he did not deny membership of the 49 Ivorian soldiers in this NSE device, which often occurs in peacekeeping operations, could not specify neither their exact role nor their contractual connection to the private company SAS, which is itself a subcontractor to Minusma.

A very high-ranking UN official in New York told RFI, on condition of anonymity, that the Ivorian soldiers were not NSE. Contradictory and confusing statements that, given the context, reinforce doubt. In any case, Abidjan Bamako calls for the “unjustified” release of the Ivorian soldiers “without delay”.

Mercenaries for Bamako A liberation that Ivory Coast still wants to believe: in the very muscular press release from Bamako, Abidjan responds by proposing to “maintain the climate of peace and brotherhood that has always prevailed” between the two countries. The ball is therefore with the Malian authorities. But what Abidjan has just officially said is in fact nothing new to Bamako.

Although there are undeniably malfunctions that need to be identified and questions asked, as the two official versions categorically contradict each other – on command orders or the formalities carried out before the arrival of the 49 soldiers – it must be remembered that the Ivorian authorities and Malians have been in contact since last Sunday. Since Sunday, Abidjan has insisted that the 49 men are ordinary soldiers who came to support Minusma. And that did not stop Bamako from answering, essentially: “No, for us they are mercenaries”, and announcing that they would be brought to justice. Bamako has already taken the side of distrust, even hostility towards his Ivorian neighbor. Choosing forgiveness would therefore be a step backwards.

The use of the term “mercenary” is not trivial either: it is precisely the one that Bamako rejects when it comes to the Malian army’s Russian auxiliary soldiers, regularly called “mercenaries from the Wagner group”, while Bamako always presents them as simple instructors who come within the framework of cooperation with the Russian state. There is therefore clearly a political message in this affair, which is not just addressed to Abidjan.

We can also recall that Côte d’Ivoire is one of the countries that within ECOWAS has always defended a hard line against the military putschists in Bamako, especially on the issue of sanctions, which was finally lifted on 3 July, and relations between the two countries deteriorated significantly. Abidjan also hosts personalities wanted by the Malian courts – Karim Keïta, son of former president IBK – as well as political opponents in exile. Finally, note the silence, at the moment, in ECOWAS. Which undoubtedly has a role to play so that this Ivorian-Malian crisis does not escalate further.

► To read also: Arrest in Mali: “Juntan angry over Côte d’Ivoire over ECOWAS sanctions”

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