Malian authorities arrested nearly 50 soldiers from Côte d’Ivoire who came to Mali to work for a contracting company of the United Nations mission in Mali. The government announced this last Monday calling the Ivorian soldiers “mercenaries,” in a move that could raise tensions between the two West African countries. Two aircraft arrived at Mali’s international airport Sunday with the 49 soldiers “with their weapons and ammunition of war, as well as other military equipment,” said Malian government spokesman Col. Abdoulaye Maiga. He added that they “were illegally on the national territory of Mali.”

U.N. mission spokesman, Olivier Salgado said these Ivorian soldiers “are not part of one of the MINUSMA contingents, but have been deployed for several years in Mali as part of logistical support on behalf of one of our contingents.”

He said that their arrival as relief would have been communicated beforehand to the national authorities. They are working for a German company that is contracted by the U.N. mission known as the Sahelian Aviation Services. Maiga said they would put an end to the protection activity of the Sahelian Aviation Services by foreign forces and demand their departure from Malian territory. The government invited the “air company ‘Sahelian Aviation Services’ to entrust its security to Malian defence and security forces,” he said. Mali’s transitional government affirmed in June that it will not authorise the U.N. mission to investigate ongoing human rights violations in Mali, adding to further tensions as France also withdraws its forces.

The actions of the Malian government can be viewed from two angles: first, it is the need to consolidate its security while also maintaining a show of force. Although Mali is beset by numerous security challenges, particularly the presence of Islamist groups in the east and south of the country that necessitated the presence of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), tensions existing between the military junta and the international community continue to exist. Removing the Ivorian soldiers providing security to an UN contractor is likely the prelude to a possible end to the UN mission.

On the other hand, this could be seen as retribution for France calling Wagner Group ‘mercenaries’, which is a contravention of the United Nations Mercenary Convention. Although French troops have long departed, Côte d’Ivoire is a close French ally and remains a key lynchpin of French geostrategic interests in the region. In that sense, the arrest might represent a manifestation of the ruling junta’s distrust of the international community, forming the basis of the frosty relations it has with the West.

Fresh from expelling a Danish counterterrorism contingent as well as the French anti-terror forces in the area, the regime seems to have run out of bogeymen and has turned to grasping at straws. The use of the term “mercenary” is instructive. A mercenary is contracted to fight a war for financial gains. The Malian government’s definition falls short of a proper understanding of the term, occasioned by the paranoia of dealing with French interests in the country which the Ivory Coast represents in a way.

One of the key beneficiaries could be Russia, with its Wagner Group playing a prominent role as a private military contractor in Mali. Already, the Wagner Group has been accused of gross human right violations in the country, and in at least one case, in concert with the Malian military. What makes the classification of the Ivorians as mercenaries is that the Wagner assets, procured for what Bamako stopped short of terming protection duties (for the ruling elites) couched under counterterrorism operations, easily meet that definition.

The government’s blanket approach in its hostility to its erstwhile international partners does not, and will not do it any good, and as it is realising rather too slowly, the attention and support its major international backers Russia and China can provide may not last as much as it hopes. This may force some rationality in mending relations with key regional actors. It has to come to a rational decision of forming better partnerships with others. Not doing this may risk further alienation by the international community, especially as the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) just lifted sanctions which have been in place since 2021. The clock is counting on Bamako making the next (and the right) move.