Africa File, April 4, 2024: Mali and Russia Explore Mali’s Mineral Wealth; Niger Plays the Field; the Kremlin’s Red Sea Ambitions in Eritrea

Editor's Note: The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute publishes these updates with support from the Institute for the Study of War.

Africa File, April 4, 2024: Mali and Russia Explore Mali’s Mineral Wealth; Niger Plays the Field; the Kremlin’s Red Sea Ambitions in Eritrea

Authors: Liam Karr, Matthew Gianitsos

Data Cutoff: April 4, 2024, at 10 a.m.


The Africa File provides regular analysis and assessments of major developments regarding state and nonstate actors’ activities in Africa that undermine regional stability and threaten US personnel and interests.

Key Takeaways:

  • Mali. The Malian junta is increasing cooperation with Russia to boost its gold, oil, gas, lithium, and uranium production to bolster its energy independence and boost state revenue. These economic projects benefit the Kremlin by securing access to a cut of the resources, which it can use to circumvent Western punitive measures, such as sanctions.
  • Niger. Russia and Iran have been leading partners for the Nigerien junta since the junta took power in July 2023, and the junta has continued deepening ties with both since annulling defense cooperation with the United States in mid-March. The junta is simultaneously engaging with an array of long-standing Nigerien partners—including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Germany, Italy, and Turkey—to advance its economic and security interests.
  • Eritrea. A Russian naval delegation’s visit to Eritrea highlights the Kremlin’s continued efforts to achieve its enduring ambitions to establish a permanent Red Sea base. The Kremlin has viewed Eritrea as a potential option to secure a Red Sea port since at least 2018, and it is becoming a more appealing alternative to war-torn Sudan, where internal instability has repeatedly hampered Russian efforts to secure a base.



Authors: Liam Karr and Matthew Gianitsos

Mali and Russia are increasingly cooperating on mineral extraction to boost both countries’ revenues. Russian companies have made several road-map agreements with Mali for gold refinery construction, geological mapping, and civil nuclear power cooperation since March 25.[1] The Malian and Russian governments also signed several cooperation agreements on oil, gas, uranium, and lithium production on March 31.[2] The signing of these cooperation agreements is a step forward in implementing several memoranda of understanding and high-level discussions held between the two countries in 2023 and 2024.[3]

The Malian junta likely seeks to capitalize on its increased presence in resource-rich regions of northern Mali after expanding into the area with the help of the Wagner Group in the last quarter of 2023. The Malian army and its Wagner partners retook rebel-held areas in northern Mali in October and November 2023.[4] This offensive improved its access to unregulated artisanal gold mines that were previously under rebel control and put them closer to unexplored oil, gas, and uranium deposits.[5] Malian and Wagner forces in early February 2024 briefly occupied the Intahaka gold mine, which is the largest artisanal mine in northern Mali.[6] Locals claimed that the mercenaries charged entrance fees and carried out some gold mining operations before withdrawing.[7]

Figure 1. The Wagner Group Expands Operations Near Gold Mining Areas in Northern Mali


Source: Liam Karr; Armed Conflict Location and Event Database; Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Mali still lacks the capability and capacity to fully secure and exploit northern Mali’s mineral wealth. Salafi-jihadi insurgents and pro-separatist rebels still contest government control around the gold and potential uranium deposits, and security forces lack the numbers and local support to hold these areas, especially with Salafi-jihadi insurgents increasingly active near the capital.[8] Mali was only able to reenter the north with Wagner’s assistance, and Wagner has only 1,000–2,000 mercenaries spread across the country.[9]

Mali and Russia can partially address these shortcomings in northeastern Mali by cooperating with or coercing local pro-government militias. Pro-government militia fighters that previously controlled the Intahaka mine have cooperated with Wagner, and Malian forces are still in the vicinity.[10] Wagner has similarly leveraged relationships with local power brokers to purchase significant amounts of artisanal gold in Sudan.[11] This strategy is less feasible in the desolate and sparsely populated areas of far northern Mali where Mali’s oil and gas reserves are located, however. Mali has attempted to explore its oil and gas reserves for over a decade but does not have the domestic production capability, as little development has occurred due to the high cost of extraction, lack of infrastructure, and perpetual insecurity due to the lack of government presence.[12]

Mali also wants to boost its lithium and uranium production capabilities in southern Mali. There are large lithium and uranium deposits in the southern and western areas of the country. However, Mali does not have the infrastructure necessary for extracting and processing these deposits and relies on foreign companies to develop these projects.[13] The Malian junta has emphasized lithium production as a key economic target area in 2024 as two major Australian-, PRC-, and UK-financed mines expect to begin production this year.[14] A Canadian company is financing a mineral exploration project for uranium and other minerals in southern Mali that has included exploratory drilling but is not building infrastructure, except for the site’s camp.[15] Al Qaeda–linked insurgents have also escalated activity near these areas since 2022, which threatens mineral exploration and provides a potential justification for Wagner to operate in the area to protect Russian investment in the future.[16]

Lithium is crucial for green energy due to its use in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.[17] The United States lists lithium as a critical mineral, meaning it is important to national and economic security and that global demand outpaces supply.[18] The PRC currently dominates the global lithium market, but Russia is trying to enter the market through mining deals in Bolivia and may have opportunities to exploit lithium deposits in eastern Ukraine.[19]

Figure 2. Opportunities for Mali and Russia to Cooperate on Mineral Extraction


Source: Liam Karr; Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime; US Department of the Interior; Jules Duhamel.

Mali aims to secure energy independence and boost state revenue through resource development projects. Mali’s government has emphasized its desire to achieve energy independence through increased production of its natural resources and rewrote its mining code in 2023 to this end.[20] Mali has directly used tax revenue from gold mining to finance Wagner mercenaries, underscoring how this revenue boost helps fund the junta’s defense budget.[21]

Mali-Russia cooperation on resource extraction additionally grants the Malian junta greater regime security support from Russia in exchange for a share of the resources, which helps the Kremlin mitigate Western punitive measures. Russia has offered Mali and other authoritarian African governments “regime survival packages” that involve security and political support in exchange for access to strategically important and valuable natural resources.[22] Russia has repeatedly sought to gain access to such resources—primarily gold—from its partnerships with African countries to mitigate the effect of Western sanctions.[23] The Kremlin’s pursuit for uranium also aims to increase its grip on the nuclear energy market to improve its leverage with countries seeking to cut Russian gas purchases.[24] The various Russian mercenary contingents across Africa implement this strategy by providing a degree of regime security and securing access to these resources either directly or through political arrangements.[25]


Author: Liam Karr

Russia and Iran have emerged as leading partners for the Nigerien junta since it took power in July 2023. The junta has continued deepening its security and economic relationships with both countries after ending its defense cooperation with the United States in mid-March. Niger has turned to Russia as its preferred security partner after cutting ties with France and now the United States, having annulled defense cooperation with the United States on March 16.[26] Russian President Vladimir Putin called Nigerien junta head Abdirahman Tiani on March 26 to discuss intensifying security and strategic cooperation, marking Putin’s first direct contact with the Nigerien regime.[27]

CTP assessed in January 2023 that Niger may contract Russian mercenaries to help fill the capacity gaps left by the departure of Western security assistance.[28] This assessment is based on the junta’s interest in contracting Russian mercenaries since it took power in July 2023, meetings with key Russian defense officials involved in Russian irregular military activity in Africa, and the signing of unspecified defense agreements with Russia.[29]

The Nigerien junta has also established ties with Iran in several sectors since taking power. Iran and Niger have intensified discussions surrounding energy and economic cooperation since March 19.[30] Iran and Niger say their March discussions have focused on implementing several agreements made when the Nigerien prime minister visited Tehran in January 2024.[31] Iran has historically struggled to follow through on many of its promises to African countries.[32]

US officials accused Niger of agreeing to sell uranium to Iran during meetings between US and Nigerien officials on March 12 and 13.[33] The Nigerien government publicly denied the US claims.[34] CTP previously assessed that it is unlikely Iran would attempt to obtain Nigerien uranium due to Iran’s sufficient domestic uranium production capabilities and a lack of indicators that the junta was looking to replace the Western-based mining companies that currently own the majority shares in nearly all Nigerien uranium mines.[35]

The Nigerien junta has simultaneously maintained and explored new avenues of defense and economic cooperation with countries that have been Nigerien partners since before the coup, such as the PRC, Turkey, Italy, and Germany. Niger and the PRC are primarily focused on growing their preexisting ties related to petroleum production. Niger has had a joint petroleum production agreement with the PRC since 2008.[36] The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says the total PRC investment will be nearly $4 billion after the completion of ongoing development projects.[37] The PRC owns a majority stake in key Nigerien facilities because of this investment, such as Niger’s biggest oil field, its lone refinery, and a newly constructed pipeline to Benin that will double Niger’s petroleum production.[38]

Nigerien and CCP officials have met at least five times in 2024, four times in March alone, to discuss bilateral cooperation and Chinese investments in Niger’s oil.[39] The Nigerien junta has emphasized oil production as a focus area for 2024 and wants to increase the amount of oil refined in Niger.[40] Reputable Spain-based Sahelian open-source researcher Abdou Pagoui claimed that a Chinese source said Nigerien officials asked during the March discussions to rearrange how Niger received its share of oil sales to avoid regional sanctions and loan repayments.[41] The PRC has also agreed to assist critical infrastructure projects that benefit Niger, such as leading highway construction in Niger and funding the neighboring Nigerian government’s plans to build a rail line connecting northern Nigeria and Niger.[42]

Niger has also tried to expand preexisting defense and infrastructure ties with Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led a diplomatic charge in the Sahel in 2012 and 2013 that laid the foundation for significant infrastructure investment in 2019 and a defense deal in 2020.[43] The deals resulted in the delivery of six TB2 Bayraktar drones in 2022.[44] The Nigerien prime minister visited Turkey in early February 2024 and toured several weapons-manufacturing firms.[45] Nigerien and Turkish officials met several times in mid-March to discuss bilateral cooperation.[46]

Niger may view Turkey as a candidate to backfill the US drone base in northern Niger. An unnamed Nigerien security source told French outlet Radio France Internationale in 2022 that Niger was considering a Turkish air base in Niger to support Niger’s newly acquired TB2 drones.[47] On March 13, 2024, the Turkish ambassador visited regional officials in the Agadez region, which hosts the $100 million US drone base.[48] Niger said the United States agreed to outline a disengagement plan after Niger annulled defense cooperation with the United States on March 16, but US officials still say the future of US troops in Niger is unclear.[49] Turkey initially invested in this area when it first focused on the Sahel in 2012, and the Turkish ambassador highlighted these projects and outlined opportunities for new cooperation during his recent visit.[50]

Germany and Italy are trying to cooperate with the Nigerien junta on security to address their migration concerns.[51] The junta’s foreign minister met with a delegation of German military and defense officials on March 28, and Italian officials visited Niger multiple times in March.[52] Italy and Germany are looking to keep good working relationships with the Nigerien junta by maintaining and reforming their small force deployments in Niger that were part of now-defunct EU counterterrorism missions.[53] EU officials, and Italian officials in particular, have warned that the growth of irregular migration from Africa is a major concern after African migrant arrivals to Europe reached the highest levels since 2016.[54] These officials view closer cooperation on immigration and security with African governments as ways to slow this phenomenon.[55]

Figure 3. Niger Diversifies Its Partners: Nigerien Diplomatic Activity Trends in 2024


Source: Liam Karr.


Author: Liam Karr

A Russian naval delegation visited Eritrea for bilateral talks and training exercises, which highlights the Kremlin’s continued efforts to advance ties and discussions with Eritrea to achieve its long-standing ambitions to establish a permanent Red Sea port. Eritrean President Isais Afwerki led a delegation that met with Russian Deputy Navy Chief Vice Adm. Vladimir Kasatonov in Massawa, Eritrea, on April 2. Eritrean officials said the meeting discussed “prospects of Russian support to regional efforts” in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.[56] Afwerki also toured the Russian Pacific Fleet frigate, Marshal Shaposhnikov, which had been in Massawa for a five-day port call since March 28, conducting joint drills with Eritrean forces to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Eritrean-Russian ties.[57] This also served to continue discussions from the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit.[58]

The Kremlin views Eritrea as a potential option to secure a Red Sea port. Russia has been trying to secure a Red Sea port since at least 2008 and exploring options in Eritrea and Sudan since 2018.[59] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed interest in establishing a base at Massawa as recently as 2023.[60] Russia views a Red Sea port as strategically vital to its efforts to project itself as a great power by enabling it to protect its economic interests in the area and improve its military posture by increasing its ability to challenge the West in the broader region, including the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.[61]

Eritrea is becoming a more attractive alternative to Russia’s efforts in war-torn Sudan, where internal instability has repeatedly hampered Russian efforts to get a base in Port Sudan.[62] Russia and Eritrea have grown their relationship since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.[63] Afwerki has met with Russian officials in Moscow and Eritrea to discuss countering US influence, as both authoritarian countries have long been subject to US sanctions.[64] Eritrea also voted against UN efforts to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.[65]















[14]; ;;;


[16];; Armed Conflict Location and Event Data database, available at














[30]; https://en.mehrnews dot com/news/213168/FM-Amir-Abdollahian-stresses-strengthening-ties-with-Niger

[31]; https://beninwebtv dot com/liran-et-le-niger-renforcent-leur-cooperation-avec-de-grandes-annonces; https://president dot ir/fa/149717; https:/ /www.tasnimnews dot com/fa/news/1402/11/05/3028800


























[57];;;; https://www.rt dot com/africa/595071-eritrea-russia-navy-exercises; https://tass dot com/defense/1768923

[58];;;; https://www.rt dot com/africa/595071-eritrea-russia-navy-exercises; https://tass dot com/defense/1768923