The Republic of Mali is one of a myriad of African states which broke free from France at the turn of the 1950s to 1960s. Soon after independence, it became one of the most Soviet-aligned states in West Africa. This logically led to the Malian Army being largely equipped with Soviet hardware, particularly when it came to heavy equipment, for example, tracked vehicles. The heaviest of these tracked vehicles in Malian service are a small number of T-54Bs, delivered at an unknown date, but in any case, having been in Malian service for decades now. Despite that, they seemingly never saw any action despite Mali being a deeply troubled state for about a decade.
The T-54, Workhorse of the Eastern Bloc
The T-54 is a tank that requires little introduction. Pushed into mass production and service in 1947, it proved a massively successful vehicle. While an evolutionary design from previous Soviet vehicles, its hull directly based on the T-44 and its 100 mm D-10T gun almost identical to the SU-100’s D-10S (though the V-55 12-cylinder 580 hp diesel engine was new), it was an extremely potent vehicle at the time. From its introduction in the late 1940s to arguably the late 1950s, the T-54’s combination of armament, protection and mobility in a mass-producible package can be said to have been unmatched in the West.
Variants and upgrades obviously followed suit. After the three early 1946/47, 1949, and 1951 models, a first major upgrade/new model was introduced in 1955. This was the T-54A, which included a vertical stabilizer for the 100 mm gun, a new radio, infrared driver’s periscope and headlights, new telescopic gun sights, and a new radio, among others.
In 1956, the T-54B was adopted into service, adding a number of new improvements, including a TPN-1-22-11 active infrared imaging sight, the L-2 “Luna” infrared spotlight which could be quite common on late 1950s Soviet AFVs, an infrared commander’s searchlight, and 2-plane stabilization (from 1957 onward). This night fighting equipment was fairly exceptional for the time, more comprehensive than on tanks such as the M48A2/A3, Centurion Mark 3, or the myriad of older tanks, notably M47 Pattons, which formed the backbone of NATO’s tank force in Western Europe.
Not only were newly manufactured T-54Bs entering service, but the majority of previously in-service Soviet T-54s would be refitted to T-54B standard in the late 1950s, making the type a very common tank. By the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, however, though the T-54B definitely had not become a worthless combattant, the introduction of more modern tanks in the Soviet arsenal, the T-62, T-64, and soon enough, the T-72, as well as more advanced models of the T-55, meant the T-54 was no longer in its prime.
The vehicle was, however, an excellent hand-me-down to Soviet allies, being available in large numbers, and its armor and armament still being very significant in areas of the world where the most common armored fighting vehicles were armored cars. At the same time, its fairly light weight of 36 tonnes, about as light as a modern medium tank/main battle tank was, lighter than pretty much all NATO tanks of the class except the French AMX-30B, also made it a good option for countries with infrastructure not developed for exceedingly heavy vehicles.
The Unclear Export to Mali
Cold War Mali was almost exclusively a customer of Soviet armored fighting vehicles, being an openly Socialist dictatorship from 1960 to 1968 under Modibo Keïta, and a less clearly ideological, but still pro-Soviet military regime under General Moussa Traoré from 1968 to 1991.
There are three known major packages of armored fighting vehicles delivered to Mali. The date when T-54s were delivered, and as such, to which of these packages they belonged to, is not known for certain. The first package, including BTR-40s and T-34-85s, was delivered in 1960-1961, just after the country’s independence, and likely far too early for the USSR to deliver the still fairly new T-54B to an African state that had just become independent. This leaves two other known packages, the one delivered around 1975, which is known to have included BTR-152s, BRDM-2s, and PT-76s, and the one delivered around 1981, which included BTR-60PBs and perhaps some further T-34-85s, though these are sometimes quoted as delivered from another African state.
The 1975 package seems perhaps the most fitting, as it included the widest variety of vehicles and was overall larger in size, but the T-54 having been delivered in the early 1980s cannot be excluded for certain. It is also possible the vehicles were delivered at another date, outside of these major known deliveries. The vehicles are, after all, not the only Soviet AFVs where the exact date of delivery is not known, that also being the case of a number of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas and some extremely elusive BMP-1s the Sahelian country received.
As for the number of vehicles delivered, an attempt at establishing the inventory of the Malian Army by French military historian and terrorism expert Laurent Touchard from 2012 placed the number of T-54s in Malian service at twelve. It should be noted that this inventory was of vehicles still in existence, not of vehicles delivered. The same inventory established Mali had 18 PT-76 operational, while 20 are known to have been delivered, and therefore it cannot be confirmed Mali only ever received 12 T-54s.
However, as the vehicles appear to have seen less intense service than the PT-76s, it is more likely none were ever worn out to the point of being out of service in comparison to the amphibious light tanks, so 12 remains the most probable number of vehicles delivered. It should also be noted that the same report stated Malian T-54s were not in the best state. Their radios were reported to either be used and damaged, or sometimes entirely unoperational.
In December 1985, Mali waged a short 5-day war against its neighbor, Burkina Faso, over the Agacher Strip, but this was a small-scale conflict and it is not known if the T-54s were used as part of it. If so, they would likely have been a force to reckon with, as Burkina Faso did not (and still does not) field tanks. At the time, Burkina Faso’s most heavily armed armored vehicles were AML-90s and the recently delivered EE-9 Cascavels. The Agacher Strip War, however, likely did not see any armor engagements.
As of 2022, footage of Malian T-54Bs is known to have originated from three different places: Sikasso, capital of the eponymous Sikasso province; the capital, Bamako; and the city of Kati, 15 km from Bamako.
Sikasso is the main storage facility of Malian tracked armor. The vehicles are stored in the military Camp Tieba, which also hosts a military school/training facility. The vehicles appear to generally be stored in roofed, but open-air hangars, with no flooring on the sand or dirt ground, protecting the vehicles from some, but not all of the elements. Most Malian tanks appear to be in Sikasso almost all the time. This includes the T-54Bs, but also the PT-76s, and Mali’s most obscure tanks, a fleet of Chinese-made Type 62s that have seemingly never been seen outside of Sikasso’s Camp Tieba.
The T-54s have otherwise been seen a number of times in Bamako, the Malian capital, during occasional military parades, often not moving under their own power but on a tank-transporting truck.
The location where T-54Bs have typically been seen moving under their own power is the city of Kati, 15 km from Bamako, where some Malian T-54s were seen on exercise in 2011.
Camouflage, Commemorative Name, and Their Evolution
The earliest known footage of Malian T-54s, starting in 2010, shows the vehicle in a uniform green camouflage, similar to the Soviet green color which the vehicles would have sported in Soviet service. This camouflage seems to have persisted until at least 2012-2013, and potentially several years later.
A number of commemorative names were seen on T-54Bs spotted in this period. They have been seen referring to a number of things, including settlements and cities, folktales, historical leaders or figures of Mali, and more recently, in reference to Malian Army servicemen killed in the conflict in the North.
On September 22nd 2010, a parade to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Malian Independence was carried out in Bamako. It included three T-54Bs on tank transporters. One was named “Soni Ali Ber”, after a 15th-century leader of the Songhai Empire, a large medieval African state of which the capital was Gao, located in present-day Mali. A BTR-60PB has also been seen sporting the same name.
Another was named “Bakari Dian”, a half-man half-beast creature from a folktale from the Ségou region of Southern Mali, east of Bamako. The last is known from photographs which only allow part of the name to be identified, reading “Monzon Diarra”, a warrior king which ruled the Bambara Empire, an empire centered on the Bambara peoples (the most common group of ethnicities in Mali), at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century.
On January 20th 2011, Malian T-54Bs took part in a military exercise and demonstration, including live firing, in the town of Kati, 15 km from Bamako. Two vehicles were spotted, “Soni Ali Ber” and “Bakari Dian”, still sporting their names seen in the previous parade.
Two additional named T-54Bs were seen at later dates. One was named “Konna”, after a city in central Mali (which would be about the edge of terrorist group Ansar Dine’s advance into central Mali in January 2013, before the Franco-African intervention pushed it back), and another was named “Cne Sekou Traore”. This later name is particularly interesting, as it refers to a much more recent individual than usual. Captain Sekou Traore commanded a company, the 713ème Compagnie Nomade (ENG: 713rd Nomad Company) in the Battle of Aguel’hoc, one of the first major battles during which the Malian Army faced off against the Tuareg MNLA and islamist Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) during the 2012 Tuareg Insurgency. After their victory in the battle, AQIM insurgents executed 97 Malian prisoners. The Malian state, in the following months, attempted to make the men that fought in Aguel’hoc into heroes and highlight the barbaric executions in an effort to try and bolster the country against the growing insurgency, which would see Mali lose control of the northern half of the country.
In recent years (one photograph being dated from 2018), Malian T-54s have been seen sporting a new camouflage, which has also been observed on PT-76s and Type 62s. This camouflage is a multicolor scheme including dark green, brown, beige, and black. Large swathes of each color are painted on the tanks, and smaller irregular lines are then present inside the larger swathes.
Vehicles painted in this new camouflage scheme have been seen both in Kati as well as in Sikasso. The most recent known view of a Malian T-54 actually seems to be from a location from where no views of the vehicles had emerged previously, a military camp in Sevare, one of the largest cities in Central Mali. Within a number of photos documenting training of Malian crewmen on a 122 mm D-30 howitzer by the European Training Mission in Mali, one sports a T-54 in the background.
Absence of the T-54s in the Current Malian Conflict and their Role in the Malian Army
Mali’s T-54s have not seen use in the current Malian conflict, despite war in the country having been raging for over a decade at this point. Though the vehicles not being used may be surprising at first, there are actually very reasonable motives for it.
The Malian conflict, outside of the ill-fated attempt by terrorist groups to progress into Central and Southern Mali that triggered foreign intervention in January 2013, has mostly remained confined to Northern Mali, an environment marked by the Sahara Desert, with settlements separated by sometimes hundreds of kilometers of desert with very poor roads. For an army to make proper use of tanks there, it would need a very strong logistical organization and wide availability of spare parts, something the Malian Army does not have. Vehicles such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), and perhaps even more widely technicals (often based not only on the Toyota Land Cruiser, but also the Korean Kia KM450 truck in Mali) make much more sense.
The vehicles have been retained in some service capacity though, and this can also appear reasonable at first. If Mali came to heads with one of its neighbors in a peer-to-peer military conflict, rather than counter-insurgency warfare, its T-54s would actually not be any worse than their opponents in most cases. Three of Mali’s neighbors, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Senegal, do not field any tanks, though all three have 90 mm-armed armored cars. Three others are in the same state as Mali, with a variant of T-54/T-55 as their heaviest tank. There is of course one exception to this, Algeria, one of the African continent’s military powerhouses. However, the border between Algeria and Mali is located in the middle of the Sahara, an impractical environment for tanks, and the impoverished Mali could never realistically hope to afford equipment to rival the Algerian military.
However, in practice, it is unlikely Mali’s T-54s would account to much in a conventional war. The vehicles themselves may not be worse than their opposition, but it appears they have only seen minimal service and maintenance, meaning they would both be susceptible to breakdowns, and be crewed by inexperienced personnel, who would both struggle to repair the vehicles and to operate them properly. When adding these factors to the small number of vehicles in service, even against other unstable and divided countries, such as Burkina Faso, Malian T-54s likely would only have a minimal impact. The widespread availability of anti-tank armament across West Africa capable of knocking out T-54s further diminishes the tank’s usefulness. This is true more so in the last few decades due to the breakdown of order in Libya and previously massive deliveries of ex-Soviet surplus largely expanding the number of anti-armor weapons being traded around in the region.
Conclusion – Mali’s Agonizing Giants
To a foreign observer, seeing T-54s in Sub-Saharan Africa may seem like an unnoticeable, common occurrence, and to an extent it is. However, T-54Bs likely brought a significant asset to their army back when the country suffered from less internal instability. Fielding actual tanks is not a given in the Sahel, with three of Mali’s neighbors being content with armored cars, including Burkina Faso, with whom Mali fought a very short war in 1985. In case a conflict like the Agacher Strip War was to escalate, the T-54s, despite their small number, would likely have been a significant help for the Touré regime of Mali to emerge victorious over its adversaries.
However, unfortunately for Mali, since the end of the Touré regime, the conflicts the Malian Army faces are no longer border wars with its neighbors, but rather much bloodier and, as of 2022, seemingly endless internal conflict. Whereas T-54s may have been useful assets fighting in the somewhat better infrastructure of the Niger river basin and the border areas of Southern Mali in general, their superior armament and armor is worthless when the conflict Mali faces takes places in the Sahara, where using tracked main battle tanks without a logistical train Mali cannot afford would be a fool’s errand. As such, Malian T-54s have largely remained in the southern half of the country, far from action, and likely progressively seen less and less as useful assets for the government. In the last few years, it appears the vehicles are appearing less and less in parades, with few photos of them rather showing them in the background, sitting still and likely unused, or in storage. While still notionally in service of the Malian Army, the country’s T-54Bs are likely dying a slow death under poor maintenance as there is, simply put, no use for them anymore.
SIPRI Arms Transfer Database