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Mali junta’s sovereignty push arouses hope, fear amid troubled anti-jihadist struggle

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Mali’s military-dominated government has vociferously emphasised its national sovereignty in recent days, lambasting France’s military strategy in the region and dismissing the election timetable set by West African regional bloc ECOWAS. Some Malians are enthusiastic about this approach – but others are fearful of jeopardising alliances while jihadist violence continues to rack the country. 

Tensions between France and Mali heated up at the UN General Assembly on September 25, when Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga told delegates that France was abandoning his country with a “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops.

Two days later, French Defence Minister Florence Parly hit back at Maiga’s accusations, describing them as “indecent” and “unacceptable” at a Paris conference.

“When you have thousands of troops on the ground […] and deploy brand-new tanks in the Sahel, that is hardly the attitude of a country that is looking for a way out,” Parly said.

Row over Russian mercenaries

This follows weeks of discord between Paris and Bamako over reports of Mali negotiating a deal for Russian private security group Wagner to supply mercenaries.

Paris sees a Russian paramilitary presence as incompatible with France’s military engagement in the vast, semi-arid Sahel region just south of the Sahara Desert.

>> France and Russia make a stand over which country will have the greater influence in Mali

France has been fighting jihadist groups in the troubled Sahel since 2013 – when Mali asked it to help regain territory seized by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion the previous year.

The French military succeeded in this mission, known as Operation Serval. It then morphed into a longer-term counter-terrorism campaign, Operation Barkhane. But jihadist insurgencies spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso – despite the presence of some 5,000 French troops under the Barkhane banner.

The current friction between France and Mali follows President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement in June that France will merge Barkhane into a broader international operation and move French troops to Niger – seen as a more reliable ally – after the Malian military ousted the country’s civilian rulers the previous month, the country’s second coup d’état in the space of a year.

Now, as France bridles at the potential Russian deal, the Malian junta wants to show that it can pick and choose the country’s military alliances as it sees fit. Mali has the right to “seek other partners”, Maiga put it at the UN.

The Malian government also rejects what it sees as external interference from its West African neighbours. The transitional government appointed after the first military coup, in August 2020, pledged to hold elections within 18 months. But Maiga told FRANCE 24 on Monday that the elections could be delayed by several months. The Malian PM suggested that the deadline set by the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was unrealistic.

Second coup a ‘turning point’

Franco-Malian relations had been frayed long before this month’s reports of a deal with Russia’s Wagner group. Many Malians have criticised Operation Barkhane for failing to stop the inexorable deterioration of the Malian security situation. Anti-French demonstrations flared several times during the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali’s last democratically-elected civilian leader who was ousted in the August 2020 coup after a wave of protests calling for him to leave office. Macron even convened a summit of Sahel leaders in January 2020 to express his dismay about the anti-French protests.

Analysis: France rejects Mali ‘abandonment’ claim

In this context, France was wary of getting involved when the military ousted Keita. While unhappy about the coup, Paris declined to put pressure on the junta – preferring to focus on the fight against terrorism. But the second coup in May 2021 upset this fragile balance, when the military removed the civilian-led transitional government they themselves had put it place.

“The military officers were political novices when they first came to power in August 2020, so they felt the need to bow to the international community’s demands,” said Mohamed Ag Assory, a Malian political analyst and founder of advisory firm Tidass Strategies Consulting.

“The second coup marked a real turning point with the accession of [military officer] Assimi Goita to the presidency and Maiga’s appointment as PM. Maiga is well-known for his Malian patriotism and a leading figure in the demonstrations against Keita, in a protest movement largely ignored by the international community,” Assory explained.

But now Maiga has come to power, and that can be seen as a kind of “revenge” against Mali’s allies who paid little attention to that wave of protests, Assory added.

Distrust among allies

Although democratic backsliding elsewhere in West Africa – notably in Chad earlier this year and Guinea earlier this month – may embolden Mali’s military-dominated government, it still arouses distrust among its neighbours.

In particular, Niger’s Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou sharply criticised the possibility of a Malian deal with the Wagner group in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister service RFI this month – as well as calling on Malian leaders to respect the deadlines ECOWAS has set for the transition back to civilian rule. The Malian government responded with a statement denouncing Massaoudou’s criticism as “unacceptable, unfriendly and condescending”.

The military officers running Mali do not accept such criticism because “they think the country’s recent experiences show elections are not conducive to solving Mali’s problems”, said Aly Tounkara, a sociologist and head of the think-tank the Centre des études sécuritaires et stratégiques au Sahel (Centre for Security and Strategic Studies in the Sahel). The Malian military “seeks legitimacy through the effectiveness of its actions, unlike Mali’s allies, who think democratic elections must take place to legitimate political reforms”.

After its suspension from both ECOWAS and the African Union, Mali now faces the possibility of economic sanctions. In response to the first coup, ECOWAS imposed a trade embargo that severely affected the Malian economy. Analysts say the regional bloc may well impose an embargo again to punish the Malian government for postponing elections.

“So far, ECOWAS has refrained from taking that step again, because the embargo attracted a lot of criticism, as West Africa’s economies are quite independent – which led to negative repercussions for several countries,” Assory said. “But it remains a threat – and the junta is playing with fire by mooting plans to delay the elections.”

A risky political calculation?

Although the Malian government’s emphasis on national independence has gone down poorly with its foreign allies, many Malians have responded enthusiastically – notably on social media and on the streets of the capital. Indeed, thousands of people demonstrated in Bamako on September 22 in support of the military and against perceived foreign interference.

“The desire for sovereignty and the intensifying distrust of Mali’s foreign allies are real phenomena,” Assory noted. “However, it’s important to underline that these ideas are mainly coming from Malians living in urban areas, who have been far less affected by the security crisis than the 80 percent of Malians who live in rural areas and lack the means to make their voices heard. So one does wonder whether the junta’s emphasis on national sovereignty reflects the wishes of the people as a whole.”

“Many Malians believe that, firstly, their country has been left out of counter-terrorism decision-making and, secondly, the state must reconquer Malian territory from insurgents,” Tounkara said. “The junta thinks that tackling these two issues would allow it to show over the long term that it’s an essential political actor – as well as allowing it to downplay the importance of elections.”

“But even though many Malians like the emphasis on national sovereignty, they are also concerned about where it may lead,” Tounkara continued. “If private security companies and Malian troops achieve military victories, that may well strengthen anti-French sentiment. On the other hand, if Bamako cuts ties to France and to its regional allies, it risks finding itself ostracised in the anti-jihadist struggle in the Sahel, without reliable partners to support it. That would be enormously disappointing to the Malian people.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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