Or, The Mali that can say “No”
A dramatic shift has been taking shape in Mali, and two recent events suggest that it is now irreversible.
One: the massive rallies in Bamako and dozens of other cities and towns throughout the country (as well as in the Malian diaspora) on Friday, 14 January. The last gatherings this large helped precipitate a coup and led to the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (who died today at age 76). This time, however, the motive was different. These gatherings were officially a display of national unity in the face of ECOWAS economic sanctions. Unofficially, they underscored broad public support for Mali’s transitional government (echoing polls late last year)–and showed that a great many Malians are fed up with France, the UN, and ECOWAS. Watching untold thousands of fellow citizens joining together, many rally participants said that they’d never been prouder of their country.
Two: the day after the rallies, Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga gave an interview on Malian state television. In the course of 80 free-flowing minutes, he listed the priorities for his transitional government, framing them as demands that “the people” had expressed (notably through the recent Assises Nationales de la Refondation):
- Restoring security
- Fighting corruption and impunity
- Establishing the infrastructure necessary to make elections transparent and credible
- Reforming national laws and institutions
- Implementing the peace accord “in a smart way” (i.e., without partitioning the country)
If this list is unremarkable (who could oppose any of these priorities?), Maïga’s populist tone was more significant: he evoked “the people” constantly, and in a way that I haven’t heard a Malian official do since the previous junta in 2012. It was a textbook display of populism marked by three primary fixations.
First, past greatness. “Mali is a land of dignity. It is a land with a long history. It is a land in which Africa recognizes itself,” Maïga said. Resistance to outside interference is a major part of that history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the prime minister, it took French military forces 38 years to complete their conquest of the territory that eventually became Mali–far longer than they needed to conquer other parts of the continent. “We are not a people that can be made into vassals, that can be enslaved by proxy–and that is what is happening today,” Maïga stated. After independence, Mali became a pillar of regional cooperation, helping establish ECOWAS itself in 1975 (“ECOWAS was born in Mali,” he claimed).
Second, in contrast to this glorious history, present grievance and national humiliation. “Today we’ve become the sick man, the laughingstock of the region,” Maïga lamented to his interviewer. Describing his government’s negotiations with ECOWAS, he claimed that Mali had been constantly disrespected and treated “like a less-than-nothing.” He made repeated references to the humiliation he said Mali’s people had been subjected to.
Third, threats posed by external forces. Maïga characterized the crisis and conflict that Mali has endured for the past 10 years as something “imposed on us.” And he was far more direct than any previous Malian leader in identifying France as the primary culprit. After Maïga referred to ECOWAS as a puppet of a certain non-African power, the interviewer prodded him to be more specific. The prime minister went on to accuse France of inciting Tuareg separatists against Mali, and of using the fight against terrorism as a pretext to destabilize the country and its government. This is the real aim of ECOWAS sanctions, he claimed: “When we look closely, we see that the goal of these sanctions is the destabilization of the Malian state. There is no doubt.”
Allegations of French recolonization loomed large in the interview. Around the 48 minute mark, Maïga cited a book by French journalist Laurent Larcher. “This will send a chill down your spine,” he said before paraphrasing a French general: “We came here 100 years ago. We left 60 years ago. We have come back for 100 years,” the general supposedly told his troops in 2016. “Draw your own conclusions,” the prime minister said.
Chilling words, indeed–only the actual quote doesn’t read quite as the prime minister remembered. In Au Nom de la France ? Les Non-Dits de Notre Diplomatie (2018), Larcher records General Patrick Brethous, Operation Barkhane’s commander, as saying, “We came 100 years ago, and we left 50 years ago. They [Africans] called us back two years ago. We are back here, with them and behind them, for a while [pour un moment]!”
I used to have arguments with people (mostly Malians) about this sort of thing. I would have built upon Maïga’s misquotation to contend that France lacked the sinister intent that they attributed to it. I repeatedly made similar arguments over the years on this blog.
After last week’s rallies, however, I don’t see the point of such arguments anymore. It matters little whether the general said “pour 100 ans” or “pour un moment” (or even “pour longtemps,” as Brethous reportedly said on another occasion). Outcomes outweigh intentions: France has had troops in Mali for nine years now, and things keep getting worse. Prime Minister Maïga makes some dubious assertions, but as he evokes the sort of conspiracies that his predecessors avoided talking about in public, a lot of Malians appear to be backing him. France having lost the information war in Mali, as I pointed out recently, I don’t see how it can become a trusted partner. It’s hard to imagine a Malian leader ever again allowing (let alone inviting) France to take a major role in Mali–whether in military, political, or economic affairs. That era is over, and few Malians will regret its passing.
For nearly a decade, Maïga noted, insecurity has ratcheted up in Mali despite the international community’s presence–or perhaps, he implied, because of it. Without exactly denying rumors about Wagner Group mercenaries, he cast his government’s Russia embrace pragmatically: “I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice,” he said, quoting Deng Xiaoping.
I doubt that Russian cats will prove good mouse-catchers in Mali. But what if real sovereignty means the freedom to make one’s own mistakes, and to say “No” to whomever one wishes?
Postscript, 17 January: Statistician Sidiki Guindo surveyed 1345 Bamako residents between 14 and 16 January on their attitudes toward Mali’s transitional government, ECOWAS sanctions, France, Russia, and many other questions. Download the full results: