Since August 2020, there have been five successful military coups in Africa: Sudan, Mali, Chad and Guinea, and most recently, Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea. In Mali specifically, there have been two coups in just 10 months. The new military government promised to organise new elections and agreed an 18-month transition timetable. However, in May last year, Goita staged a second coup by removing the president and prime minister and announced a new five-year transition timetable. This has caused a standoff among the Malian government, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union and the United Nations. In this interview, the Malian foreign minister and chief diplomat, Dr Abdoulaye Diop, explained the reasons for the coups and the five-year transition programme, among other issues.
Most people familiar with the history of military rule in Africa are quite worried that we may be returning to the past. Are we returning to the 1960s and 1970s in Africa?
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I understand that everybody is getting concerned about what they call the return of coups, but sometimes, what is problematic in the international community or individual communities is selective emotion on issues. When there are coups there’s so much excitement: sending missions, condemning, sending communiques, deploying missions, while we don’t focus much on the root causes. That could have led to the situation in Mali, as well as lack of good governance and the inability of governments to respond to the basic needs of people.
So it is important to look at the root causes of such unconstitutional change of governments, as well as the change of constitutions in many countries, leading to third terms, which we can also call civilian coups. We need to look at the broad picture and key governance issues. How we can make governance more effective?
In the case of Mali, for instance, there’s a kind of defiance towards political leadership. Political parties are not inspiring the people, and that’s why, in many countries now, you are seeing people coming to applaud the coups. That’s why we need to go back to the basics and see the underlying issues we need to fix, in terms of governance, transparency and improving security for our people. So we should focus on the causes and less on symptoms.
Some people would say that most of the causes, particularly governance issues, were caused by military governments in the past, what do you think?
I don’t think we need to focus on individuals and goals. The military is part of the society. There are opportunists, but when the society is fixed and the system is working, there’s less appetite for the military to come in. We need to keep that in mind.
Some military governments helped to put in good governance systems while some failed. Some civilians have also failed the democratic system. We really don’t need to look at them as specific groups but see how to fix the system and make sure it works for the people. It is up to the people as even the military does not have the power to fix the issues.
It will be on us, the people, to make sure that we put systems in place where governments are accountable and effective to provide social and basic needs; and we also have checks and balances in governments. These are the issues we really need to fix, not to put the blame on the military or specific leaders.
Are democratic systems not better equipped to do that, rather than other kinds of government, including the military?
I think the democratic system is the worst. In the case of Mali, the military intervention is more of an accident. It is to be for a time to fix issues. It is not the aspiration of the military to run a country, but when all the systems failed and nothing was working, it became the last resort. We can’t think the military is responsible.
For me, the military solution can just be to bring national consensus and establish lasting institutions that can help the country.
One of the observations people have made is that these coups tend to be well supported by the civilian population. Is that a sort of legitimacy on military governments?
It is a worrisome development in a country like Mali. Politics has become a game for many leaders; and they have been playing that game to protect themselves. Corruption has been around and the needs of the people have not been met. And we have reached some points where there is a disconnect between the political class and the people. But in most countries, the situation is a bit exaggerated.
That’s why I said we should look at governance issues and how political parties can put best programmes to respond to the needs of the people in terms of security and development, how they can increase participation, transparency and honesty in the way they do business. The parties should be at the centre of any political system that needs to be reviewed. In Mali, for instance, we have more than 600 political parties. Do you need these in a country of 20million people? These are some of the things we really need to change to make sure that political parties reflect the aspirations of the people.
In Mali, there was an attempt by former President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, to extend his tenure, which led to street protests and so on. To what extent did that result in the takeover of government by Colonel Goita?
Let me set the record straight. Former President Keita didn’t resign out of any attempt to renew his mandate because he just started his second term; he was in the second year in his term. What was problematic was that the parliamentarian elections, which had been organised, were deemed by most Malians, including some from the ruling party, to be fraudulent. The role of the institution in charge of organising elections was denounced and people took to the streets against the results of the parliamentary elections, leading up to six or five months of demonstration. The president ultimately had to resign and the military took power.
It is the consequence of governance shortcomings that we really need to fix.
What about the role of opposition parties in those protests?
Well, the opposition also created that situation, and to save the country from a civil war or disorder, the military had to intervene. Then, as part of the negotiations with the ECOWAS, it was decided that a civilian government be established. But unfortunately, at that point, there was not a deal or agreement with the opposition, which led to the overthrow of President Keita. That has also been the basis of some of the contradictions we have seen, which prompted the rectification that occurred in May 2021.
This is the situation. But today, there is this popular movement called the M-5 Movement, which now has an agreement with the military to form a government, which I am part of, and to make sure that we can fix some key priorities like security, which is the number one concern. We are also making sure that critical governance reform would take place, like establishing a single organ in charge of elections and drafting a new constitution. These are the main tasks of this government.
Part of the reasons the ECOWAS and other regional bodies placed sanctions on Mali is because there was the feeling that some of the members of the M-5 Movement were removed in May last year. To what extent can you say there is any hope of a reasonable transition timetable that will lead to more enduring elections?
Again, let me set this record straight. Both President Bandaw and Prime Minister Moukhtar, who were removed in May 2021, were not part of the M-5 Movement. Bandaw was a military colonel and Moukhtar was a diplomat. Where we are now is that Mali as a country is not refusing to hold elections. Yes, we are grateful to the ECOWAS and neighbouring countries who accepted a deal with the previous government to have an 18-month transition, but the road has not been easy; we have been through many strikes and problems. That’s why we said let us give voice to Malians themselves to organise a national dialogue and agree on the vision for the country, the key reform to be undertaken and hold elections, which are indispensable in any lasting democratic system. However, let us make sure we don’t focus only on elections. The issues should be addressed in a more holistic manner because we are already in the multi-dimensional crisis since 2012. That’s why we have the United Nations (UN) mission of about 13,000 troops in the country. We have the G-5 Sahel troops, Malians and the French, which means we are already in crisis. Mali is not a normal country, the situation is quite complex, so reducing it to just holding elections will not be appropriate and will not be the way to understand the issue.
Let’s do what is necessary and agree on key priorities to make sure that when a new president is elected he will not also be overthrown after few years. We want to have a strong foundation to enhance the governance and electoral system and improve security. This is because many areas of the country are not always under the control of the government. How can you organise an election when you have 300,000 people displaced? The fields and farms have been burned and there is widespread insecurity.
Are you saying you need more than the 18-month timetable that was originally agreed? The government, which you are part of, has proposed a five-year transition timetable, but others outside Mali are not comfortable with that.
Maybe we were wrong in our assessment that the ECOWAS was not in the mood of having a dialogue on this programme. When we presented it, we received former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, who is the ECOWAS mediator. He came to Mali to ask the government to make an effort. We took it from five to four years and asked for a technical team because we need a technical assessment of the content of this programme so that we can come to an agreement where we can get an adequate and a more reasonable time. President Goita has always expressed his willingness to go for dialogue to look for a compromise.
We are still open to discussion. Mali has called on ECOWAS and some of partners to come in so that we can sit down and review the initial plans and come to something that can take into account the aspirations of the Malians and the demands of the ECOWAS and other members of the international community.
But part of the problem is historical antecedents in Africa, As you know, military governments take over power and promise to hold elections in few years, but we end up having situations of self-succession, or in some cases, kicking the ball, shifting the goalposts and so on. If you have five years to do all of these things, it means that coups are returning on the continent, don’t you think so?
I think you and other people are not listening. We put them on the table as a basis to start discussion. We are not focused on these five years, but let us look at the content and we will move from five to four; it means we still have room to come down to a compromise.
I can also understand the concerns, in terms of a possible contagious effect of spreading coups in the region, but let us look at the problem and provide solution. The second thing we need to discuss is the aggregate issue because Mali has bilateral problems with France. Our brothers and sisters in the region can provide advice, but they do not have to get themselves in the middle of this issue as it is our bilateral problem.
Secondly, this issue of bringing the Russian federation to cooperate with Mali is our sovereign decision. If anyone in the region has an issue with that, it is a bilateral concern. They can just give us advice, but it is not an issue the ECOWAS should get involved in and take a stand.
If we have to discuss the presence of foreign military in Africa we can do that, not only Russians; all the foreign presence should be on the table to be discussed. Our main problem is the mixture of all these issues. There’s double standard in treating the case of Mali. There is too much antagonism and sometimes, hostility. Let us isolate these external elements and focus on what needs to be done to get democracy back in Mali. We are ready for this dialogue.
Are you implying that ECOWAS is not treating Mali fairly the way it treats other countries?
In some of its decisions, not all of them. What ECOWAS countries did, with the influence of France, is not acceptable. Let’s say that Mali was sanctioned on January 9 and France defence minister made a statement to that effect two weeks before the summit, and it happened the way he said it. On the sanctions against Mali, the closure of the border is not in any ECOWAS protocol, for example. I am not talking about the other sanctions; we are not contesting because we have signed on all those ones. And Mali is the only country where you have all those kinds of measures, and it is the third time our borders are being closed, for a landlocked country, with no legal basis. There is a feeling in the Malian population that we have been treated unfairly, and sometimes due to consideration and manipulation of issues.
We think our brothers and sisters should distance themselves from these external elements and make sure we have a genuine dialogue based on the region’s concerns and issues, which Mali is part of and familiar with.
Mali has no problem with ECOWAS because it was founded in the country in 1975. So no one can be closer to them than Mali. Let us come back to the basics. Let us also make sure that our organisation really reflects the aspiration of the people in Accra, Abuja or Senegal. I am not saying this as a minister but as an African citizen. I think we really need to make sure that our organisations are working in a more autonomous manner to reflect the aspirations of West Africans.
We looked at the international dynamics in this situation and people are feeling there’s a gradual return of cold war in Africa; do you agree?
I also think it is good you review your talking points. We need to understand that no one would say that what Mali is doing is not in the interest of the country. It is a foreign talking point to say that we are bringing in mercenaries to protect the government of Mali. The country’s army is in the position to protect its government; we don’t need any foreign power to provide that response. Secondly, Mali has a policy to diversify our partners. We don’t want to be aligned behind any power, be it west or east. We want to be in the position work with everybody: US, Europe, China, Russia and whoever is in a position to provide us with the support, assistance or cooperation we need.
Our position is to make sure that we look for the national interest of Mali wherever that is necessary. What we think is unacceptable is for any foreign power or even any regional organisation to tell Mali who we can deal with, which country we can have cooperation with. This is the sovereign right of every country in the region.
Our point is that we are not naïve in a very complex and versed geopolitical landscape. There is a fight between elephants, and Mali does not want to be in the footsteps of those elephants; they are big enough to solve their own problems. We are fighting for our interest.
We have a security issue for eight years, and many responses have not been effective, even with the presence of many international forces. Collectively, I don’t think we have been in the position to provide security to Malians. We think it is time to make sure that we can also look at our possibilities for us to secure ourselves. And that’s why we know that since independence, Mali has a very strong and historical relationship with the former USSR, and today, Russia. We have collaboration. In the past, the Malian army was trained 80 per cent by Russians. So, for us, calling on Russia is not new and surprising. It is not unnatural.
We want everybody to understand the background.
That is one of the concerns people, particularly those in the sub-region, are raising. The security problems that Mali has are not entirely unique to her. We also have such problems in Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroon. Initiatives towards that should be driven by internal, regional or sub regional concerns rather than reaching out to foreign powers like Russia; what’s your take?
We are in a very complex environment, so we cannot sit and wait for solutions that are not coming. Any proposal is fine for us, but for the time being we really need to respond because people are being killed. We need to find solutions. If we have an external solution that is effective, we are willing to take it, but that is not coming. There are serious threats to the territorial integrity of Mali, as well as its unity. Every country has to find its solution.
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