Domestic Struggle, Foreign Appetites: Why Everybody Wants Mali
Matteo Fraschini Koffi 2 September 2020

DAKAR, Senegal – It’s an arm-wrestling competition. Politicians, military, businessmen, civil society, and foreign powers inside and outside the African continent. Everyone wants Mali for its resources and its geopolitical importance. This vast territory that forms a belt between the Sahel and the Sahara is known for its strategic and human potential. This is why the coup d’état of August 18th surprised very few people. But in the Malian capital, Bamako, the situation currently remains very complex.
For now, the man in charge of the Malian powder keg is Assimi Goita. Seemingly emerged from nowhere, the commander of the Malian special forces is only 37 years old, perhaps constitutionally too young to run the country. But Goita is only the face of the power represented by the National Committee for the salvation of the people (CNSP). Other forces are indeed trying to influence the country’s near future. Some of the actors involved push for a return to civil power now or, at the latest, within a year. Instead, the junta seems to prefer military power for the next three years. For the past two weeks there have been physical and digital meetings between the various parties. However, one thing is certain: the former president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, commonly known by his initials, IBK, will not be permitted to return to power. The wishes of some leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will therefore not be granted.

IBK immediately resigned in a speech broadcast by the national television network, ORTM. Over the seven years of his administration Mali has sunk into an economic, political and security-related crisis. Although the junta called the resignation “spontaneous”, there was no other choice for the former Malian leader. A decision that also contributed to the swift release of IBK and most of the political and military officials arrested during the mutiny. Among them were also the prime minister, Boubou Cisse, and the head of the secret service, General Moussa Diawara.
Now it is a question of leading the country towards general elections in the shortest possible time. Among the main groups demanding a role in the new Mali are the June 5th Movement Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) and, within it, the Coordination of Movements, Associations, Supporters (CMAS) led by the imam Mahmoud Dicko. The latter is considered a primary figure in sparking the street protests organized by the opposition in recent months. Dicko has hinted that although he has no official political aspirations, he would still like to retain a certain role in the future Malian leadership. “Our desire is that there is harmony between the positions of the M5-RFP and those of the CNSP” declared Choguel Maïga, a member of the opposition movement, on Saturday evening, after a meeting with the military junta in their stronghold in Kati, 15 km from Bamako. “For now, this first official meeting did not allow us to go into the details, but we will soon have a second working session”.
In addition to internal dynamics, Mali is under pressure from foreign powers. ECOWAS, that includes the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Niger, fears that Mali could set a bad example for those rulers who do not want to leave the highest office by requiring an unconstitutional third mandate, as with Alassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast and Alpha Conde in Guinea this year and possibly also next year with the Nigerian, Mahamadou Issoufou.
However, the tug of war for a new Mali is also being played outside Africa. Among the coup leaders were at least two soldiers who, shortly before, had spent a few weeks in Russia: Colonel Malick Diaw and Colonel Sadio Camara, number one and two of the CNSP respectively. It was no coincidence that the Russian ambassador was the first diplomat to obtain a meeting with the junta. The European Union (EU) has instead suspended its mission for the moment. Many of the Malian military participating in the mutiny have been trained by the European Union multinational military training mission (EUTM), launched in the country in February 2013. France, Mali’s former colonial power, which intervened militarily in early 2013 following the previous coup in March 2012, renewed his engagement with the Barkhane military force of 5,100 men. A US and an Italian delegation also visited the junta last Tuesday with the aim of discussing a likely more active military involvement in the fight against Islamic terrorism. The UN mission in the country (MINUSMA), which denounced the coup, has instead 13,000 soldiers, dozens of whom were killed by jihadists.


The roots of discontent
But what brought down this house of cards called Mali has only one name: corruption. A group of demonstrators ransacked the villa of Karim Keita, son of the president, businessman and, for several years, a representative in the National Assembly. Keita junior represented the most striking personification of the high level of corruption achieved in the country. He is currently missing and it seems he managed to reach the Ivory Coast by land. During the numerous protests that brought down the power structure, photos of the President’s son were shown while he was celebrating on a yacht in the Balearic Islands as the Malian crisis worsened by the day. In addition, around him there were unscrupulous businessmen who were detested by a large part of the population.
A video of General Moussa Diawara’s fiftieth birthday party was sent to the press in March 2019. In the villa of the head of security services there were dozens of guests who dined on champagne and gourmet food. In those days, fierce fighting was taking place in the center of the country between the sedentary Dogon ethnic group and the semi-nomadic Fulani community. Dozens of people had been massacred in the face of the indifference of the army and the political leadership.
To calm the hearts and minds of the population, IBK had tried to take some concrete steps to eradicate the cancer of corruption from the country. As head of the anti-corruption institutions he placed Mamoudou Kassogue, a prosecutor known for his integrity. In a few months of work, Kassogue moved against some of the untouchables like Bakary Togola, the richest man in the country nicknamed the “king of cotton”. Arrested a year ago and released on bail a few days before the coup, Togola was charged with fraud and money laundering worth $18 million. Adama Sangaré, former mayor of Bamako, was also arrested for corruption and money laundering. Bandiougou Diawara, president of the Kayes region, and many of his office’s collaborators also succumbed to the same fate.
But the phenomenon of corruption had metastasized for many years. According to a study by The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, “between 2005 and 2017, 1.13 billion Euro were spent irregularly“. The report further stated that: “35.5% was fraud, while the rest was bad governance of public resources”.
Tens of millions of dollars have been misspent to buy military equipment that has never been used or that the political and military leadership has earned through large commissions and bribes. The same strategy applied to many public buildings in Bamako that were funded but never finished. Mali is also one of the countries in West Africa through which vast amounts of drugs pass every year from Latin America on their way to Europe.
The near future will be determined by how the country’s raw materials are explored and exploited. First, Mali is the continent’s fourth-biggest producer of gold. According to official figures, “Mali’s output rose to 71.1 tons in 2019 and the state earned revenue of 403.6 billion CFA (USD 734,311,051) from gold mining companies”.
Then the agro-business sector shows a lot of potential. Mali’s biggest export is cotton, but local cereals and rice are now in competition with the same products imported from Asia. Mangoes form another profitable market that has developed greatly during the last years.
Finally, the energy sector. Different oil companies from all over the world have been signing contracts to explore the oil and gas reserves that lie in northern Mali. According to different sources, the Taoudeni basin, about 1,000 km north of Bamako, facing Mauritania and Algeria’s borders, has been one of the main areas of research for decades. And still is. But the instability in the region provides too many challenges to launch any sort of serious exploration.
Immediately after the 2012 coup d’état, the north of the country was occupied by different armed groups, some separatists, others of jihadist nature. All of them, though, have a strong Tuareg presence that doesn’t want to be governed by black Africans. The peace agreement signed in Algiers by some of these rebel groups and the Malian government was not respected by any of the parties involved. That’s why there has been a dangerous evolution of these armed movements, especially the jihadists that now are divided between al Qaeda affiliates and Islamic States derivates. Over the years their offensive has resulted in the killing of thousands of soldiers and civilians, in the kidnapping of many local as well as foreign people, and keeps the central and northern region of Mali under the Islamic militants’ control.


Cover Photo: Annie Risemberg / AFP

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