France, ECOWAS: The Blind Leading the Deaf in Mali’s Troubled Transition

There is one part that is said loudly and which has led to the current confrontation between Mali and France.

Gone are the days when the west celebrated the wave of coups that were propelled by mass protests – dubbed “the Arab Spring” – on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Khartoum. Then, the protests were targeting what many in the west considered “authoritarian regimes,” and, in the case of Sudan, a “pariah government”. Naturally, the framework of analysis from western capitals was as reductionist as one could find: “People want democracy” (read a liberal order), we were told. The tone in the western mainstream media, where diplomats, “experts” on Africa, and “human rights” activists outcompeted each other to tell the “African” story, was triumphalist. Liberal values, symbolized by free speech, adversarial politics, and elections, which were forced down our throats by vast amounts of money spent in media propaganda and the training of civil society leaders, prevailed.

But no such thing is happening in Mali following the second coup in 9 months led by Colonel Assimi Goita. Instead, the people of Mali have made it clear that they want substance over form. They are also adamant they won’t let anyone dictate their political choices. They are right on every point.

In response to the announcement by Malian authorities that elections would have to be postponed until 2025, and in the midst of geostrategic calculations, the regional body, ECOWAS, recently imposed more drastic sanctions on the country. The sanctions include the closure of land and air borders between ECOWAS countries and Mali, the suspension of all commercial and financial transactions with Mali except for food, pharmaceutical and medical products, petroleum products and electricity, and the freezing of Mali’s assets in ECOWAS central and commercial banks. The decision was cheered by France which, acting in concert with the regional body, claims to fight for the return of the constitutional order. In addition, both the former colonial power and ECOWAS demand an immediate return to civilian rule through elections. Suffice to say that between France and its West African regional allies on the one hand, and Malian authorities on the other hand, it’s a dialogue of the deaf.  This is not surprising considering that the preoccupations of each party are at odds with each other.

ECOWAS: Deaf to people’s demands

ECOWAS leaders are worried that the wave of military coups d’état that has shaken the region recently could reach their own presidential palaces. Hence, their stubborn reference to a constitutional order, which, from the perspective of Malians, is not a priority given the security situation across the country. In any case, what would be the purpose of having a constitution if the government fails to uphold its primary, constitutional duty to protect its people? Clearly, the constitution and, by extension, democracy had been reduced to having different governments elected every five years without any meaningful change in people’s lives. Understandably, ordinary Malians, who are at the receiving end of violence from IS and Al-Qaida affiliated groups, as well as intercommunal fighting, want the substantive parts of the constitution to materialize in their lives. They trust their leaders to undertake the reforms needed to make this happen and consider the proposed five years of transition as reasonable. On the other hand, ECOWAS leaders, driven by their own calculations, insist on the form: democratic rituals.  Ironically, the 23 January 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, a few days after their decision to sanction Mali, has not allayed their fears. Instead, it has further discredited the logic of sanctions, which were supposed to discourage military officers in the region from emulating their Malian counterparts.

Moreover, even as these leaders claim to be only concerned for the rights of Malians who are “taken hostage by a military Junta,” as they put it, their sanctions are designed to hurt the very people they pretend to fight for. French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian told AFP on 13 January 2022 that Mali risked being “suffocated” unless the Malian authorities yielded. The cynical calculation is that Malians will turn against their government when it is unable to pay civil servants and to provide basic services due to the freezing of its assets in ECOWAS banks. Obviously, sanctions are self-defeating if they discredit their designers, hurt the very people one is supposedly trying to save from the “junta” and rally support around their designated targets. This was made clear during a huge protest held in Bamako on the 14th January 2022 where the “hostages” denounced the sanctions, disavowed the regional body, and voiced their support for the coup leader and the transitional government. The anti-ECOWAS climate in the country is such that it begs the question: what democracy are ECOWAS leaders talking about? One that empowers the people, or one that serves special interests and allows bad governance to fester and to remain unaccountable?

France’s blindness

Of all protagonists in the crisis unfolding in Mali, France is set to lose the most. Its concerns are frivolous and its behaviour counterproductive. In fact, France’s talking points in the media convey such contempt for Malian authorities that they fuel anti-France sentiments in the country and the region. It’s simple: if one were determined to lose the influence France enjoys in that part of the world, they would adopt a similar attitude.  

For one thing, any suggestion that France’s behaviour in Mali is driven by concerns for democracy invariably leads to uneasy questions about France’s open support for the Transitional Military Council in Chad – led by Mahamat Idriss Déby, son of the late Idriss Déby – which took over after the sudden demise of that country’s leader on 20 April 2021. Here, French authorities and their European partners both considered that stability was of the utmost importance and that respect for the constitutional order was a secondary issue. Thus, their rejection of Mali’s demands for time to build conducive security and administrative environment for elections exposes ulterior motives.

For another, framing the issue, as French authorities do, in terms of French soldiers’ sacrifices for the well-being of the people of that region through counter-terrorism operations leads to the kind of argument that keeps going in circles and that France cannot win. Indeed, if gratitude to France is what is expected from Malian authorities and if such gratitude should prompt them to yield to France’s demands, then how should Africans perceive France’s lack of gratitude to Malians and West Africans who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the liberation of France during World War II? Such an argument can only revive old grievances. It also raises questions as to whether French authorities are willing to acknowledge their overwhelming responsibilities in the security crisis unfolding in the Sahel region. After all, this crisis is the direct consequence of France’s intervention in Libya, which not only led to the collapse of that country’s institutions but also armed anyone opposed to Gaddafi back then, including the Islamist militants who are now creating havoc in Libya’s neighbouring countries.

Clearly, the concern for democracy and the sense of sacrifice are not the adequately nuanced lenses with which to look through this quagmire. There is, however, one part that is said loudly and which allows us to grasp the extent of France’s frivolous concerns; it is the main reason that has led to the current confrontation between the two countries. For France, Russia is the elephant in the room, the intruder grazing in France’s backyard. In the eyes of the former colonial power, inviting Russia to participate in the counter-terrorism operations in Mali is the real crime committed by Malian transitional authorities. This attitude is nothing new. France has had a similar confrontation with the Central African Republic. So far, it has lost that battle; and it stands to lose again if the attitude, which consists in having the last word on who is and who is not invited to operate in what France considers its spheres of influence, persists.

Russia’s presence also explains why the same media, which cheered the Arab Spring, has unquestionably adopted France’s talking points around the presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali. From the West’s perspective, military coups d’état against “democratically elected leaders” can only be accommodated if they don’t change the status quo as far as the West’s control over Africa’s interactions with the rest of the world is concerned. Keeping this fact in mind helps us understand France’s erratic behaviour when dealing with an ever-changing geo-political environment in Africa, where bilateral partnerships with diverse actors, such as Middle Eastern powers, China and Russia, provide more options for African countries and allow them to escape the control of their self-appointed tutors.  

Meanwhile, Malian authorities, through their minister of foreign affairs, Abdoulaye Diop, have made several points clear. One, Malians want accountable leaders and expect the current authorities to put things back into order, and it appears that the authorities intend to deliver on these expectations. Two, Mali is always open to dialogue, but respect for Mali’s institutions is paramount; and France must understand this if it wants the cooperation to continue. Three, Mali is in the logic of non-alignment and does not intend to become an echo chamber of the power struggles between the West on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand; as such, any partnership that furthers Mali’s national interests will be unapologetically pursued. Four but not least, existing partnerships will be reviewed and revoked if necessary, keeping in mind the interests of Malians.

Mali’s declared intentions are commendable. They offer a glimmer of hope in a continent that has for too long acquiesced to democratic rituals devoid of democratic outcomes and prioritised foreign interests over its own. It is hoped that the France-led coalition that has emerged with the aim to extinguish this hope will be defeated and that Malians will remain united behind this national project.

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