Recent protests in Mali pose the greatest threat to the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has led Mali since 2013. Endemic corruption, Keita’s failure to curb the militant threat in the north of the country, and accusations of electoral fraud have spawned a disparate protest movement, the M5RFP, led by influential cleric Mahmoud Dicko. The responses by foreign powers, especially France, could help determine Keita’s fate. Like many other leaders in the region, including Idriss Deby and Mohamedou Essoufou in neighbouring Niger and Chad respectively, Keita owes his survival, to a large extent, to French and American support. Mali is, after all, the epicentre of the militancy in the Sahel, and currently the home of the second largest UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), comprising over 15 000 UN personnel (13 000 military troops and 2 000 police).
The most recent round of protests began in May, after the constitutional court’s decision upholding the results of the March and April parliamentary poll, which had originally been scheduled for 2018, but which had been postponed twice due to security concerns. Especially contentious was the court’s decision to uphold the results of around thirty seats in the second round, held on 18 April, which saw Keita’s Rally for Mali Party (RPH) and its allies awarded most of the seats.
Large protests occurred on 5 June, organised by a coalition consisting of the thirty-party Front for Safeguarding Democracy (FDS), civil society organisations under the banner of Espoir Mali Koura (EMK), and the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathizers (CMAS), led by the influential Dicko. Initially demanding the election results be overturned, M5RFP now wants Keita’s resignation and the dissolution of parliament. Protesters are calling for civil disobedience, including the non-payment of fines. Massive protests have occurred in the past few weeks, which the regime has been unable to quell, despite its use of force and the arrest of protest leaders. Over twenty protesters were killed and 150 injured since Friday, 10 July, when protesters blocked bridges and forced their way into the country’s state broadcaster and into parliament.
These protests follow increasing disillusionment of Malians with Keita’s governance, with the northern militancy being a major grievance. Many citizens criticise the nature of his electoral victories, especially his second term presidential electoral win in August 2018, and the parliamentary vote. Malians are also concerned that his inability to tackle the country’s militancy threat has resulted it spreading to the centre of the country. Economic mismanagement is also rampant, especially in relation to military procurement, while Keita’s decision to purchase a new forty-million-dollar presidential jet angered people further.
Since April 2019, following the massacre of over 100 Fulani people the previous month, numerous protests have occurred against the government’s inability to restore stability to the country. Teachers and widows of soldiers killed on duty also protested, calling for salary and pension increases. Keita’s inability or unwillingness to oppose French designs for the country has also caused much dissatisfaction. Most Malians are critical that militancy in the country has grown despite the presence of UN, French and regional troops in the country. Huge protests opposing France’s presence occurred in 2019 and 2020, resulting in the French president, Emmanuel Macron, summoning Sahelian leaders to Pau in January 2020. A poll in Bamako in December 2019 saw Keita’s approval at twenty-six per cent; over eighty per cent of the participants had a negative view of France and wanted Paris to leave the country. Significantly, Bamako, home to most of the country’s population, was previously seen as a Keita stronghold.
Keita has responded to the protests by releasing around twenty protest leaders arrested after the 10 July protests. He also vowed to reform the constitutional court and allow it to again adjudicate o the rerun/second round electoral decisions, and said he was open to the formation of a national unity government. However, he is silent on protesters’ calls for the dissolution of parliament and for his resignation. Prime Minister Boubou Cisse also apologised for the security forces’ heavy-handed response to the 10 July protests, but said Keita would not resign since he was democratically elected. An Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decision advocating electoral reruns in contested districts seems outdated, and has not been accepted by either the government or protesters. ECOWAS has since dispatched former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, as an envoy to mediate between Keita and the opposition.
Meanwhile, in the north and centre of the country, militancy continues. An attack on a military convoy on 13 June, likely by Jama'a Nusratul Islam WalMuslimin (JNIM), killed over twenty Malian soldiers. Further, the UN reports that between January and June, around 300 Fulani and Dogon people were killed in communal violence in the country’s central regions. Keita’s attempts to negotiate with militant groups, which was mandated by the 2017 National Conference of Understanding (NCU), but which had been delayed because of government intransigence and pressure from outside powers, has stalled. Seeking to benefit from the growing anti-French sentiment, JNIM stated that it would only begin negotiations after France pulled troops out of the country, and referred to Mali as French-occupied territory.
Keita’s only real strength is his support from foreign powers who view the Sahelian crisis, which saw over 4 000 civilians killed in 2019, primarily as a security threat. These powers, especially France and the USA, regard Keita’s continued rule as critical in their attempt to combat Sahelian militancy. In January 2020, Keita endorsed the Pau declaration calling for the formation of a French-led joint command to combat JNIM and the Islamic State group’s ‘Greater Saharan Province’, and seeking the deployment of more French troops. The large protests in Mali in opposition to France was one reason informing Macron’s summoning Sahelian leaders; he wanted them publicly to call for more French assistance. Paris and Washington have been silent on the recent protests, and despite the UN and ECOWAS criticising the government’s heavy-handed response, Keita continues to have their backing.
There still is room for negotiations between Keita and the opposition since both are amenable to mediation. Despite the M5RFP reiterating its demand that Keita step down, Dicko, the most influential member of the coalition, is willing to consider compromises. He previously had called for protesters’ restraint, and had shown willingness to meet with government officials and ECOWAS diplomats. Keita has also sought to reduce tensions through compromise. He has also not expressed any aspirations to run for a third term, and has attempted to be somewhat restrained in the crackdown on protests compared, for example, to neighbouring Niger. Solving the country’s challenges will, however, require a major change in focus away from viewing militancy as primarily a security issue to considering governance issues and negotiating with militant groups. It is doubtful, however, that France and the USA will allow any Malian government the leeway to pursue this option.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
In his speech at the fifty-first ECOWAS heads of state summit in Monrovia, Liberia on 4 June, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed Africa and Israel shared ‘a natural affinity’ and ‘similar histories’. His attendance at the summit is a further indication of Israeli ambitions to shore up support from African states, extend Israel’s influence in Africa, and obtain observer status in the African Union (AU). ‘Israel should once again be an observer state of the African Union…I fervently believe that it’s in your interest too, in the interest of Africa. And I hope all of you will support that goal,’ Netanyahu told West African leaders. This initiative included Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa last year, the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to an African state in twenty-nine years. However, the summit was punctuated by spats between Morocco and Israel after King Muhammad VI of Morocco reportedly skipped the summit citing the Israeli presence.
ECOWAS is a subregional bloc comprising fifteen member states dedicated to the advancement of political and economic integration in the West African region. Members include: Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. Except for Nigeria, all fifteen states attended the summit, which discussed issues of security, political stability and economic integration. In his speech at the summit, Netanyahu addressed these issues, hoping to charm the West African delegates sufficiently to be able to garner support for Israel’s AU bid as well as to boost economic ties in the agriculture and technology sectors. As part of this effort he attempted to compare African struggles to Israel: ‘With determination and conviction, you won your independence…This is very much our story. Our people too were denied independence,’ he said.
Other non-member attendees at the summit included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, AU commission chairperson Moussa Faki and a Moroccan delegation championing its application for ECOWAS membership. All the non-member attendees gave addresses at the summit except Morocco’s representatives. The fact that no Moroccan was slated to speak has been cited as one possible reason why King Muhammad VI did not attend the summit.
The Israeli government’s prioritising the bolster of ties with African states gained a boost last year when Netanyahu visited East African states Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Regaining AU observer status has been a crucial objective of Israel after losing this status in 2002, when the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was dissolved and replaced by the AU. Israel’s loss of observer status was due to pressure exerted by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who accused Israel of promoting African wars, and South Africa. That the State of Palestine is an observer at the AU makes Israel’s bid even more desperate. Such a status will bolster Israel’s legitimacy in Africa, and enhance its ability to lobby and influence African states on several issues. It will also allow Israel to influence the voting behaviour of African states at multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.
Morocco and Israel have a shared ambition to influence African states in the AU and the UN. The West African country, which recently rejoined the AU, seeks African states’ support for its control of Western Sahara. Both Israel and Morocco see African states as a means to an end in the pursuit of their interests, hence the row between the two countries at the ECOWAS summit. According to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry’s official statement, Mohammed VI cancelled his trip to the summit because of Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting; he ‘did not want his presence at the summit to take place under a context of tension and controversy’. The Israeli government denied the Moroccan claims, saying Mohammed’s absence reflected his sulking after he was not given an opportunity to address the summit.
Netanyahu used the summit to secure support from West African states, including in sideline meetings with representatives of individual states. Believing that East Africa is securely in the Israeli camp, Netanyahu focused on renewing and forging relations with Francophone states. Even small states such as Togo are important for Israel because the votes of such small states at the UN General Assembly have equal value to any other states, which might be critical of Israel, especially states in the Arab and Muslim world. More support at the UN means Israel can more effectively oppose resolutions against its occupation. Netanyahu was clear about his objective to divide Africa: ‘There are 54 countries [in Africa]. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them, you at once bring them from one side to the other. We want to erode the opposition and change it to support.’ Netanyahu also used the occasion to mend relations with Senegal, which, in December 2016, co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli’s ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, resulting in Israel recalling its ambassador. After a side meeting at the ECOWAS summit, Israel reconciled with Senegal, which will see the Israeli ambassador reinstated.
Netanyahu considers his East Africa trip last year as successful. He met Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February 2016, and pledged that Kenya would advocate for Israel’s observer status at the AU. Kenya has strong trade and security relations with Israel. During the July 2016 multilateral meeting with East African states, Tanzania announced it would open an embassy in Israel, reversing the diminished bilateral ties between Tanzania and Israel following the 1973 October War. Following the July meeting last year, ECOWAS President Marcel Alain De Souza visited Israel where he and Netanyahu signed a declaration for greater economic cooperation between ECOWAS and Israel.
This will not be Netanyahu’s last trip to Africa this year; he is scheduled to attend an Africa-Israel summit in Togo in October, where he plans to meet representatives from twenty-five African states. Continental heavyweights, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, appear dissatisfied with Israel’s growing presence in the continent, and Nigeria’s absence at the ECOWAS summit may be an indication of such discontent. South Africa, Algeria and other states have staunchly criticised Israel, and expressed reservations about the upcoming Togo summit, but have not yet actively lobbied other African states in this regard, suggesting an incapacity or lack of commitment to curb the Israeli quest for influence on the continent.