Less than two months ago, the prescription of French President Emmanuel Macron for what suffered in Mali was “the return of the state”. Taking the narrowest possible view of the West African nation’s problems, the French president suggested that the best inoculation against a resurgence of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel region was more government.
This point of view demanded a willful disregard for the political crisis unfolding in Bamako, where the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was already completely discredited. For weeks, the capital had been rocked by massive protests as Malians protested Keita’s mismanagement.
The protesters had a broader view of the country’s problems, including widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the blatant rigging of the democratic process. For them, the government was not the cure, but the cause of many ills in Mali.
The situation in the former French colony has only deteriorated since. Various opposition groups have united to call for Keita’s resignation. Discontent with his rule intensified after the government crackdown on protests on July 10 left 11 dead. Repeated attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to end the crisis have failed. The visit to Bamako by leaders of five West African countries did not help either.
A strong boost from Macron could, however. After all, it was a French military intervention in 2013 that kept Mali from imploding. But France, which sees Keita as a crucial ally in the fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel, is the president’s protector. Some 5,000 French forces dominate a multinational counterterrorism effort in the sub-Saharan African belt that stretches from Senegal to Sudan. The French government, which tends to be pushed back almost reflexively by Islamism, is suspicious of Saudi-trained conservative preacher Mahmoud Dicko, who is the de facto leader of the opposition.
But Macron’s main goal in Mali – ridding the Sahel of terrorist groups – cannot be achieved with a politically weakened Keita clinging to power in Bamako. “The return of the state” can only happen when the government has some legitimacy. Thus, it would serve both French and Malian interests for Paris to join ECOWAS members in putting pressure on Keita to find a compromise with the opposition.
The Malian president has indicated that he is ready for a government of national unity, but opposition groups want the dissolution of parliament and new elections. (The last vote, held in March and April, was marred when the Constitutional Court overturned the results of 30 seats, many to the benefit of Keita’s party.) They also want meaningful reforms that would protect the prime minister’s office from the presidential whim. – Keita has appointed six in seven years – and allows for greater transparency within government.
These reforms, if executed well, would make the state stronger and more accountable. It is certainly in Macron’s interest as much as Keita’s survival in power.
And indeed, it is possible for the French to have their cake and eat it too. Dicko, the so-called “people’s imam,” relaxed his stance somewhat, saying a solution can be found without Keita’s resignation. The president’s second term ends in 2023.
France is not the only Western government on Keita’s side. During the July 10 protests, J. Peter Pham, the Trump administration’s special envoy to the Sahel, tweeted that “extra-constitutional change of government is out of the question.” The protesters, who were not calling for extra-constitutional change, took this as a sign of US support for the president.
Foreign powers unconditionally supporting a secular leader unpopular in the face of Islamist opposition due to the threat of terrorism – we’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. By pushing for reforms in Bamako, Macron can make the story unfold differently in Mali.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Melissa Pozsgay at [email protected]