Turkey’s rapid outreach to those responsible for the coup in Mali has fueled the question of whether the current rivalry between Turkey and France played a role in the Malian military coup that toppled the country’s president in August.
Visiting the former French colony on September 10 before the August 18 coup dust settled, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with members of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People place by the putschists.
The protests that paved the way for the coup that deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé intensified after the controversial elections last spring. Guided by Mahmoud Dicko, an influential imam, Malian opposition groups joined forces and planned a massive rally to overthrow the government on August 19. Yet, acting early, the military junta seized power a day before the critical protest.
Regardless of their support for Turkey or their opposition to France, the Malian people have had many reasons to take to the streets, including bad governance, nepotism, corruption, poverty and mismanagement of the pandemic of coronavirus. The country has been hit by violence, with northern provinces like Kindal, Gao and Timbuktu falling under separatist control and turning to jihadist enclaves. Public mistrust has further increased as the government has failed to contain the insurgency. The UN-sponsored war on terror that costs around $ 1 billion a year has failed, allowing violence to spread to the capital, Bamako. Reconciliation talks between the country’s Tuareg-led rebels and the government also collapsed.
Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cissé was kidnapped ahead of the controversial elections in which the turnout remained at 35%. The country’s highest court announced the victory of 31 candidates who would have lost the elections. Opposition groups have joined forces under a united front to challenge the government.
Many Malians – including Dicko, who had previously supported France’s military interventions against the Islamists who have taken control of the north – have turned against Paris, blaming him for the worsening crisis in the country. Dicko accused France of trying to exploit the country’s war against the jihadists to recolonize the West African nation, with many Malians seeing Keita as “France’s man in Bamako”. Dicko also believed that Cisse was under the protection of Paris.
Still, Dicko’s hostility to France doesn’t necessarily mean he’s pro-Turkey, especially given his training in Saudi Arabia. Originally from the south-eastern province of Timbuktu, at the heart of African Sufism, the religious studied religion at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Despite its Wahhabi foundations, Dicko positions its religious position as a mixture of Malian national culture, traditional values and Sufism. However, Paris considers him to be a Wahhabi who dialogues with the jihadists.
Turkey was drawn into the Malian coup allegations through Dicko’s ties to Turkey. Dicko reportedly helped Ankara secure land in Bamako for a Turkish-sponsored mosque. The cleric also had ties to the Islamic movement from the Turkish national perspective, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised. Yet such non-organizational links between Islamic groups are not unusual, and the movement has had similar links with other Islamist movements around the world. Thus, to regard these links as an indication of possible Turkish involvement in the Malian coup d’état seems exaggerated.
Furthermore, although the argumentation of Mali’s historical ties with France prevented Turkey from deepening its ties with the West African nation as much as Ankara wanted, Erdogan used to maintain good relations with Keita. Turkey opened its embassy in Mali in the capital Bamako in 2010. Erdogan made his first trip to the country in 2018. Yet despite his efforts, Turkey has failed to gain enough influence within the country. Malian establishment and civil society to change the course of events, holding much less influence than France.
In addition, there is no apparent link between the heads of the Malian military coup and Turkey. The head of the junta, Colonel Assimi Goita, received training from the Pentagon, Germany and France. When Goita was kidnapped by activists in 2012, Dicko assisted in his release. Goita would be one of Dicko’s proteges. Meanwhile, two other junta leaders, Sadio Camara and Malick Diaw, are said to have close ties to Russia. Camara is said to have interrupted his training in Russia and returned to his country barely 15 days before the coup. Diaw also received training in Russia. So, some see Russian fingerprints in the coup. Retired General Fanta Mady Dembele, who backed the coup, is said to have ties to Germany.
Turkey, in turn, has no influence over the country’s military, with its contribution to the country’s security limited to just two police officers. The number of UN peacekeepers in Mali is around 13,000, in addition to the 5,100 troops sent by France.
However, we can still see a conflict of interest between France and Turkey over Mali. Erdogan has criticized French colonialism in many of his speeches on Africa. In an interview last September, he criticized French President Emmanuel Macron for his visit to Mali. “What business do you have in there?” he said, noting that 95% of the Malian population is Muslim.
Pro-AKP media, for their part, highlighted broad support for the coup and their criticism of ECOWAS – a regional economic alliance – for closing their borders and suspending trade relations with Mali. France’s condemnation of the coup and its call to the UN Security Council for an emergency meeting fuel claims that the riots and the coup have conveyed anti-French sentiments.
France was the first country to reach out to Malian military leaders after the 2012 military coup. This time it was Turkey. There are two possible explanations for this: Ankara sees the Malian actors opposed to France as allies, or it simply does not want to miss the opportunity to establish links with future Malian leaders.
Mali’s natural resources, including gold, copper, nickel, phosphate, manganese, uranium, and lithium mines, increase Turkey’s appetite. Trade between the two countries, which rose to $ 57 million from $ 5 million in 2003, is still below the desired level. Turkey aims to strengthen economic and political ties through humanitarian efforts and active diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Cavusoglu’s meeting with the junta leaders can be seen as legitimizing the military coup. During his visit, Cavusoglu stopped before publicly reiterating Turkey’s “deep concerns”, which were expressed by the Turkish Foreign Ministry in the aftermath of the coup. After his meeting with Goita, the Turkish minister said that Turkey would help the Malian people to restore civil and constitutional order.
France’s responsibility for Mali’s descent into the unrest could create a power vacuum, which Turkey is eager to fill. However, the failure of French policies that ignored the country’s other issues in the name of the war on terror for the past eight years does not guarantee Turkey’s success. In addition, France would not risk its participations in the region of Mali and the Sahel. Indeed, the meeting of the French Ambassador with the Malian military leaders barely six days after the coup and the declaration of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing its support for the Malian people indicate that Paris has already adapted to the new situation in Mali without panicking too much.