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‘France and Mali are an old couple, there may be disputes but there’s no divorce’ says Choguel Maïg

By Manon Laplace, Bokar Sangaré in Bamako
Posted on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 12:21

Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga, at his official residence in Bamako during an interview with Jeune Afrique on 16 October 2021. © Nicolas Réméné / JA

Postponement of elections, crisis with France, alliance with Russia... Five months after his appointment, Mali's Prime Minister sits down to speak to us directly on an array of potentially controversial topics. 

After five months at the head of the Malian transitional government, it’s an understatement to say that Choguel Maïga has remained under the radar. The Prime Minister, appointed after the second coup in nine months in the country, has engaged in arm wrestling on all fronts.

Postponement of elections as demanded by the international community, French military presence, cooperation with Russia … He received us in his residence in Bamako, and answered our questions without any pushback or irony.

Elections are due to take place on 22 February next year, effectively ending the transition, but many doubt this deadline will be respected. What is the situation?

Choguel Kokalla Maïga: We will do everything possible to respect our commitments to the international community, but we must also be realistic. Should we rush into elections under external pressure, at the risk of leading to a new uprising?

Is a few weeks or months of postponement the end of the world? We must ask ourselves how much time is really needed to implement what Malians want. We have no other programme to work on except realise the demands of the people.

Do you not fear a new political crisis if the transition is prolonged?

We must ask ourselves the right question: what led to the regime change? Everyone talks about a coup d’état, but there wasn’t one in the strict sense. There was a popular uprising against an incompetent and corrupt government that rigged the elections.

This whole crisis was caused by the electoral fraud organised by the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in 2018. To avoid a repeat of this, we must therefore minimise any risk of electoral contestation in the future.

How much more time do you think is needed to organise the elections?

This will be decided at the refoundation national conference, which will begin in November. At the end of this meeting, we will clearly be able to tell the international community how many weeks or months we need. But these will be deadlines which, I assure you, will be reasonable.

There have already been many consultations. How are these meetings different?

The conclusions of the conference will be binding. Laws will be passed, provisions will be constitutionalised. Everything that can be implemented in the short term will be implemented by the transitional government. The rest will be passed on to the future government. We will not put the conclusions of this conference in a drawer as was the case at previous meetings.

But they are not consensual: part of the political class is opposed to their holding and suspects that it is only a manoeuvre to keep you in power.

Almost all of them are supporters of the old regime. If they don’t want to participate, so be it. Consensus is not unanimity.

Since the overthrow of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020, the security situation has continued to deteriorate. Are Mali and its partners now unable to cope with the spread of violence?

In 2013, when the international community intervened in Mali, the French President, François Hollande, said the French intervention had three objectives: to destroy terrorism, to restore the authority of the state throughout the country, and to apply the United Nations resolutions.

Eight years later, the balance sheet is as follows: terrorism, once contained to the far north of the country, has metastasised over 80% of the territory. State authority has still not been restored in Kidal and the UN resolutions change every year. The objectives are not achieved.

Let’s take an example. Let us say that Mali is a sick country. It calls on a doctor, the international community, and a chief doctor, France. After diagnosis, the latter promises a cure in two years. But eight years later, the disease has worsened. If the patient has any sense of responsibility, he must ask himself: is the doctor wrong? Was the diagnosis wrong? Was there a prescription error? He is obliged to look for an alternative solution.

Is the solution to call on Russia?

What is so surprising about the fact that we want to strengthen our cooperation with Russia? 80% of Mali’s soldiers were trained in Russia, and a large part of our military equipment comes from Russia.

That said, we are not only talking to Moscow, we hope to work with several new partners.

Are you talking to private companies, such as those in the Wagner galaxy?

I don’t comment on press articles and rumours.

Can you say that the use of mercenaries is excluded?

I don’t know why this subject is the object of such media and diplomatic terrorism. The day we decide to collaborate with anyone, we will make it public. In this world, nothing is hidden.

What do you mean by “media and diplomatic terrorism”?

As soon as I was appointed on 7 June, we were demonised. We were told that we were the result of a putsch. But wasn’t the transitional government that was congratulated just before ours also the result of one?

In recent weeks, your relations with France have become extremely tense. Is it time to break with Paris?

At the beginning of June, a change of government team was enough for France to decide to stop joint military operations, without even informing us beforehand. A few days later, through the media, the Malian authorities learned that the contours of Operation Barkhane were going to change.

One does not change the rules of the game in the middle of a match, without at least informing the partner.

You also said that France had trained a Malian terrorist organisation in Kidal. This is a serious accusation…

France created an enclave run by the rebellion [Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)] in Kidal. When the Serval operation intervened in 2013, the terrorist leaders Amadou Koufa, Iyad ag Ghali and their talibés [students] took the road to Kidal. Why didn’t France bomb them? Malians’ frustration is linked to the belief that France has a hidden agenda.

Do you still think that your relations with Paris can be improved?

There have been errors in appreciation and there have been misunderstandings, but the ties that bind us to France remain very strong. France and Mali are an old couple, there may be domestic disputes but there will be no divorce.

One of the main divisive points is the attitude to adopt towards jihadist groups. France does not want to hear about negotiations. What is your position?

The Malian people have been calling for discussions with these groups for years. This does not mean that we will stop the fight against terrorism.

We must not confuse everything and make false accusations. In Afghanistan, the Americans ended up talking with the Taliban, so why not do the same here?

Are there any negotiations going on at the moment?

These are not the kind of things that are reported in the press. But you have seen that some hostages have been released, like the Colombian sister, Gloria Cecilia Narvaez, on 10 October. Work is ongoing so the other hostages will have the same outcome.

Can you confirm that negotiations are underway to free the hundreds of people still held hostage, including our colleague Olivier Dubois?

Of course, we are continuing to work to free the hostages. But we don’t need to shout it from the rooftops.

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