Chasing France for Russia, for better and for worse

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The military junta that took power in Mali nearly two years ago thanked the French and decided to approach the Russians instead to ensure the country's security. Several members of the Malian diaspora support this choice, even if it is not without consequences, particularly in terms of respect for human rights.

Au Mali, anti-French sentiment has grown considerably, a phenomenon from which Russia benefits.

“Down with France!” France, get out! France, terrorist! These are anti-French slogans frequently heard during demonstrations in the streets of several African countries, including Mali. Anger is brewing against the former colonizer who, after nine years of military presence, has failed to drive out the jihadists, who are spreading terror in the country.

Meanwhile, other flags have appeared in these gatherings. They are white, blue and red too, but they are those of the Russian Federation, proudly brandished by the demonstrators. Among them are also signs that read: Thank you Wagner!, an allusion to the group of Russian mercenaries from the private company Wagner.

This group is increasingly present in Africa and would work hand in hand with the Kremlin to carry out anti-terrorist operations, although Moscow officially denies any link with these soldiers who have been repeatedly accused of having massacred civilians.

Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since the August 2020 military coup and the overthrow of the transitional government a few months later. Paris criticizes the military for wanting to cling to power and for calling on the services of the Wagner group to achieve this. These are the arguments used by French President Emmanuel Macron to justify the withdrawal of French troops from the Sahel. The Malian authorities deny establishing a dictatorship and refute the presence of Wagner on their territory. They say they want to finally decide the future of their country.

The former president of the High Council of Malians in Canada, Lassine Traoré

The former president of the High Council of Malians in Canada, Lassine Traoré, who lives in Montreal, settled in Quebec 16 years ago. Since then, he has never stopped following the political evolution of his country of origin. According to him, it is the Malian youth who are behind the upheavals that the country is experiencing at the moment. With the Internet, young people surf a lot. They see other countries. They want Mali to be a developed country, a country like its neighbours. It is constructive jealousy. They want a change! he says.

It is this same youth, he adds, who wants the presence of Russia, which is not new to Mali. On the contrary, Lassine Traoré specifies: at the time of its independence, the country was aligned with the Eastern bloc until the fall of the USSR in 1991.

“The Russians helped us during our very beginnings. So people took to the streets calling for the Russians to come to our rescue because France, which had been cheered, is no longer doing the trick and playing murky games. The army just wanted to meet the needs of the population.

— Lassine Traoré, former President of the High Council of Malians in Canada

The President of the High Council of Malians in Canada, Youssouf Tounkara

Like his predecessor, the current president of this organization, Youssouf Tounkara, is not kind to France, which, according to him, has failed in its mission to eliminate the jihadist threat. Almost a decade later, the conflict, instead of being isolated to the north, has spread to the center of the country, with some isolated cases in the south. Subsequently, the population discovered many shocking stories. When we learn that a military camp of the Malian army is being attacked very close to the French army, that the latter does not intervene and that in addition it prohibits the Malian army from intervening , we understand that the population is annoyed and that it asks its authorities to seek new partners to help it in this fight, he laments.

He is also surprised that the Russian presence raises so many questions: Me, it makes me laugh, because I find that the West focuses a lot on Russia, but as our authorities say, we have many other partners. France is a partner of Mali, even if our relations are strained. The European Union, Turkey, China and Russia: we have many partners.

Karine Mateu's report will be broadcast on Sunday on the program Désautels on Sunday on ICI Première.

Moreover, it is not only the rapprochement with Russia that is undermining relations between the Malian junta and the West. The latter accuse the Malian army and Wagner's mercenaries of committing abuses against civilian populations during their anti-terrorist operations, as was allegedly the case at the end of March in the town of Moura, in the center of the country, where 300 civilians were reportedly killed.

Bamako denies these accusations: they were not civilians but rather jihadist fighters. According to the authorities, it would be a military victory. They deny once again any presence of the Wagner group on their territory. Only Russian instructors would be present in Mali, they say.

Accused of wanting to report false information that harms the junta, the RFI and France 24 media were driven out of the country last April. Lassine Traoré supports this decision by the Malian authorities. It's like in Russia when Western media, including Radio-Canada, were banned, because communication matters a lot, he says. Today, all Malians inside or outside are proud of the regime in place, the army and the recovery of territories from the hands of the jihadists.

“By prohibiting the broadcasting of these two antennas [RFI and France 24], I believe that the authorities are within their right to put an end to the propaganda which was broadcast on these waves to not to weaken the momentum of patriotism that the Malians are beginning to have. »

— Lassine Traoré, former president of the High Council of Malians in Canada

Youssouf Tounkara also adheres to the version of the Malian authorities regarding the presence of the Wagner group on Malian territory.

“We talk a lot about Wagner in Mali. Our authorities have always been clear: there is no Wagner in Mali. And I, as a Malian citizen, trust my authorities. When they say there is no Wagner in Mali, well, for me, there is no Wagner in the country! »

— Youssouf Tounkara, President of the High Council of Malians in Canada

President of the African Diaspora Association of Canada, Soumaila Coulibaly< /p>

The president of the African Diaspora Association of Canada, Soumaila Coulibaly, settled in Ottawa upon his arrival on Canadian soil. Although he does not only represent Mali, his country of origin, the accusations of abuses committed by the Malian army and by the Wagner group make him react.

Wagner, really, it is not a problem of Mali. It's a bit of the bugbear of communication. As Minister Abdoulaye Diop repeated at the United Nations platform recently, the problem of Mali today is not Wagner. Mali's problem today is security. The problem in Mali today is access to care. Mali's problem today is the education of Malian citizens, he said.

Mr. Coulibaly also supports the ruling junta, especially since it announced the transfer of power to civilians within two years. And he wishes to remind that democracy by vote, as preferred by the West, is questionable.

“When we talk about democracy, we have to ask ourselves: how did we establish this democracy? How are these elections organized? Because there are people who organize these elections and who [elect] people for their interests and for those of their companies. Whenever the population is left behind, the armed forces are forced to intervene to restore the balance.

— Soumaila Coulibaly, President of the African Diaspora Association of Canada

A specialist in conflict prevention in Africa, Frédéric Samy Passilet has also worked for United Nations peacekeeping missions in Congo, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.

Also based in Ottawa for six years, Frédéric Samy Passilet, a specialist in conflict prevention in Africa, understands the rejection of France by the African populations but is worried about this enthusiasm for Russia. This Chadian who had to flee his country of origin also worked for United Nations peacekeeping missions in Congo, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali.

“This is the mistake Africa is making: go chase the French and go make a deal with criminals of all stripes, like Wagner's people. Because they are criminals, they are terrorists. A terrorist is one who uses violence to achieve his goals. »

— Frédéric Samy Passilet, specialist in conflict prevention in Africa

Wagner uses the most sadistic violence. It kills civilian populations. I believe this is a mistake. One day we will write the history of Mali and they will regret it, even if today they believe there is security, he fears.

Frédéric Samy Passilet also warns against regimes that do not tolerate criticism: For the moment, we are witnessing a situation of political populism in Mali, which means that there is a blindness to identifying the truth. And all the heads of state, all the African authorities who do not want the truth designate Radio France Internationale and human rights organizations as targets. In truth, there is no smoke without fire. Why did they not allow the UN mission currently in Mali, MINUSMA, to investigate the crimes? Why? What are the Malian authorities hiding?

Tatiana Smirnova is a postdoctoral researcher at the Franco-Paix Center of the University of Quebec in Montreal.

A postdoctoral researcher at the Franco-Paix Center of the University of Quebec in Montreal, Tatiana Smirnova, who is of Russian and French origin, is a specialist in the situation in the Sahel. According to her, Russia, which is increasingly isolated on the international scene because of the war in Ukraine, will engage more in Africa, but the investment will not be there like in the days of the USSR.

The USSR had put a lot of money into the development side: building hospitals, stadiums, etc. Its presence was not only military, it was also development-oriented. Today, that is not the case. Russia can't afford it. It is therefore involved through the sale of arms and military development as well as through economic contracts with large companies. Unfortunately, I think that's kind of the deception of the offer that Russia is making to the people, because they accept the offer hoping that Russia will go back to how it was in the days of the USSR with all this offer, including with cooperation in health and more, she warns.

Tatiana Smirnova clarifies that Russia has changed, and so have its methods.

“Russia relies today on business political elites because it feeds business. And Wagner is one of the private companies, but there are others. The problem with private groups is that they are less beholden to the state. They are more beholden to themselves and to the private interests that pay them. That's the danger. »

— Tatiana Smirnova, postdoctoral researcher at the Franco-Paix Center of the University of Quebec in Montreal

The specialist says she understands Malians who seek other partners to help them, but in the long term, the consequences could be serious.

The strategy against Russian terrorism which has been sold to the Sahelian countries is effective in the short term, but it will have extremely serious effects for the populations in the long term. It will produce intercommunity tensions, because there will be abuses, punishment missions and so on, she said. What I also find unfortunate is that the Western partners can now blame all the misfortunes of the Sahel on Russia or on Wagner's back, when there were abuses long before the arrival of Wagner in Mali. We cannot look at the situation in a dichotomous way. We must go beyond the confrontation with Russia.

However, in the eyes of the specialist in conflicts in Africa Frédéric Samy Passilet, Mali and other African countries are playing a very dangerous game by turning to Russia.

“The Russians do not come without interest. Russians don't look at democracy. One day the people will start demanding democracy and the regime in power will say: ''No! you can't have butter and butter money!'' »

— Frédéric Samy Passilet, specialist in conflicts in Africa

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