An inconvenient coup: Canada’s disingenuous response to Mali’s revolt against a corrupt government
The coup in Mali raises some timely questions about Canada’s peacekeeping and democracy-building role abroad
In face of the seasonal waves of coup attempts that have most recently swept up Belarus and Mali, Canada’s Liberal government has proven selective in its statements of support for popular uprisings. After months of protests, a military coup on August 18 deposed Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who stepped into power following Mali’s infamous 2012 coup.
But while Western governments denounced this revolt, Malians themselves seem to have welcomed the departure of a government they perceived as corrupt, denouncing Keïta as a tool of neo-colonial France. Indeed, the trigger for the popular protests demanding Keïta’s resignation was the modification of parliamentary election results in April that were changed in favour of Keïta’s party. AP News reported from Bamako in the days after the August coup that while some Malians expressed reservations about military rule, Keïta’s removal was nonetheless “met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators in the capital.”
Since Keïta resigned, Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué has acted as spokesperson for the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), the military junta, which has promised elections since taking power. In an interview with The Africa Report on August 21, Wagué stated, “we want a civil political transition.” He added that a “president of the transition will be appointed through a collective decision, after discussions with the nation’s active forces.” As of September 25, former military officer Bah N’Daw serves as the civilian transitional president. The military junta has promised elections since stepping into power.
Colonel Assimi Goïta—vice-president of the junta and acting leader prior to N’Daw’s appointment—is known to have received training from European Union forces and United States Special Operations forces. Similarly, the leader of the 2012 coup, Amadou Sanogo, had received training from the US, travelling to participate in the International Military Education and Training Program. In an interview with Le Monde in April 2012, Sanogo denounced the “betrayal” of the country by former President Amadou Toumani Touré and his failure to deal with the spread of jihadist networks through northern Mali.
Despite the apparent support of Malians for overthrowing their own administration, Western governments have hurried to denounce the revolt as “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic.” While France and the US released their own statements, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne released a statement on August 19, condemning the coup and calling on the Malian military to “promptly follow Mali’s constitutional order and respect the human rights of all Malians.”
“Canada will work closely with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU), and United Nations to help ensure a return to a state of constitutional order,” Champagne stated, referring to Mali’s suspended membership in ECOWAS and the imposed halt of trade and financial flows between the country and other member states.
Canada’s support for ECOWAS is worth considering in light of recent criticism that has been levelled at the African Union. In an article for Foreign Policy, Adem Kassie Abebe, the Stockholm-based International IDEA’s analyst and program officer, accused ECOWAS and the African Union of hypocrisy. Compared to the AU’s support of other members’ authoritarian presidencies—in Ivory Coast and Guinea—Abebe described “double standards in dealing with military coups and constitutional ones”.
The Canadian government has been more than happy to support undemocratic coups and coup attempts in Ukraine, Bolivia and Venezuela. Yet, Minister Champagne has not expressed the same qualms about violating Venezuela’s constitution, for example, with attempts to replace socialist President Nicolas Maduro with Washington’s illegitimate puppet Juan Guaido. Instead, Western governments have demonstrated a clear preference for supporting coups that advance neoliberal policy, while condemning those that may threaten their interests.
Between greed and desperation
The August coup has in turn stoked fears of al-Qaida and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) expanding their presence deeper into Mali. Mainstream media was quick to recall the coup in March 2012 against former President Touré, who was seen at the time as incompetent in handling the threat of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQIM had then recruited Tuareg— who previously fought under Muammar Gaddafi in Libya— exploiting their opposition to state borders in northern Africa that were ultimately imposed by colonial French forces. A Tuareg faction known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had called for the creation of the independent state of Azawad in 2012.
Currently, the northern and central regions of Mali are host to ISGS and a branch of al-Qaida known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) — of which the latter was formed out of a merger in 2017 that included AQIM and Ansar Dine. While Al-Qaida and ISGS have alternately collaborated and shared information with one another, they have more recently clashed over territory.
On the surface, the possibility of extremist factions spreading deeper into Mali has dominated the analysis of the country’s August coup. The Globe and Mail stated that the coup could “further embolden the rebels,” while the Guardian described it as an “ominous sign for Francophone west Africa.” The leadership vacuum, as the Seattle Times reported, “could cause the nation’s extremism problem to spill over into coastal nations as yet untouched by violent insurgencies.”
But as political scientist Aisha Ahmad writes in Jihad & Co., her study on the interdependency of criminal and jihadist networks, extremism in the Sahel is fueled not only by ideology, but also by the deep economic divisions as well as the poverty and starvation that ravage the region. This is particularly true in Mali, which is a key link in the trade in cigarettes and cocaine and in human trafficking on the way to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Europe and Israel.
Ahmad writes that AQIM’s activities in Mali were “unusual” in that, unlike other jihadist groups, it was driven more by the money to be made from smuggling than by religious ideology.
France has notably maintained its counterterrorism Barkhane force in Mali since 2013. This ongoing operation has been described as a military success, but flawed in achieving peace. As Nathaniel K. Powell wrote for Foreign Affairs in 2016, France’s “inattention” to “Bamako’s divisive and corrupt methods of governance” under Keïta, and the division among the Tuareg, has contributed to sustained conflict in Mali. The presence of jihadist groups in the Sahel, Powell writes: “… allows regional authorities to conflate broader political opposition with terrorism in order to mobilize foreign support for their rule. By backing such exclusive political systems, the international community, and especially France, contributes to the region’s real sources of instability.”
Additionally, in August 2019, Senegalese journalist Pape Samba Kane warned that French forces were motivated to remain in Mali in order to safeguard control over profitable gold and uranium mining in the country.
“It is France and France alone that can stop the disintegration of Mali,” Kane wrote for Al Jazeera, referring to a lack of French action on the expansion of a coalition of Tuareg separatist groups called the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA). “However, the French government has no interest in doing so as it perceives the expansion of CMA’s area of influence as a way to solidify its presence in the country.”
Kane also drew a parallel between the current situation in Mali and that of neighbouring Senegal, where prominent anti-imperialist activist Guy Marius Sagna was arrested for publishing similar criticism. Sagna himself had spoken out against the free trade agreements imposed across the ECOWAS member states, known as Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA). As he remarked in a 2017 interview:
These deals have been preceded by the IMF and the World Bank’s structural adjustment programmes that imposed liberalising our economies and opening our markets. It’s part of an international labour division scheme that makes our ‘underdeveloped’ countries consumers of goods from other countries whose role is to produce those goods.
Here, the continuity between the 2012 and 2020 coups becomes more apparent. In the aftermath of the 2012 coup, a reconciliation agreement known as the Algiers Accord was signed in 2015. This accord—which Champagne also referred to in his statement—assigns leadership over economic development in Mali’s northern regions to the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Islamic Development Bank.
The question arises of what kind of economic development these financial bodies are interested in foisting upon the country.
Mali has been undergoing extensive privatization of state-owned enterprises and cuts to social services since the 1980s. In the early 2000s, free market policies imposed on Mali hit particularly hard with the privatization of water, under pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As Sékou Diarra, president of the Mali Committee for the Defence of Water, wrote for Pambazuka News back in 2011, “The inhabitants of the Dogon plateau at Bandiagara in Mali underline the sacred nature of water in the following way: ‘Without water, no village is possible!’ For these mountain dwellers of the Sahel, water is by definition both a source of life and a public good.”
The Dogon region is one of several in Mali that have been particularly hard-hit by inter-community and extremist conflict, with tensions over agricultural and pastoral resources.
Mali has since experienced a significant boost in foreign mining investment. As reforms continued following the 2012 coup, the country received a $46 million IMF loan the following year. Mali’s reforms have also been overseen by USAID, the Millenium Challenge Corporation, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—the latter having been established in 1983 under the Reagan administration to divert attention from the CIA’s covert foreign operations.
According to a US House Hearing from June 2012, just a few months after Mali’s coup that year: “In recent years, NED has supported programs by the International Republican Institute to strengthen Mali’s decentralization and by the National Democratic Institute to support the Malian legislature. USAID funding has also been provided to [National Democratic Institute] to assist the electoral process, but due to the coup, that is currently suspended.”
Much like France and the US, Canada too has its own reasons to be concerned about “stabilization” in Mali, with numerous mining operations including gold mines in Mali itself, as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, and bauxite mines in Guinea. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute published a report in 2013 describing Mali and Burkina Faso as “canaries in the gold mine” for signalling challenges around “environmental vulnerability, state fragility” and the “threat of resource nationalism.”
Canada’s B2Gold and Robex Resources, for example, are considered to be the largest Canadian mining operations in Mali. This past June, Mining Watch reported that B2Gold continued its operations at full capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, clearly showing little concern for workers’ welfare so long as profit margins are holding.
As journalist John Pilger observed in 2013, the so-called war on terror in northern Africa has been fueled by Indigenous resistance against Western occupying forces—a sense of urgency for colonial powers that has been enflamed by the threat of countries rich in strategic minerals not only shrugging off domestic totalitarian regimes, but also the ever-tightening Western chokehold. Referring to the deployment of US troops across African countries, Pilger wrote:
The invasion has almost nothing to do with ‘Islamism,’ and almost everything to do with the acquisition of resources, notably minerals, and an accelerating rivalry with China. Unlike China, the US and its allies are prepared to use a degree of violence demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Palestine. As in the cold war, a division of labour requires that Western journalism and popular culture provide the cover of a holy war against a ‘menacing arc’ of Islamic extremism, no different from the bogus ‘red menace’ of a worldwide communist conspiracy.
The significance attributed to the jihadist threat in Mali should therefore trigger not only more critical reflection by Canadians on our foreign policy and historic support for US military interventions that have seeded these same jihadist groups, but also on the role that Canadian extractive industries may play in exacerbating the poverty that turns people toward jihadist networks.
Peacekeeping for clout
Champagne’s denunciation of Mali’s coup in August must also be considered alongside Canada’s short-lived presence in a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali that ended last year. In 2018-2019, Canada participated in a small mission called Operation Presence, supporting the UN peacekeeping operation, Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA).
Apart from the UN mission, the Canadian government has provided nearly $1.6 billion in aid to Mali since 2000, and historically maintained a military presence in the country through the Military Training and Cooperation program. Canada suspended this program during the 2012 coup until the government transitioned back into civilian rule; it was later found that Canadian-trained paratroopers were behind an attempted counter-coup.
Canada’s participation in MINUSMA mostly consisted of helicopter support for medical evacuations and armed escorts.
But what was its real importance for the Canadian government?
Writing for Open Canada, Ousmane Ally Diallo remarked on the politicization of Operation Presence prior to the 2019 federal elections. The mission as not as great a priority as sending troops on NATO missions to the Baltics, Diallo described, which was “illustrative of the dissonance between the rhetoric and the practice of Canada over how it aims to actualize its policies on international peacekeeping.”
Aisha Ahmad wrote in 2018 for the Globe and Mail, that by participating in MINUSMA, Canada was embroiling itself in a region rife with ethnic divisions and “hyper-fragmentation” of sectarian groups that comprise multiple ethnicities. A lack of public understanding of these factional and ethnic divisions has been bolstered by Canadian media that repeats generalized threats of “Islamic jihadists” in the scarce coverage of Mali, but rarely provides deeper context.
As Canadian troops prepared to deploy in 2018, Ahmad warned of a similar “ethnic quagmire” as Canada experienced in 1993 in Somalia, writing:
Many analysts have grossly oversimplified the conflict as Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels fighting against the Malian government. This is dangerously wrong. Canada must understand the actual fault lines of conflict on the ground, or we will risk accidentally taking sides in an ethnic war … [JNIM] has invested in providing governance and public services for local communities. Although its ultraconservative brand of Islam is foreign to most Malians, its ability to provide law and order, remove checkpoints, prevent roving banditry and facilitate business life makes the jihadists an attractive option.
This disingenuous engagement has helped shape Canada’s perception on the global stage. Its half-hearted participation in Operation Presence is considered to have had a role in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s failure to garner the Security Council election in June.
It was clear when Canada deployed to Mali that MINUSMA was considered the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission. Yet, most of the UN’s peacekeepers—who are put in direct conflict with al-Qaida and ISGS fighters—come from poorer countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Bangladesh, and Senegal, who are already deeply embroiled in their own struggles with jihadist groups.
Since shuttering the mission in Mali, Canada shifted focus to provide Tactical Airlift Detachment to Uganda and South Sudan. As Peggy Mason, former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN, described to Canadian Dimension, the degree of Canada’s involvement in these peacekeeping missions is seen as insufficient. In a CBC interview, Bruno Charbonneau of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean described Canada’s involvement in Mali as “kind of a token involvement … You throw money at the thing and hope it sticks somewhere, it has an impact. The political interest or will from Ottawa is not really there.”
By comparison, Canada has spent $7.25 million on Operation Unifier in Ukraine, signing weapons deals with a military that has officially integrated extremist neo-Nazi factions and undermined efforts for demilitarization that are key to achieving peace in the Donbass.
There has been little coverage or scrutiny of Canada’s role in Mali—whether during Operation Presence or in the aftermath of Canada’s withdrawal—with most reporting by Canadian state-funded media pumping up the mission as a success.
Journalist Yves Engler, who has been covering Canadian foreign policy for nearly two decades, wrote about the stringent control by Canadian public affairs officers when Operation Presence launched, citing restrictions on photography, video and audio for broadcast. “Reporters were to attribute information to “a senior government” official,” Engler wrote at the time, adding, “Air wars lend themselves to censorship since journalists cannot accompany pilots during their missions or easily see what’s happening from afar.”
In an email, Engler described Operation Presence as useful for the Liberals’ tactic of “branding away from Harper by re-engaging with the UN”, noting also an “overemphasis on how much other countries care about Canada’s involvement in UN peacekeeping”. Peacekeeping missions, however, also serve as a cover to enforce neoliberal policy and reforms—such as the UN’s “stabilization” mission (MINUSTAH) in Haiti in 2004, where UN “peacekeepers,” Haitian police and paramilitaries murdered civilians in the US-led coup against democratically elected socialist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Engler also pointed to the way in which the 2011 Canadian-led NATO bombing of Libya directly spurred conflict in Mali. “Not only does the media downplay that piece of information but they almost entirely refuse to discuss its implications.”
Indeed, this is a potent reminder of the Canadian legacy of military intervention and uncritical support for Washington’s bombing and regime-change campaigns, including the Harper administration’s support for the US-led war on Libya through Operation Mobile. In the aftermath, Gadhafi’s weapons arsenal was smuggled out to rebel groups, arming ISIL in Syria, and ultimately the rebel groups in Mali that mainstream media have panicked about since the August coup.
Mali’s coup therefore raises some timely questions about Canada’s peacekeeping and democracy-building role abroad—missions that are ultimately funded by all Canadians. Where Canadian military operations and statements by Foreign Ministers claim to promote democracy, this assertion should be scrutinized to see what exactly that democracy looks like for the host country, and whether promoting democracy is not just another rhetorical device employed in the service of reshaping a country into a convenient neoliberal client state, or else. And most importantly we need to ask whether Canada will continue a legacy of uncritical support for Washington’s military adventurism that inevitably breeds the very same jihadist networks it claims to fight.
Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.