Interview with Bruno Fanucchi, major reporter.
Alain Boinet for Défis Humanitaires. Hello Bruno Fanucchi, thank you for accepting this interview for Défis Humanitaires. First of all, as someone who knows Mali and Africa well, how do you analyze the motives that led to the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita during the coup d’état of August 18 of last year?
Bruno Fanucchi. There had been growing a long popular exasperation in Mali because President IBK was very out of touch with reality. His re-election in August 2018 was more than contested, but he did what was necessary to stay in power. This is fairly classic in Africa: leaders in power usually only hold elections if they are sure to win. His main flaw, which worked against him, is Karim Keita, his own son. He was elected deputy and president of the Defense Commission in the National Assembly, and indulged in some very “jet-setting” parties, which went around the world and shocked Mali. Karim himself ruined his father’s political career. He fled to Côte d’Ivoire on the evening of the coup d’état of 18 August 2020, where he was taken in by his good friend Hamed Bakayoko, who had just been promoted to Prime Minister in Abidjan. IBK’s main ball and chain was therefore his son.
In addition to this, there was the widespread corruption that Mali had known before him, which he allowed to continue and worsen, particularly in the justice system and the administration. This led to deep popular resentment, which resulted in the M5 movement and major demonstrations in Bamako starting on June 5. Finally, a handful of courageous young colonels decided to act and “recuperated” the movement to prevent Mali – which had become a failed state – from sinking into anarchy or the Islamists from taking power.
Without it being clear who really gave the order, the government then fired on the crowd on July 10, killing a dozen people and wounding more than 150. That was the wrong thing to do. Critics then focused on Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, who was accused of having “blood on his hands” and who had never assumed his responsibilities. This set off a firestorm and the power fell like a ripe fruit in the coup of August 18, 2020.
DH. The results of the previous legislative elections were contested. Did this event play a role in the coup?
BF. That’s right: it was the trigger for this popular anger. The results were contested, but the government tried to delay for a few weeks by hiding the face and finally these results were proclaimed: some were cancelled, others confirmed. Hence the great confusion. The result was not long in coming: tens of thousands of Malians took to the streets. Popular exasperation was at its peak. Especially since it was the hot season and the temperature was sometimes between 40° and 45°. Even in Bamako, there are often load shedding, electricity cuts and water cuts. Hence, popular resentment is exacerbated and quite understandable. And when social anger rises, it quickly becomes irresistible and sweeps everything in its path.
DH. Last May 24, another coup d’état. The President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of a “coup within a coup”. For what reasons, now that the transition is in place, Colonel Assimi Goïta, who had led the first coup, decided to overthrow the President and the Prime Minister in place. How to understand this?
BF. Beware of the weight of words that have their importance. For me, this is not a coup d’état. One can speak of a “coup de force”, but a coup d’état which, in Africa, does not leave a single person dead, where there is not a single shot, and where the whole country goes back to work the next day after two weeks of general strike, I say: hats off! Apart from the political class, the vast majority of Malians have experienced this.
That it was a “coup de force”, that the West and international or regional bodies such as ECOWAS were obliged to condemn it diplomatically for form’s sake, is understandable. But to speak of a “coup d’état within a coup d’état”, as President Emmanuel Macron immediately called it, is only a formula and it was very clumsy… I was in Bamako at the time and, apart from the evening of May 24, when everyone was wondering and stayed at home, nothing happened: neither troops nor tanks in the streets. It was more a “Palace revolution”.
Let me explain. It so happens that President Bah N’Daw, himself a former military officer, a very respectable and honest person who had been recalled to put a “civilian” at the head of the Transition, was unfortunately unable to do much during the first nine months of the Transition.
Following the resignation of Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, he immediately reappointed him to form a new government, which was made public on May 24. This new government was very similar to the previous one, but two colonels who had participated in the first coup d’état of August 18, 2020 were excluded (Colonel Sadio Camara, Minister of Defense, and Colonel Modibo Koné, Minister of Security) without consulting Colonel Assimi Goïta, Vice President of the Transition, who was in charge of these two strategic sectors: defense and security.
As the real boss of the August 2020 “coup plotters”, Colonel Goïta – who at 37 years old already has a brilliant military record and a real record of service – thought it appropriate to immediately call the President and the Prime Minister to account and to upset the order of things a little. To maintain the unity and cohesion of the army.
DH. Following the coup d’état of August 18, 2020, an ambitious program was drawn up in conjunction with ECOWAS: institutional reform, electoral redistribution, the fight against corruption and impunity, and presidential and legislative elections, all within a period of 18 months. There are now only 9 months left, is this program realistic?
BF. We are already halfway through the Transition and, to put it bluntly, in nine months it has not done much, Malians have not seen any change. This Transition was led by very respectable people, but they did not prove to be up to the task. There are enormous burdens in Mali, in the administration, in the justice system, in all the bodies of the State, and not much has changed in 9 months.
Under international pressure to hand over power to civilian authorities after 18 months, the program of reforms was not tenable. It looks good on paper, but you can’t reform the constitution and make all these reforms in such a short time.
In order not to alienate the international community once again, the new president of the transition, who was sworn in on June 7, has also declared that the February 27, 2022 election date will be met. However, there are doubts about this… Let’s be realistic.
In his inaugural speech, Colonel Goïta announced that “two-thirds of the sovereignty funds of the presidency will be abolished,” or 1.8 billion CFA francs per year, which “will now be used to provide water and to create health centers for the most destitute populations throughout the national territory. This is a concrete announcement that I think will be followed by effects, while nothing had really changed in the life of the State these last 9 months. But the example comes from above.
DH. A former Malian minister says that the biggest problem in Mali is the centralized state. He advocates a decentralized unitary state that includes all components of Malian society and even customary and religious authorities. Is decentralization part of the solution?
BF. Basically, he is absolutely right. Decentralization is an important issue, but it is a long process. I know well the former Prime Minister Moussa Mara, and he is a great supporter of decentralization. Already on the campaign trail, he is currently traveling all over Mali preaching security, decentralization, and the fight against corruption, but successful decentralization and a revised Constitution cannot be achieved in 9 months, we must be realistic. Perhaps we should tell the Westerners to stop putting pressure on the Malians, who must remain masters of their own country. That there may be other priorities even before decentralization, such as security.
Westerners must change their software and their glasses and stop telling Malians: “hold elections on February 27, 2022”!
To me, in a country where children have not gone to school for more than 7 years, the priority would be to reopen the schools, to redeploy the State administration throughout the country, and to ensure above all the security of the people in a country at war where villages die every day. Isn’t security the first freedom? Elections are good, but they are not necessarily the emergency in Mali.
Let’s look at what is happening in the north of the country.
My friend Coumba Traoré (also Secretary General of the Bamako Forum) has just spent three weeks in June in the north of Mali, in villages that have not seen an authority from Bamako since 2012! She gathered under the palaver tree, in 21 villages, the women of the North to listen to their grievances and make a documentary giving them a voice.
What do they expect? The basic public services that any state worthy of the name must provide to its most destitute populations: access to water and electricity to allow them to live in dignity, to stay and work on site and to feed their families. And thus prevent their own children from enlisting in the jihadist movements, which have no shortage of money to survive.
Colossal sums of money have been allocated to Sahel Alliance programs, but nothing, absolutely nothing, has reached these northern villages. This is the cruel reality: under the hot desert sun, international aid evaporates…
DH. In the past, the media have reported anti-French demonstrations in Bamako. What is the situation and is there any resentment among the population against French policy in Mali?
BF. Anti-French demonstrations exist, but they are not very important. In Mali, they are mostly instrumentalized by some foreign powers, like Russia. We know how effective the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group are in the Central African Republic, and how they are able to manipulate the crowds skillfully, always against France: they pay a few people to hold banners and signs in the front row proclaiming “Death to France” and they wave Russian flags in the background, it is child’s play. With social networks, it goes very fast and unfortunately does a lot of harm. France has not taken the measure of this psychological and media warfare and has not taken any effective decision to defend itself and to organize the response on social networks.
The anti-French demonstrations were therefore largely instrumentalized and orchestrated, and then, because of the lack of a response, they became more widespread… Today, it is President Macron himself who is fueling the anti-French resentment of African youth, with his tweet condemning the pseudo coup d’état without appeal on the very evening.
I saw Malians, of all political persuasions, standing up against France and Macron. The Malians did not understand this policy of “double standards” of the French president going, in April to N’Djamena, to the funeral of President Idriss Déby and adoubting in Chad overnight the son of the president, who was never elected, but denouncing the following month in Mali a “coup d’état” that did not result in any death or gunfire. It is incomprehensible!
I would add that Macron has no lesson in democracy to give to Africa because he has lost all credibility after having endorsed an unconstitutional third term of office for Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire and Alpha Condé in Guinea Conakry, despite hundreds of deaths and arrests in these two countries in crisis.
DH. President Emmanuel Macron, at a press conference on June 10, announced a new framework for Operation Barkhane. He specified that France could not substitute itself for state services and the sovereign choices of states. In a context of deteriorating security in Mali and in neighboring countries, how is this statement perceived?
BF. It was done in two stages. On June 3, France announced that it was freezing all military cooperation with FAMA. This was a very bad signal: how can we explain to the Malians that the French army is staying in Mali but no longer doing anything with the Malian national army? The French army is not at home and cannot behave as if it were in a conquered country…
This was a first mistake of taste. Even if it was intended to put pressure on him, this first warning shot fell flat: Colonel Assimi Goïta remained upright in his boots and did not change his political line for all that, happy and proud to have obtained that ECOWAS did not take economic sanctions against Mali, as it had done in 2020. As we know, it is always the people who pay for economic sanctions, not their leaders.
On June 10, President Macron made an announcement that some journalists have described as “the death of Barkhane. Let us be exact and precise: the transformation of Barkhane, whose boss, General Marc Conruyt, I greeted in Bamako, will be phased in until 2023, with a reduction in the number of troops and not a complete withdrawal of troops, as Macron had clumsily suggested.
This blackmail was very badly received in Mali and in the French army. French soldiers have done an excellent job in Mali since 2013 with Serval, then Barkhane. But any operation that lasts over time threatens to get bogged down, especially if we don’t put all the resources and political will into it. The transformation of Barkhane was something that everyone wanted to see, but to do it “on the fly” by linking it to the institutional upheavals in Bamako was another serious political error.
Macron has mixed and superimposed two agendas: it may indeed be popular to make the French believe that we are withdrawing from Mali on the eve of the presidential elections next April, but it damages our credibility in Africa. For two good reasons: reducing the size of Barkhane and giving it a new mission will take time and cannot be done overnight if we do not want to see Mali collapse in one fell swoop. Moreover, this announcement by the head of the army is hardly elegant or respectful of all our soldiers and officers who have fallen in Mali, and whose families may legitimately feel that they died for nothing!
DH. The Covid-19 pandemic is deteriorating the economic and social situation everywhere and in Africa. The IMF estimates that 300 billion dollars should be injected to support African economies and France has taken strong initiatives in this direction. But, in the meantime, how do Malians live from day to day?
BF. I believe the priority for Mali is security. But there is an obvious social front. After two weeks of a general strike affecting mainly civil servants and bringing Mali to a standstill, the National Union of Malian Workers (UNTM) made a sensible decision the day after May 24. May 25 was a holiday in Mali, but from May 26 everyone went back to work and life resumed normally, there was no longer any strike. This is even extraordinary. This does not mean that the basic problems have been solved: low salaries, unemployment, corruption… All this unfortunately exists in Mali and has been further aggravated by the pandemic, because what keeps people alive in many African countries like Mali is the informal economy. When you can no longer go out and work, when there is a curfew, it is complicated. People who live on 1,000 or 2,000 CFA francs a day, if they no longer have any activity, they have nothing because there is no social insurance or unemployment benefits. One job in Mali supports at least 10 people. When you lose your job, it is a whole family that has nothing to live on. This is the harsh reality that Malians have to face.
DH. You were in Bamako during this “Palace Revolution” on May 24 to participate in the Bamako Forum, which is nicknamed the little “Davos” of Africa. What is this Forum and what is its interest?
BF. The Bamako Forum is an original think tank that has existed for more than 20 years. It was founded by Abdoullah Coulibaly, who created the Institut des Hautes Études en Management (IHEM) just before and always refused to be a minister. He is truly the man who made me love Mali, because he cares about the stability, security, peace and development of the country. This year’s theme was perfectly relevant: “Human capital: priorities for a successful transition in Mali”.
In addition to Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, a dozen members of his government were to attend the forum, all of whom had agreed to be present. It turns out that the government resigned the day before the Forum opened. No minister finally came. Only the Prime Minister, who was reappointed, took up the challenge and came to give the closing speech on Saturday, two days before the fateful date of May 24 when he was forced to leave office.
DH. What is the added value of this Bamako Forum?
BF. This Forum is above all a “big family”, but it does not only bring together Malians. It also brings together Africans, Europeans and even Americans… We meet leading personalities such as my friend Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, Vice President of the National Assembly of Senegal after having led Senegalese diplomacy for 9 years in a row under President Abdoulaye Wade. He is a convinced pan-Africanist who created and presides over the Pan-African Institute of Strategy (IPS) in Dakar. Or like Professor Alioune Sall, president of the Institute of African Futures, who is a renowned and talented sociologist, who synthesizes the work of the Forum. These proposals and recommendations are traditionally handed over to the Malian president at a reception at the Palais de Koulouba at the end of the Forum.
As it brings together ministers, decision-makers, intellectuals, economists, and start-ups, this Forum has an aura and a great influence on the entire continent. This year, talented young Africans were awarded prizes in sectors such as technology, innovation or female leadership… Africa is indeed full of talent, but it is still necessary to know them and make them known.
DH. Isn’t there a contradiction between the daily military action against groups described as jihadists and terrorists and the intention of the Transition to negotiate with some of these groups? What is the short-term future?
BF. The future of Mali is not rosy, because the security problem is far from being resolved. But let’s not mince words either: you can only make peace with your enemies!
We will have to talk to our enemies, even the worst ones, whether they are called jihadists, terrorists… This precondition given by Macron to the Malians, ordering them “not to negotiate with anyone as long as French soldiers are there” does not hold water for a moment. And there have been hostage releases, such as that of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé and French hostage Sophie Pétronin, which were obviously obtained in exchange for hard cash during negotiations with the kidnappers, even though any “ransom” has always been officially denied by the authorities in Paris and Bamako.
But what is more serious is the release of nearly 200 “terrorists” in exchange. The French soldiers of Barkhane, who continue to do the job in Mali, thus “neutralized” in June a certain Abu Dardar, who was among the jihadists released last October. That is the scandal. France has turned a blind eye to all this. Of course, one day we will have to talk to people who are neither sympathetic nor recommendable. How can we do otherwise?
We have also seen it in Afghanistan with the Taliban, in Somalia with the Shebabs and in Mali with those who are called “jihadists”, if you kill one, ten others rise up to avenge their brother. If we do not understand this logic, we will not understand anything and this war against “terrorism” will be endless.
DH.How would you like to conclude and what do you think of humanitarian action in Mali, of its raison d’être in such a degraded context ?
BF. On the political front, let Malians first reconcile and decide among themselves what the best solution is. If the presidential and legislative elections do not take place on February 27, it is not the end of the world. Of course, in the meantime, there have been massacres or killings every day for the past 8 years and settling of scores in Malian villages between traffickers or groups of different ethnicities. So there is a highway and work day and night for the humanitarian action that needs dedicated people and volunteers, as you were part of it with “Solidarités International”. All these volunteers do useful and efficient work, but it must be recognized and respected, and their lives must not be put in danger by boasts or orders that exacerbate anti-French resentment in the field. And they endanger the lives of Malians who take the risk of working with the French for a good cause because life is worth nothing in these countries.
Hats off to those who continue to engage in humanitarian action: there is so much to do, even if their action will never be more than a drop of water in this ocean of sand and needs.
Who is Bruno Fanucchi?
Bruno Fanucchi has been a long-time reporter for the “Parisien” newspaper and has been traveling for more
than thirty years in Africa and the Middle East from Abidjan to Beirut, from Bamako to Cape Town, from Dakar to Jerusalem, Lomé or Libreville. A specialist in geopolitics, he has interviewed numerous heads of state or rebel leaders and covered elections as well as
international summits or coups. In Paris, he chaired the Diplomatic Press and then the
Association of Defense Journalists, for which he organized several missions in Africa. Going to meet the political actors or committed decision-makers of the Continent, he is above all a man of the field: he works today for the economic website AfricaPresse.Paris and several magazines for the general public such as “Divas”.