Russian check in the Sahelian chessboard

26 August, 2020 · News> Africa> Sahel

Pro-coup demonstrations in Bamako this week.

The media does not seem too moved by a coup d’état in Mali, a country of barely 20 million people with a per capita GDP nearly a third lower than Bolivia. However, for European foreign ministries and general staffs it has been a shock: the constant stream of French -and Spanish soldiers– has been cut short. France has expelled the country from its Françafrique, encouraged international condemnations and directed an international financial blockade against the new regime. Even China perceives the coup as a strategic danger for its investments. And it is no joke: it disrupts all the balances of power in the Sahel and the Mediterranean at a time of tense and precarious balances between powers.

How did we get here?

Mali. November 2019. Banners of Malian protesters demand separation from France and cheer Russia

For more than seven years, Mali has been the center of operations of the last French imperialist adventure in Africa. What began as a temporary mission has become a long-running war involving the whole EU and covering practically the whole of the Sahel, redefined as the deep southern flank of European defense.

But a long and fruitless war, mounted on a fragmented and weak Malian national bourgeoisie, was to give a thousand opportunities to the imperialist rivals of the occupying power. And that was happening, moreover, at a moment when the war in Libya, with its projection over the Maghreb and the whole of the Mediterranean, was already aimed at placing Russia on the southern border of Europe with a certain power over what the EU had considered until then as its main counterweight to the supply of Russian natural gas.

The French army’s tactical alliance with the Tuareg groups it had originally fought was making the Bamako government’s loss of control over the north of the country permanent as well as generating growing discontent among the military. Russia played the trump card by following the Cold War style book step by step. At first it fed the discontent, helping to grow public support for the idea that France supported (Tuareg) jihadism, that the government had sold territorial sovereignty to the former colonial power and subordinated its military to French command. Last November the first warning signs arrived and the political crisis became explicit as anti-French protests.

A few months later, the France/Russia divide was already going through Malian political life and the president was forced to seek an agreement between factions. But the traditional rules no longer worked. The various groups of the ruling class could find, at least temporarily, accommodation, but not the powers that be. Violence took over the streets in the midst of a new wave of protests against President Keita, who, in order to get out of the mess with a substantial concession, practically dissolved the Constitutional Court, a monopoly of the Francophile faction. But it was not enough, the revolt spread, and its repression was even more counterproductive. In the face of further concessions, Keita released the protest leaders and forced the resignation of his own son from one of the key positions in the power structure.

Behind the scenes, Russia and the military were taking apart piece by piece the power structure that supported the alliance with France. What was coming was clearly perceived by the governments of the region. Chad, another arena for French troops in their battle against the jihadists holding the northern border – bordering Libya – turned into lawless land, was the first to take action. Fearing the extent of the move, the Chadian government quickly became a government of national concentration.

Not that France remained quiet in Mali. It pushed through Morocco a process of international mediation, but Keita and the sectors it represented were already in free fall. The last attempt, which mobilized even the presidents of Ghana, Senegal, Niger, Ivory Coast and Nigeria to Bamako, ended in a resounding failure.

The coup

Military Junta of Mali

No one was surprised when a week ago the coup forced Keita’s resignation. The script followed step by step all the expected stages. The pro-Russian protesters were now the expression of popular support for the putschist military. The rapid transition to new elections was becoming within hours a three year long horizon. The governments of the neighboring countries were reacting on the defensive. Partly because of their dependence on France, but also because they feared becoming victims of the next Russian coup.

The coup perpetrators

But the clearest message was the composition of the military junta itself. At the head was the former head of the special forces that once led the war against Tuareg independence; flanked, however, by the two colonels considered to be the organizers of the coup: Sadio Camara, former head of the Military Academy and Malick Diaw, deputy commander of the Kati base that carried out the kidnapping of President Keita. These last two military men had been in Moscow since January, from where they returned to Bamako just ten days before the coup.

What’s next?

Neither the military coup leaders, nor the sectors of the Malian ruling class that support them, nor, above all, Russia, have taken this step to keep the status quo now. In the Russian game, Mali is at the same time a base from which to penetrate sub-Saharan Africa, a lever from which to play again an important role in Algeria, and a rearguard from which to secure its positions in Libya.

The latter is especially relevant and may have been decisive in the speed with which the coup was organized. Russian mercenaries now control key oil fields in Libya and their immediate goal seems to be consolidating the use of their own military bases in the desert, something that Emirates and Egypt tolerate because it is essential to contain the Turkish army. But that could end abruptly if an agreement is reached between the United States and Turkey to eliminate the Russian presence and demilitarize Sirte. Mali is not only a way to give Putin more negotiating weight in the face of such an eventuality, it is a successful way out if his position weakens.

In any case, Russia is occupying more and more positions in Africa. Turning its mercenaries into a key supporter of governments such as Mozambique that are facing jihadist groups for the first time, and using that new military reinforcement position to win large contracts… which is no laughing matter neither to the United States nor to China, which is having increasing problems collecting the credits with which it financed railroads and oil operations in Africa.

It is too early to measure to what extent tensions in the Mediterranean will be exacerbated by this. What is certain is that whatever happens in Mali will not remain in the Sahel. The change of rudder -and imperialist alignments- of a country that until now has been the last frontier of Europe, is a stone thrown violently into the already uneasy waters of African equilibrium. It will leave waves of war in its wake.

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