Mali’s Coup Rains On Macron’s Africa Parade


May was meant to be French President Emmanuel Macron’s Africa month, a chance to show off France’s influence on the continent — and not just among its former colonies. But Mali’s second coup in less than a year is an embarrassing reminder of the limitations of French leverage and of the president’s personal clout in the region. Authoritarian rulers of other Francophone countries will be paying close attention to how Macron responds. 

The president had been counting on attention of a rather different sort. Earlier in the month, Macron promised a “new deal” for Africa as he hosted a Paris summit to encourage financing for countries stricken by the coronavirus pandemic. Some two dozen African heads of state attended, as did International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng.

Although the summit had a slim likelihood of closing the funding gap Africa faces — Georgieva estimates the continent needs $345 billion through 2023 to counteract the impact of Covid — Macron claimed the gathering inspired “a change of mindset.” He was able to point to some important achievements, including securing much-needed debt relief for Sudan.

Macron may have hoped to follow up this demonstration of convening power with a display of on-the-ground diplomacy this week in Rwanda, where he acknowledged France’s “responsibilities” in the country’s 1994 genocide. But the trip was overshadowed by events in Bamako, Mali, where France has current concerns as well as historical responsibilities as a former colonial power. 

Mali is key to an ambitious French counterterrorism operation, dubbed Operation Barkhane, in the African Sahel, a belt of countries just south of the Sahara. Now in its eighth year, this has become France’s “forever war,” and there’s growing political pressure on Macron to bring home the 5,100 French soldiers deployed in the region. 

When military officers forced the resignation last August of Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Macron offered only muted criticism, calling for “the return of the state.” Under pressure from West African leaders, the military junta appointed a transitional administration and promised a return to full civilian rule in 18 months. Although the military kept control of key ministries, Macron gave his blessings to this arrangement.

But last week, when the transitional government announced a cabinet reshuffle that left out two members of the junta, soldiers seized the current president and prime minister. They have since been freed, but the junta leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, has assumed the presidency.

Macron described this as a “coup within a coup” and encouraged the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to once again mediate a return of the transitional authority, adding: “If it does not succeed, we will take sanctions against all those who prevent the transition process from developing.” 

Antagonizing the junta, however, would jeopardize France’s counterterrorism operations in Mali and beyond. Macron must hope he doesn’t have to act on his threat. 

ECOWAS, which temporarily blockaded Mali after last summer’s coup, has dispatched former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to Bamako to deal with the new crisis. Even if he can persuade Goita to stand down, the junta will likely retain a great deal of power behind the scenes. Elsewhere, the Biden administration has suspended security cooperation with the Malian military, and the U.S. State Department has threatened sanctions “against political and military leaders who impede Mali’s civilian-led transition to democratic governance.”

While rooting for ECOWAS to succeed, Macron will be mindful of the effect of the coup on other rulers in the Sahel. If the junta in Bamako gets away with its power grab, they may be emboldened to follow. As in Mali, there is a military-led transitional government in Chad, which is even more crucial to the success of Operation Barkhane. That junta, led by General Mahamat Idriss Deby, has promised to hold elections after 18 months — what is it with that number? — and Macron has said he will hold it to that pledge

The French president must now hope that the Chadian general is not inspired by the Malian colonel.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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