The coup in Mali, imperial powers, and the Canadian connections

Sep 30, 2020

The coup in Mali, imperial powers, and the Canadian connections

Huge Canadian gold mines in Mali have been unaffected by the coup, but France's uranium interests have been under threat for years

On August 18th, 2020, the Malian military led a coup in the large West African country, and announced the leaders of a provisional government in late September.

Along with France and several other western powers, Canada has economic and military connections to Mali. A look at these can help understand Canada’s approach to Mali and the recent coup. 

Canada’s connections to Mali

Canada’s clearest connection to Mali is through gold mining. The country is the fourth largest source of gold in Africa, and several Canadian gold mining companies operate large mines there, with Barrick Gold being the biggest.

As the Canadian government’s Global Affairs Canada website states, “Investments in the mining sector have become an important economic lever to support the trade relations between the two countries and contribute significantly to Mali’s fiscal revenues. Two Canadian companies, B2Gold and Robex Resources, opened gold mines in Mali in 2017 and 2018. The B2Gold mine is one of the largest in Mali, representing an investment of over $600 million.” 

Royalty rates (percentages of mining revenues to be paid to the government) were originally set at a low rate in 1999 with assistance from the World Bank and have remained low. This means much of the value of the extracted gold goes to the foreign companies, not the Malian people or government. Still, mining makes up 30% of the government’s tax revenues, according to the World Bank. 

Moussa Kondo, a journalist from the capital city of Bamako and founder of Mali’s chapter of Accountability Lab, says many there feel that the “riches are not very well distributed. A lot of money, a lot of opportunities that are not benefiting the people.” While mining companies pay taxes, it’s known that the extractive industry has secret operations to help them survive. 

“You see the mining industry in budget lines,” says Marc-Andre Boisvert, an independent researcher focused on the Malian military. “You see, they give the government and then pay a share. They are big players but also paying a lot of taxes. You can see the tip of the iceberg, but not what’s under water.” 

As in most financial transactions involving extractives, the process can involve many corrupt and unethical practices, such as bribes, incentives, and kick-backs, but none of this is publicly available information, and in comparison to its neighbors, like Niger, corruption in Mali is less visible.

Military interventions in Mali

Canada has provided military support in Mali for many years, most recently through the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), providing 230 to 260 troops along with equipment in 2018-19. 

Before that, Canada supported Operation Serval, a major military offensive led by France in the north of Mali. It is worth noting that France previously controlled what is now Mali (then French Sudan) from 1892 to 1960 and has remained highly involved in the area. France is particularly interested in the uranium mined by companies like Areva in the Sahel region in bordering Niger, which helps fuel France’s electricity system. Mali also has large uranium deposits that Areva has tried to mine, but is not currently.

Operation Serval began in 2013 after a 2012 coup in Mali. That coup, like in 2020, was led by the military, and while there was bloodshed, it was relatively contained. At the time, in 2012, the military, headquartered in the more populated southwest of the country, was upset with the handling of conflicts in the large, less populated northeast of the country, part of the desert Sahel region. 

The Tuareg peoples, a distinct ethnic group in the Sahel, had long been fighting for their independence and were at various times drawn into conflict with the Malian army. Tuaregs had previously been trained by the U.S. military as part of building a front to oppose former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (who was killed in 2011). As of 2012, the Tuaregs had allied with Islamic militant groups. Some Malian military leaders wanted to crush this coalition that was gaining control of parts of the Sahel in what is referred to as the Mali War or Malian Civil War. The military leaders were frustrated with the government’s lack of decisive action. 

The Mali War, which started in 2012, is mainly localized in the northeast of the country, especially the Sahel region. The war was not the cause of the 2020 coup, but it is a source of tension in the country. The distant, populated capital region of Bamako in the southwest is where most of the military-led coup took place. Mali's gold mines are mainly located in the regions south and west of Bamako, far from the conflict zones in the Sahel. Image: Wikimedia

After the 2012 coup, with the new Malian government in turmoil and facing international condemnation and sanctions, the Tuareg and other groups in the northeast actually strengthened their hold on the region. While a threat to uranium mining, they were, however, not a threat to the southwest, where the capital and most of the gold mines are. 

It was at this point that the international community got involved, pushed in large part by France, using the rhetoric of needing to sustain peace and stability by pushing Islamic terrorists out of the Sahel region. Canada, the United States, and others were involved in supportive roles in Operation Serval. Around the time Operation Serval launched, the Tuareg peoples and the more radical Islamic groups had turned on each other and were not able to maintain their hold on Sahel as France and others bombed the region and launched a ground invasion. The military operation France now leads in the region is called Operation Barkhane.

Canada had given military support through funding to Mali before and after the 2012 coup. Most recently, from 2018-2019, the Canadian military deployed 230 to 260 members to the Sahel region, along with equipment, to help evacuate injured UN troops. This came after a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement signed in 2016 between Mali and Canada. The size of Canada’s peacekeeping contribution to MINUSMA made it a small player when compared to several African and European countries. Canada has a small number of police still in the country in a supportive role.

France continues its involvement in the region, and it wants governments there who are friendly to its interests. Though it had initially condemned the 2012 coup, France and others quickly played along with the new government, which was less of a break with the old than a reshuffling, maintaining similar economic conditions.

The 2020 coup, likewise, is a struggle for power within the southwest of Mali, part of a popular uprising there against corruption. It does not represent a takeover of government by a completely new force, like the Tuaregs. As an example of the recycling of political elites, the newly named prime minister is Moctar Ouane, who was Foreign Minister from 2004-2009. 

The new Malian government is asking that the French military maintain its presence there. The leader of the military junta, Colonel Assimi Goita, was previously trained by the U.S., French, and German militaries, and, as the Washington Post reported, “worked for years with U.S. Special Operations forces focused on fighting extremism in West Africa.”

While Canada has economic interests in Mali through gold mining, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has largely stayed out of the coup, seemingly aware that mining interests aren’t threatened. The international mining industry has announced that its mines in the southwest are continuing to operate as normal. Mining companies are reporting no loss of staff nor operating days because of the recent coup. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne released a statement just after the coup saying “Canada strongly condemns the coup d’etat in Mali,” but there has been little else beyond the statement. 

From the end of dictatorship in the 1990s to democratic facade 

In 1991, a faction of the armed forces decided to end the bloody 23-year military dictatorship of Moussa Traore, initiating a civilian transition. This led to Mali's first competitive elections in 1992 and unchallenged democratic governance until 2012. The 2002 election marked Mali's first successful transition from one democratically elected president to another. No party had the majority at the time, and President Amadou Touré appointed a politically inclusive government to tackle Mali's pressing social and economic development problems. 

Researcher Marc-Andre Boisvert describes that, "Mali became a textbook case of a successful democratization: the leaders of the 1991 coup were perceived as saviors by civilians at a time where the country was falling into violence and facing a dire economic crisis." But while Mali had a parliament, political parties and a civil society, they did not really represent the citizens. As is often the case with power and corruption, democracy quickly became a top-down, elite-driven system.

“We started to realize it’s shallow even before the 2012 coup,” Boisvert says. “It’s just a facade, checking boxes for the international community like sending ministers to an international summit.” Mali had a strong civil society, but, Boisvert notes, “consensual politics looks like democratization, but when you realize it’s cutting off other opinions, you realize it’s not real democratization.”

Since Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was first elected president in 2013, there have been six prime ministers, the most recent, Boubou Cissé, appointed in 2019. This was the highest turnover of prime ministers since independence. (Mali has both a president and prime minister.) 

Cissé, a young technocrat and fresh face, was a last effort to improve the image of the regime, as all the other prime ministers had a long history of involvement in Malian politics. As Boisvert describes, “It’s changing an image without addressing the system. The President thought it was a good way to show things are changing without changing anything. The real issue is that Mali did everything right to build facade democratic institutions, but never worked on really rooting institutions into society.” 

Starting June 5th, 2020, in the capital Bamako, street protests called for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (now called the “M5” movement). On August 18th, mutinying soldiers arrested President IBK and Prime Minister Cissé. President Keïta resigned and the National Committee for the Salvation of the People led by Colonel Assimi Goïta took the power.

For nearly everyone in Mali, says Kondo, “[the coup] was expected. For the last couple of months it’s been really hard in Bamako and around the country - with protests and rallies complaining about the past and current governments and nepotism. This is the first time we’ve seen people against the government, with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets asking for him to resign every Friday.” 

The protests drew a mix of ages, genders, and professions, with a specific presence of union workers from the health, justice, and education sector.  The trigger was corrupt parliamentary elections in March and April that were declared fraudulent. “If they started a conversation then, maybe he wouldn't be where he is today,” Kondo adds.

Even people on the president’s side have been unhappy, Kondo says. No one supported IBK’s regime after the coup, and when supporters tried to protest, “no one showed up.”

Some have demonstrated against France's continued presence in the country. There were anti-French protests last year, and at a rally after the coup this August, the Washington Post reported that demonstrators had signs saying "Stop the genocide by France in Mali," "Death to France and its Allies," "Down with France and its governor," and so on. However, this sentiment appears not to be shared by the new transitional government.

While much media coverage will end with the coup, the struggles are sure to continue for the country. 

As of the end of September, the junta has named a transition president and prime minister, but without really consulting civil society, which may not be acceptable to ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States). Mali is far from having a transition government that would be perceived as legitimate inside and outside Mali.

The Canadian Liberal government doesn’t appear too concerned.


EDIT 12:09 AM OCT 5, 2020: The original version of this article indicated French uranium company Areva operated mines in Mali. Thought it has tried, no uranium mines are currently active in Mali as far as we can tell. However, also in the Sahel, in neighbouring Niger, Areva has significant uranium mining operations.

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