Mali’s Military Coup: A Road to Nowhere

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Mali’s working class and its allies among the oppressed urban youth and rural peasantry must link their struggle with the militant working class in countries like Nigeria and South Africa. If the working class of those countries were to take state power into their own hands, it would very likely spark a pan-African revolt of workers and peasants.

Photo: John Kalapo / Getty Images

A military coup has abruptly ended the presidency of Mali’s head of state, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who resigned on Aug. 18 after a military junta took him into custody along with several officials from his government. Prime Minister Boubou Cissé was arrested, as were the president of the National Assembly and the finance minister. The residence of the justice minister was set ablaze by angry protesters who have taken to the streets for months to denounce the incompetence and corruption of Keïta’s regime.

The coup is the culmination of protests that have filled the streets of Bamako since January of this year, which were organized by the political parties of the M5 coalition and conservative cleric Mahmoud Dicko. While Dicko has stated publicly that he does not seek political office, the BBC reports that M5 coalition party CMAS openly supports the coup if the military commits to new elections and the establishment of a civilian transitional government.

Popular protests against Keïta in the capital city were provoked when the constitutional court nullified provincial parliamentary elections viewed as favoring the M5 opposition coalition. While the protesters were seen cheering the mutinous soldiers as they carted Keïta away in military vehicles to a nearby military base, the African Union Commission, the United Nations, and several West African leaders all condemned the coup and called for Keïta’s release from custody. The United States, France, and Germany have since also condemned the coup and called for the restoration of civilian government.

Role of the military in Malian politics

Mali’s military last intervened in government affairs in March 2012 when it removed President Amadou Toumani Touré from power. At that time, the government was facing a significant insurgency from its Tuareg population, organized into the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, which was fighting for an independent homeland. The Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos created by the coup to seize control of several northern cities, including Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu, which the Los Angeles Times reported at the time as having caused the near total collapse of Mali’s army in the north of the country.

In the south, where Mali’s capital, Bamako, is located, the economy was in collapse and its people faced a serious food crisis. The coup leaders had hoped that neighboring governments would support them to defeat the Tuareg rebellion, but as the Los Angeles Times reported, the response of the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS, to which Mali belongs, was to impose a blockade “that would starve the landlocked country of fuel within days and leave the junta without money from the regional bank in Senegal to pay soldiers and civil servants.”

At the time, in 2012, it was unlikely that Islamic militant groups like Ansar Dine and its ally, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), could challenge the MNLA for supremacy in the north and realize their goal of imposing sharia or Islamic law in the captured northern cities. The Tuareg were seasoned fighters fresh from defending Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, and Mali’s army was demoralized in the face of the skilled and heavily armed rebels and ill equipped to defeat them. Pressure on the military junta from ECOWAS and the African Union resulted in its leaders agreeing to transition to civilian government in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Today’s coup leaders have hastily formed a junta government, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), which is led by Colonel Assimi Goita, head of the country’s special forces. A recent article in the Washington Post reports that Col. Goita received training from the U.S. and worked closely with Special Operations for years on counterterrorism. Goita also received training from Germany and France. His training with U.S. forces was under a program called Operation Flintlock, where he attended Joint Special Operations University in Florida. However, Pentagon spokesman condemned the coup and stated that it was “inconsistent with U.S. military training and education.”

U.S. special envoy to Africa’s Sahel region, Peter Pham, told the Post that an investigation into Mali’s military partnership with the U.S. is being initiated. He stated categorically that “there is no further training or support for the Malian armed forces—full stop.”

Mali’s interest to Western imperialism

In a recent article, The New York Times highlighted that both France and the U.S. seek to reestablish political stability in the countries of the Sahel due largely to an Islamic insurgency that is gaining strength not only in Mali but in neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger, where the U.S. has several bases and troops stationed. The Times report quoted Kyle Murphy, a former senior analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying that “Mali’s internal governance and security challenges are driving instability across the Sahel. … This matters to the United States.” Murphy added that not only have civilian populations suffered but that the conflict is driving the displacement of millions of civilians as well.

France has voiced its opposition to the coup, and the authors of a CNN report cite its $1 billion operation in Mali as evidence of its commitment to its mission there, which originated in 2013 as Operation Barkhane. France’s counterinsurgency operations are heavily reliant on U.S. military assets in the region. The U.S. has a drone base in neighboring Niger, Air Base 201 outside of Agadaz, where U.S. drones provide support for French and G5 Sahel counterinsurgency operations. The Trump administration has threatened to close the base and rescind financial support for the French mission but so far has not made good on its threat.

The French and U.S. campaign in Mali has also elicited the support of the United Nations. The UN mission, named MINUSMA, has been operating since April 2013, and as of March 2020, 13,500 uniformed troops have been deployed to Mali, with over 200 casualties to date, the UN’s deadliest mission.

Judd Devermont, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies website, argues that the counterterrorism mission of AFRICOM and its regional allies—France and the G5 Sahel countries—has been unsuccessful as a means of suppressing the Islamic insurgency and reestablishing stability in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel. For Devermont, the focus on terrorism veils more important U.S. investments in Africa, which he identifie as including building ties to each of the region’s governments that “promotes U.S. values and interests and responds to humanitarian and health crisis—including the coronavirus pandemic.”

When providing more detail on exactly what is meant by building ties to African governments, Devermont explained that “these relationships are essential to opening markets for the U.S. private sector; countering malign behavior by China and Russia; and shaping decisions at international forums, including the UN Security Council.”

Devermont is willing to admit what most of the bourgeois press ignores, which is to say that U.S. capital—but also French and British as well—seeks to impose neoliberal market reforms on African nations and remain engaged there militarily as a bulwark to creeping Chinese and Russian interests on the continent.

Earlier, in the first of a two-part look at imperialism in Africa (see French imperialism’s quagmire in Africa), this author identified French capital’s interest in its former West African colonies. And U.S. capital is invested there as well. While China has rapidly arisen to the top of the list of investors in Africa in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade, the U.S. and France are major investors and trade partners with African countries in the Sahel and elsewhere on the continent.

Combined and uneven development

Leon Trotsky is often credited with discovering the historical law known as combined and uneven development, although the theory has its roots in the historical materialism of Marx and Engels. Marx famously expressed in the “Communist Manifesto” that capital, due to the demands of competition and capital accumulation, requires “a constantly expanding market for its products. … It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

Today, capitalism is truly global in its scope; however, because capitalism develops unevenly across the world, developing countries have not been able to industrialize organically, but instead have been subject to the whims of imperialism and the movement of finance capital to countries and industries where the potential for capital accumulation is most advantageous.

What Trotsky discovered, in his examination of Russia and its relationship to industrial Europe, is that while most of the country was dominated by a pre-capitalist agricultural mode of production, Russia’s urban centers, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, were rapidly developing large industrial enterprises that employed thousands and were often bankrolled by foreign capital. This meant that once Russia experienced its first major revolutionary crisis in 1905, the urban working class and its allies among the impoverished peasants played a leading role in raising democratic demands such as a constitution, parliament, and land reform. The Russian bourgeoisie, on the other hand, tied as they were to foreign capital, clung to moderate democratic demands and accepted Tsar Nicholas’ tepid October Manifesto and its creation of a Duma with only consultative powers.

Trotsky’s analysis of the 1905 events and the ensuing revolutions of 1917 affirmed that for the Russian peasantry, their centuries-old yearning for land reform would be sated by neither the autocracy nor the bourgeoisie. Only their support for the revolutionary working class and its socialist program could realize urgently needed land reform. The conclusion that Trotsky drew from these events was that the peasantry’s most reliable ally was the urban working class, and that under its leadership, meaningful land reform was possible. The theory that emerged from the lessons of 1905 and 1917 was Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.

Mali, in some respects resembles Russia of 1917 insofar as the country is dominated by subsistence agriculture that reflects a pre-capitalist agricultural mode of production. But unlike Russia of 1917, Mali lacks a militant urban working class led by a revolutionary socialist political party that is prepared to take state power and solve Mali’s pressing political and economic crises.

According to most news accounts, Mali’s protests were being fueled by unemployed youth organized by the M5-RFP opposition parties that were challenging Keïta’s hold on power. While there are reports of strike action in Bamako, Mali’s economy supports a small proletariat in comparison to its farming population, which includes three-quarters of Mali’s 15.3 million people, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The M5-RFP coalition is merely a political opposition. Its leaders were pressing for an end to Keïta’s regime and for “free” parliamentary elections. It has no clearly articulated platform to address Mali’s economic crisis or the ongoing Islamic insurgency. A prominent protest leader, Mahmoud Dicko, is not associated with the M5 parties and is a former president of Mali’s High Islamic Council. He is a reactionary who has publicly condemned sex education in schools and homosexuality, but as journalists writing for The New Humanitarian noted, his “ability to pull protesters onto the streets demonstrates an increasing appetite for a political alternative in Mali.”

The demands of the youthful protesters will remain unfulfilled in Mali’s current political climate, whether the junta retains power or new elections produce a civilian government. Neither the military junta nor the M5 opposition can alleviate the suffering of the masses from the turmoil caused by economic crisis, extreme poverty, the effects of climate change, woefully inadequate health care to address COVID-19, and the threats posed by reactionary Islamists.

For Mali’s working class and its allies among the oppressed urban youth and rural peasantry, the only way forward is to link their struggle with the militant working class in more economically advanced countries like Nigeria and South Africa. Not all African countries are treated equally by foreign capital. Nigeria and South Africa, for example, receive the lion’s share of FDI. Their economies are more intrinsically linked to global production and trade, and their working class has decades of experience in the class struggle. If the working class of those countries were to take state power into their own hands, it would very likely spark a pan-African revolt of workers and peasants. A successful socialist revolution in Africa might take further measures to create a continent-wide federation—a United Socialist States of Africa.

Still necessary as a first step is for workers all over the continent to forge revolutionary parties devoted to defeating Africa’s corrupt bourgeois governments and clearing the path to socialism and liberation.

This article was originally published on August 28th on Socialist Resurgence.

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