Mali’s military rulers say they did not force France to remove its soldiers from the West African nation. France withdrew its troops last year ending a nine-year military operation in the country to fight armed groups.
In the absence of French forces, Mali’s military rulers brought in Russia’s Wagner group to boost government soldiers.
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Last month, the European Union slapped sanctions on the head of Wagner’s forces in Mali, saying mercenaries “have been involved in acts of violence and multiple human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings”.
Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga spoke to Al Jazeera about the ongoing fight against rebels in Mali, as well as Bamako’s relations with France, Russia and the African Union.
Al Jazeera: How do you currently describe relations with African nations, especially after the recent African Union summit that maintained the pending membership of Mali?
Choguel Kokalla Maiga: Many African leaders understand Mali’s position in a good manner. We are heading towards what the people want, which is to fight terrorism and achieve security and stability and maintain the constitutional system. All that is happening from the pressure of organisations. Even before the summit, there was a visit of officials, and after following what we heard from them relaying to the African leaders on the situation on the ground, I believe there is a closeness in viewpoints.
Al Jazeera: What are your expectations of African countries in light of the economic and security situation that Mali is going through?
Maiga: In Mali and neighbouring countries, there is another closeness from being the same country, same organisation, and same challenges. Two or three years ago, the situation was much direr and there were many clashes. But now our army has taken things into its own hands.
What changed was the leadership, we now have a new president of the country who has a clear vision, and the first and foremost priority is achieving security – then food security and providing health services, after that transitioning to constitutional organisations and not the opposite. We have done a lot of reform. We have conducted elections over 30 years but did not reach a result. We have countries in Asia such as Afghanistan, which lasted 20 years with foreign forces and then they withdrew. That is why the people must be left to solve their problems by themselves.
Al Jazeera: Since things have changed, as you say, and you would like to listen to what the people want, speak to us on the expected referendum that is supposed to take place this month.
Maiga: The referendum will take place according to the constitution and, God willing, this referendum will take place.
Al Jazeera: But until now the electoral bodies have not been invited.
Maiga: We have established an independent body to supervise the elections and this organisation is fully independent and will determine the way the referendum will take place. Thus, we are working on the signal of the elections body.
Al Jazeera: You have abandoned military cooperation agreements with France. How do you assess this step and the results that followed on the ground?
Maiga: I would like to correct this first – we did not abandon cooperation with France. Let us say France or France’s leaders are the ones who wanted to impose on our country what should be done, what we should think about, and what to say. But we told them this era and this time has been long gone. We choose and the people choose.
It was the choice of our French friends because there is now a government that they do not like after a new president and prime minister were appointed. They decided to leave and we said, ‘This is your choice.’ I wanted to correct this point – that they are the ones who wanted to leave, and they believed we would beg them to stay.
Al Jazeera: What were the results of French forces withdrawing from Mali?
Maiga: We have done an objective analysis of the situation in an inclusive and objective manner and we came to some conclusions: terrorism existed in northern Mali when the Malian government demanded France’s help at that time.
The president of France, Francois Hollande, decided the French army has three goals: to defeat terrorism, strengthen and regain the country’s authority, and apply the constitution. In one area, France demanded Malians to not interfere, which allowed the terrorism to expand, and the terrorism was not defeated, the country did not regain its full authority, and the UN decisions have not been applied. Also, we have precise information and evidence that some terrorists were in contact with France, and we have looked into various areas around the world and what is called the international community, and we did not see peace and safety in many places.
I have mentioned the example of Afghanistan and how 20 years later the foreign forces left the country. The French said they will leave so we let them leave, and we want to choose a partner that we can rely on, that does not blackmail.
Al Jazeera: The new partner you speak of is Russia, right?
Maiga: Yes, Russia is the partner, this is known, but it is not the only partner. We say we’re in partnership with everyone. Firstly we demand the respect of our authority – no orders should be imposed on us. Secondly is Mali’s free choice and we should ask what the Malian people want.
Al Jazeera: The EU and US have expressed concern with the operations of the Wagner Group in Mali. Is this legitimate in your opinion?
Maiga: These concerns are not legitimate. Our aim is peace and safety in Mali. Previously, hundreds of Malians were assaulted and we cannot keep hearing what comes from the outside. These people and the army have been getting killed for a long time, and when we buy a plane to transport our army and perform operations, our soldiers are getting killed. We did not get any support, this is not acceptable. We went to work with those who are not subject to pressure, and in a year our army managed to do what it could not do in 30 years because of the work and cooperation with Russia.
Many things changed due to cooperation with Russia and other parties such as China and Turkey and others. That is why we say the priority is our people, and we hear what the EU and US officials say, and we spoke to them. I spoke to the ambassadors of their countries who are present in Mali and told them about these matters and explained our point of view. We said there are countries that impose pressure from the EU and enter UN halls to put a stick in the wheel. This is their goal.
Al Jazeera: But this cooperation with Russia, what has it achieved so far especially when it comes to security in Mali?
Maiga: The results that I mentioned are the picture on ground has changed. Before the cooperation with Russia, there was genocide and killing of whole areas. Military bases were also targeted in the desert, ones that were even funded from the outside. This was the situation and the soldiers had to leave their camps to look for water.
Today, we have planes, helicopters, drones, cargo and transport aircraft. Now we do not need interference of any other country. We only demand respect of our authority.
Al Jazeera: French authorities now accuse you of incitement of the French role in Africa. How do you respond to this accusation?
Maiga: In truth, we aim to achieve resolving our issues, we do not have a problem with the French people. As you know in France, after the Algerians, the Malians come in second place in France in importance, and French authorities must look into this matter. Most Malians realise there is a partnership, and the people of other countries must also look into what we did. If this is not a source of inspiration, this is up to them.
This interview has been edited for length