LAGOS — In January 2017, the Malian foreign minister under President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta organized Mali’s largest diplomatic event in years, the Africa-France summit. Thirty-five heads of state convened in the capital, Bamako, requiring close cooperation with the French presidency and foreign ministry.
The summit, the foreign minister declared at the time, was a testimony to “the strength of the ties of friendship and solidarity between Mali and France,” and “the high regard in which we are united within the framework of a common vision, based on shared responsibility and effective solidarity.”
Fast-forward nearly six years later, the Malian foreign minister under the military leader President Assimi Goïta is using a radically different discourse, especially toward France. In an official letter addressed to the rotating president of the United Nations Security Council — China — on Aug. 15, 2022, the minister wrote that “France has made use of those flagrant violations of Malian airspace to collect intelligence for the benefit of terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and to drop arms and ammunition to them.”
The letter went on to say that “should France persist in its behavior, which undermines the stability and security of our country, the Government of Mali reserves the right to resort to self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter” and asked for an emergency Security Council meeting.
The only constant between those two very different remarks is that the same man, 57-year-old Abdoulaye Diop, delivered them both. Diop was head of Malian diplomacy from 2014 to 2017, under President Keïta, and returned to his position in June 2021, working for the transitional government led by President Col. Goïta.
Diop’s political career
Diop’s journey from extolling the bonds between Mali and France to denouncing them mirrors the larger transformation occurring in the Sahel region of West Africa ever since France intervened militarily to dislodge jihadist groups who had occupied Mali’s northern regions in 2013. After France’s Opération Serval and Chadian and Malian soldiers successfully chased out militants linked to Al Qaeda from Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, Malians waved French flags in the streets and then-President François Hollande was greeted with rapturous applause by the people of Bamako.
A career diplomat who has held the ambassador post in Washington, Diop has worked for the European Development Fund, the World Food Program and the African Union. His first tenure as foreign minister had a decidedly pro-Western feel to it. Keïta’s government was elected in 2014 after the initial French intervention dislodged jihadist groups and paved the way for national elections. The government was thus favorable to the biggest French military presence outside France in the world and the largest foreign mission for the country in decades.
Besides maintaining positive relations with France, one of Diop’s foremost tasks when he took his post in 2014 was to negotiate a peace treaty on behalf of the Malian government with the same rebel groups that had torn through the northern two-thirds of the country’s territory and led the way for Al Qaeda-linked groups to seize the land in 2012. Those talks resulted in the Algiers Accord, the definitive peace agreement between the Malian government and rebel groups, signed in Bamako on May 15, 2015. Though controversial then and despite several unimplemented clauses, the Algiers Accord is still the basis for Malian peace efforts today.
The Malian public’s perception of the French military intervention was also tied to the question of the country’s far-northern Kidal region, on the border with Algeria. After Chadian, French and Malian soldiers took Kidal back in 2013, the French military unofficially gave separatist Tuareg rebels nominal control over the region. Justified to keep the peace, this move angered the Malian state, which nonetheless accepted the terms because it was operating from a position of weakness.
Many Malians consider the secular Tuareg rebels the real terrorists because they had collaborated with jihadist groups and originally cut the country in half. France’s deal with them was seen in some circles as tantamount to supporting a terrorist organization.
The beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s term as president of France in May 2017 signaled a decline in French and Malian relations. Though not universally loved, the image of Macron’s predecessor Hollande was tied to the success of the initial intervention, and he left a legacy that forgave some of his more controversial policy decisions. Macron’s less-diplomatic tone and patronizing comments toward African leaders “often put fuel on the fire,” said Moussa Mara, who was prime minister of Mali from 2014 to 2015.
“His words exacerbated the problem and gave an opportunity for those who were looking for tension to overreact. And then from overreaction to overreaction, we’ve arrived at the current situation,” Mara explained in an interview with PassBlue.
Keïta dismissed Diop at the end of 2017, and “it’s said that it was due to a disagreement with IBK’s circle, and that he learned of his dismissal on television,” said Moustapha Gano, a political analyst at the Jean Jaurès Foundation in Paris, referring to Keïta’s initials. Diop later took a job as chief of staff to African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Diop held this post until his reinstatement as foreign minister in 2021.
Despite billions of dollars spent by international donors on security in the region since 2013, terrorist attacks intensified and continue to spread southward. Jihadist groups have struck Bamako on multiple occasions and carried out offensives in the central Mopti and southern Ségou and Kayes regions. Many Malians grew fed up with France’s inability to contain the growing attacks. Public opinion shifted, and by 2020, popular protests that called for both the removal of Keïta and the French military gave way to a military coup that forced Keïta from power. (He died on Jan. 16, 2022.)
Russian mercenaries replaced the French in late 2021. The United States has said that the Russian troops belong to the Wagner Group militia, owned by Putin’s close ally Yevgeny Progozhin. Although Diop consistently says the militia are official Russian government troops, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in 2021 that Mali had signed a deal with a private Russian security company, not the Russian military.
The brief window of good relations between Mali and France after the initial successful French intervention was an aberration in history, and the return to tensions is a return to a more historical norm. “2013 signified much better relations between Mali and France, but the rest of history between the two has been very difficult,” Mara said.
After a rocky transitional government that shared power between civilians and the military junta fired the coup leaders’ defense minister, the power-sharing agreement fell apart in 2022, and soldiers led by Colonel Goïta staged a second coup to consolidate their hold on political power. They appointed veteran Diop to head their diplomatic outreach, and as the Economic Community of West African States regional body (Ecowas) and Western sanctions tightened Mali’s pockets, Diop relied on his extensive rolodex to enable the government to stay alive. His trips to United Arab Emirates, Iran, Morocco and especially Russia, among others, helped the junta garner enough financial and military support to endure its isolation from Europe and other West African nations, until Ecowas sanctions were lifted in July 2022.
Since Diop began his second stint as Mali’s foreign minister, he has overseen the country’s transformation from being France’s strongest military partner in Africa to the most pro-Russian country on the continent. (Mali has mostly abstained in UN General Assembly votes this year, condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine.) During Diop’s current role as minister, France has withdrawn all of its 2,400 troops that were previously stationed in Mali under Opération Barkhane and halted its $106 million a year development program in the country. Germany has announced it will pull its peacekeeping troops out of the UN mission (Minusma) in Mali by 2024, following similar moves by Britain, Sweden, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. The European Union Training Mission, or EUTM, has suspended its military formation. Mali has banned the French state media outlets RFI and France24 from operating in the country.
“The transition chose Russia as a partner, unlike IBK, who preferred France,” said Moustapha Gano, the political analyst. “This choice is the result of the conclusions of the national conference for the re-foundation of the Malian state, which advocates for the affirmation of national sovereignty and promotion of the interests of the people, hence the strategic choice of partners.” Russia has historically been a strategic partner for Mali, especially in the early days of its independence, when Mali was allied with the Soviet Union.
Diop’s resume on his website highlights several of his achievements as foreign minister, shaping institutions that he himself has been quick to criticize in recent times.
“As Chair of the G5 Sahel Council of Ministers during Mali’s rotating chairmanship of this organization (February-December 2017), increased the visibility, credibility and effectiveness of the organization,” his resume reads. In May 2022, Mali withdrew from the organization, saying that it violated its own rules by denying Mali the rotating presidency.
Besides the G5 Sahel Council (the G5 members are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), Diop highlighted his role as the “principal government’s focal point to the United Nations/MINUSMA for the oversight and monitoring of peace and security in Mali,” as well as how he raised $3.2 billion mainly from European countries “for the economic recovery, reconstruction and implementation for the Algiers peace agreement in Mali.”
In a recent interview with Africa24, Diop said that European countries pulling their development aid from Mali is “for them to determine, not for us to comment on,” adding, “and if the feeling is to isolate Mali or whatever, I don’t think this will impress Mali in any way.”
Another high point for Diop on his resume was organizing of the 2017 Africa-France summit in Bamako and “regular appearances at the United Nations Security Council briefings and interaction with its members an UN secretariat” — institutions that he has recently indicated are biased against Mali. At the time of the Africa-France summit, Diop said that hosting the dozens of African heads of state for a conference focusing on their ties with France “is my immense pleasure.”
While circumstances on the ground have changed since 2017, some Malian political actors and analysts also see a personal interest in Diop’s changing diplomatic strategy. Moussa Mara, whom Diop worked for when Mara was prime minister, from 2014 to 2015, said that “Abdoulaye Diop exemplifies the capacity of a bureaucrat to adapt to a new context. Today the context is one of tension. To keep his position, he needs to put himself in the tension.” Regarding Diop’s public speeches over the past few months, Mara said: “I don’t think he’s completely convinced by everything he says, because we saw what he was like a couple of years ago. It’s simply about adapting to the current moment. The context right now is tension, so he adopts a posture and discourse of tension.”
Diop has made numerous trips to Moscow, each time returning to Mali with assurances that the current military government he represents will live to see another day. His dealings with the Kremlin have partly filled the military void left by France’s absence and have helped offset the devastating knock-on effects of Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine. Moscow recently announced, for example, that it would send $100 million worth of fuel, fertilizer and food to Mali.
Letter to the UN Security Council
Besides strengthening Mali’s ties with Russia and reliance on the Wagner Group for security assistance, one of Diop’s most high-profile endeavors has been to write the August 2022 letter to the Council president at the time, Ambassador Zhang Jun of China, claiming that France was providing arms and intelligence to terrorist groups. According to an expert on the Council, one way that members can answer a letter is to “let the lack of a response speak for itself.” Russia, Mali’s main ally and a permanent member of the Council, did not raise the issue for Mali in the body, and a spokesperson for the French mission to the UN told PassBlue that no meeting was held regarding the Malian letter. (China’s mission to the UN did not answer an email requesting a comment.)
The lack of response from the Security Council — which Diop addresses several times a year, when Minusma, the peacekeeping mission, appears on the regular schedule — embarrassed the Malian government, whose leaders were hoping to yield a body blow to France’s image on the world stage. Diop has since refused to reveal proof of his claim of France’s terrorist ties. A speech by Mali’s interim prime minister, Abdoulaye Maïga, at the UN General Assembly in September, called the democratically elected French government “an obscurant junta,” playing on the French government and media’s labeling of the Malian transitional government as a junta. Both Diop’s letter and Maïga’s speech played well to social media and the government’s populist base, but they have also further entrenched the country’s isolation in the pro-Russian camp.
Moussa Mara has reservations about Diop’s letter. “We’re partners with Russia,” he said. “It’s surprising that the Russians didn’t defend the dossier. It means that either the Russians weren’t involved, or they weren’t convinced by our arguments. If the proof exists, they should show it.”
Moustapha Gano, the political analyst, described an atmosphere where making more vociferous public statements against France equates to greater potential for moving up the political ladder. “According to some, Diop, who is close to Col. Sadio Camara, has been making these moves because he’s eyeing the post of prime minister,” Gano said, referring to Mali’s defense minister.
Diop did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but he still defends the letter, and in his recent interview with Africa24, he doubled down on its claims.
“Unfortunately, as time goes by, many people are losing their lives because of these duplicities,” Diop said, referring to his claims that France supported terrorists in Mali. “We have not been invited to debate this. When it happens, Mali hopes that it will happen and that we will be able to present our proof, and we hope that this opportunity will come to put an end to this situation.”
Mali’s military rulers have done a thorough job of dispatching with the political class of the Keïta era. A pillar of the Malian political establishment, former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, was arrested for corruption in 2021 and died in March 2022, from an illness, after his numerous requests for medical release were denied. Jihadists kidnapped the former main opposition leader Soumaila Cissé while Keïta was in power in March 2020, and he died that December, shortly after the initial coup against Keïta and Cissé’s October release from captivity.
Mali’s economy, like many others in the world, is gravely suffering the impacts of high inflation, brought on by global supply chain bottlenecks wrought by the Covid pandemic and more recently by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda control most of the northern Ménaka region of Mali and have been fighting each other to assert their authority. Attacks on Minusma personnel have not let up, continuing its record as the deadliest UN operation in the world.
With few substantial opposition political candidates, it seems likely that the Malian military rulers will continue to consolidate their control and that if they throw their weight around a presidential candidate in the February 2024 scheduled elections, that candidate has a strong chance of winning.
Despite uproar from Europe, French and other European troops “have been in Mali for nine years, but they have not had the desired effect,” Diop said on Africa24. “This is why the government of Mali decided to change its paradigm in order to better respond to our needs.”
Diop has found a renewed power in adapting his politics to a changing environment, but he’s far from the only politician to do so. In September, Mara, the former prime minister, became the transition’s most vocal critic, arguing in a much-debated statement he released that “given the fragility of Mali, illustrated by the presence of the entire international community at its bedside for more than a decade, the multiplication of slings and arrows and the adoption of an aggressive posture towards the outside world are counterproductive for our country.”
Mara is positioning himself as the moderate politician with an eye to the 2024 elections, but even that jockeying could be considered the most open path to political power that he has. Will Diop’s strong nationalist tone be critical to his keeping political power in the next years, or will he pivot again to a more diplomatic approach?
As Mara said, “when you’re in a transition, anyone can aim for any post.”
Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.