Members of the UN Security Council will travel to the Sahel this weekend to push Mali to return to civilian power after two military coups in nine months in a region plagued by jihadist violence.
“The Sahel region is exposed to all kinds of challenges,” Niger’s ambassador to the United Nations Abdou Abarry told AFP.
“This is where the stakes are in the fight against terrorism, humanitarian issues, the impact of climate change and good governance,” said Abarry.
“The situation in the Sahel remains very fragile”, said French ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Riviere, who is leading the trip to Mali together with Abarry.
Riviere spoke of the need to stabilize Mali and “discuss how to support the efforts of the G5 Sahel countries to ensure their security”.
In Mali, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, while swathes of the country have little or no state presence in the face of a jihadist insurgency.
For the 15 members of the Security Council, traveling to a country ruled by a military junta is not tantamount to endorsing its two recent coups d’etat, several Western and African diplomats told AFP.
The UN Security Council is heading to the region to support regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States and “insist on respecting electoral deadlines and, if this is not possible, at least have a realistic timetable,” one of the diplomats told AFP.
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, chair of the West African bloc ECOWAS, has told Mali’s ruling junta that elections announced for February must ahead on schedule, his delegation said Sunday.
Akufo-Addo delivered the message to the country’s strongman, Colonel Assimi Goita, during talks in Bamako.
Goita is behind both Mali’s recent coups, having installed a civilian-led interim government under international pressure after the first one only to remove it in May, later declaring himself interim president.
But a senior member of the ECOWAS delegation told AFP: “Our message was unambiguous and we said it clearly: the elections have to be held on the scheduled dates.
“The aim was to get a firm message across, and we did,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
An ECOWAS delegation will return to Bamako at the end of October, when they hope to receive the assurances they are seeking.
Earlier Goita, who overthrew the elected president last year, met the Ghanaian leader at Bamako airport, Mali’s presidency announced on social media.
Ghana currently holds ECOWAS’s rotating chair, but Akufo-Addo was accompanied by Nigeria’s ex-president Goodluck Jonathan — who is mediating in the Malian crisis — and Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, the ECOWAS commission president.
The local authorities briefed Malian state media only, an AFP correspondent said.
The war-torn Sahel country is facing international pressure to swiftly restore civilian rule
Goita pledged to hold elections in February next year, but his government has been slow to prepare for the poll and the junta has suggested the deadline may not be met.
The ECOWAS visit also comes at a delicate moment diplomatically.
France is planning to scale back its military presence across the jihadist-ridden Sahel and Bamako has reportedly considered hiring 1,000 Russian paramilitaries from private security firm Wagner.
France has warned that any deal with Wagner would put its deployment in doubt.
ECOWAS last month urged Mali to draw up a timetable by the end of October of “key stages” ahead of February elections.
The regional group of 15 countries said a list of individuals and organisations would be drawn up who would face targeted sanctions if they delay the return to civilian rule.
Pope Francis on Sunday met with Gloria Cecilia Narvaez, a Franciscan nun from Colombia, a day after she was freed by jihadists in Mali after more than four years of captivity, a Vatican spokesman said.
Sister Gloria was taken hostage on February 7, 2017, in southern Mali near the border with Burkina Faso where she had been working as a missionary.
“This morning, before the celebration of the holy mass to open the bishops’ synod, the pope greeted the recently freed Colombian sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez,” Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
Mali’s presidency had announced Sister Gloria’s release on Saturday, with a statement on the presidential Twitter account paying tribute to her “courage and bravery” along with photos of the nun taken after her release.
“I thank the Malian authorities, the president, all the Malian authorities, for all the efforts you’ve made to liberate me, may God bless you, may God bless Mali,” Sister Gloria said in images broadcast on state television showing her with Mali’s interim president Colonel Assimi Goita and the archbishop of Bamako Jean Zerbo.
“I am very happy, I stayed healthy for five years, thank God,” the nun said, smiling and wearing a yellow robe.
Her liberation had been the fruit of “four years and eight months of the combined effort of several intelligence services”, the presidency said.
In the official statement, Goita assured that “efforts are under way” to secure the release of all those still being held in Mali.
Archbishop Zerbo said Sister Gloria was “doing well”.
“We prayed a lot for her release. I thank the Malian authorities and other good people who made this release possible,” the archbishop said.
The nun boarded a plane to Rome on Saturday evening.
Saved younger nuns
Sister Gloria, 59, was kidnapped near Koutiala, 400 kilometres (250 miles) east of Bamako. She had worked as a missionary for six years in the parish of Karangasso with three other nuns.
According to one of her colleagues, Sister Carmen Isabel Valencia, she offered herself in place of two younger nuns the kidnappers were preparing to take.
“She is a woman of a very particular human quality, down to earth … moved by the love of the poor,” Sister Carmen said.
In Colombia, her brother Edgar Narvaez said he was very emotional after receiving news of her release.
“She is in good health, thank God. They sent me pictures and she looks well,” he told AFP.
In a letter sent last July by the Red Cross to her brother, Sister Gloria said she was held by “a group of GSIM”, the Al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims, the largest jihadist alliance in the Sahel.
A source close to the negotiations to release her told AFP she had not been ill-treated during her captivity and during that time she had learned the Koran.
“The negotiations lasted months, years,” said the source, without giving further details.
Bound for Rome
In Colombia, Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez — who is also foreign minister — said she was “very happy” at Sister Gloria’s release, which she attributed to the work of the government and also stressed the “humanitarian efforts of the French government to contribute to this success”.
National police director Jorge Luis Vargas said meetings had been held with several European and African ambassadors to try to secure the nun’s release.
“With Interpol, and with other international organisations, we have always sought to bring those responsible to justice.”
There were irregular reports about the nun over the years, including at the beginning of 2021 when two Europeans who managed to escape captivity reported that she was well.
Then in March, her brother received proof that she was still alive, passed on from the Red Cross.
Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in the north of the country in 2012, and which has since spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Kidnappings, once rare, have become more common in recent years as a security crisis has deepened in Mali, particularly in the centre of the former French colony.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly warned Mali on Tuesday against a deal with Russian private security group Wagner amid claims the West African country’s junta is close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries.
Two French sources told AFP on Tuesday that the Malian government was nearing a deal with the controversial Russian firm, which would underline Moscow’s growing influence in the region.
“If the Malian authorities entered into a contract with Wagner, it would be extremely worrying and contradictory, incoherent with everything that we have done for years and we intend to do to support the countries of the Sahel region,” Parly told a parliamentary commission.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry did not deny the discussions, which were first reported by Reuters news agency on Monday.
“Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country,” the spokesperson told AFP. “We haven’t signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone.”
In 2013, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist militants overran the north of the country.
Since then, Paris has deployed thousands of troops to the wider Sahel region where they carry out operations alongside local forces against Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since a coup in August 2020 toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
French leader Emmanuel Macron has been angered by backsliding on commitments to power-sharing and democratic rule, as well as decisions to free imprisoned jihadists in exchange for hostages.
France suspended military cooperation with Mali last June, and Macron has announced plans to close bases in northern Mali and draw down the presence of French troops in the region.
The arrival of Russian mercenaries in Mali would be a “red line” for Macron, one of the French sources said, adding that Paris could send its troops stationed in the country to neighbouring Niger.
‘Worried About Security’
In recent years, Russian paramilitaries, “security instructors”, companies and advisors have grown increasingly influential in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR), whose relations with Paris have also nosedived.
Through close diplomatic and security ties, Russian companies have gained concessions in the CAR’s mining sector.
One of the French sources said the deal under discussion between Wagner and Mali would involve Russian access to mining rights.
Forces from Wagner are also reported to be present in various countries elsewhere in Africa, including in Libya in support of strongman Khalifa Haftar, in Sudan and in Mozambique.
Wagner was first seen in Mali by AFP at the end of 2019 when a small team was identified in the capital Bamako just after former president Keita had signed a military cooperation deal with Russia.
A diplomat in the Russian embassy in Mali told AFP that “we are not aware of any contract being signed between Mali and Wagner” and that the embassy had “not been the intermediary”.
“Like France and other countries, we are worried about security in the region,” the diplomat said.
In the CAR, France and NGOs have denounced the role played by Wagner, which is allegedly headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin, who has been sanctioned by both the EU and US, has denied links to Wagner and any role in conflicts in Africa.
The West African bloc ECOWAS said on Tuesday that it feared potential delays in elections in Mali aimed at restoring civilian rule following a coup last year.
In a statement, the group said it remained “worried by the lack of concrete action” to prepare for the vote, which has been promised for February 2022 by strongman Colonel Assimi Goita.
The announcement came at the end of a three-day mission to Mali led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has repeatedly voiced fears about the situation in Mali, one of the region’s poorest and most volatile states.
“The mission recalled the importance of respecting the date of the announced elections in order to demonstrate the credibility of the transition process,” said the ECOWAS statement, which was read out to journalists in Bamako.
Already struggling with a bloody jihadist conflict, Mali slid into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
The military then appointed an interim civilian government tasked with steering back to democratic rule.
But Goita deposed the civilian leaders of this interim government in May — in a second coup — and was later declared president himself.
He has pledged to respect the February deadline for civilian elections set by the interim government, which also set October 31 as a date for holding a constitutional referendum.
Rampant insecurity in Mali, and the scale of the task, has cast doubt on the reform timetable, however.
Swathes of the vast country lie outside of government control because of a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in the north in 2012, before spreading to the centre of the country, as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mali is also suffers from chronic political instability.
Last week, a police special-forces commander who had been detained as part of an investigation into the killings of protesters in 2020, was released after armed police officers turned up at the prison where he was being held.
Mali, ranked 10th in Africa, are among eight countries that have been barred from hosting 2022 World Cup qualifiers next month after failing Confederation of African Football (CAF) venue inspections.
Other nations that must use a neutral ground for a home fixture between September 1-8 are Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, Namibia and Niger.
Mali boasted six international-standard stadiums, including two in Bamako, when they staged the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations.
Poor stadium maintenance is a major problem in Africa and South African Patrice Motsepe warned offenders soon after being elected CAF president this year to rectify the situation or face the consequences.
The bans were confirmed when FIFA released the fixtures for the first two rounds of a group programme that also involves double matchdays in October and November.
All 40 teams bidding for five places at the 2022 finals in Qatar will play two fixtures — one home and one away — during September.
With only the 10 section winners advancing to the final elimination phase next March, the potential loss of home advantage for three matches could be crucial.
Countries whose stadium facilities and or playing surfaces were considered not up to international standards were allowed to nominate alternate venues.
Burkina Faso, Niger (both Marrakech), Djibouti (Rabat) and Mali (Agadir) opted for Morocco and Malawi and Namibia (both Soweto) selected South Africa.
The Central African Republic (Douala) picked Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau (Nouakchott) decided on Mauritania.
All the countries chose venues relatively close geographically except Djibouti as Djibouti City is about 5,600 kilometres (3,480 miles) southeast of Rabat if flying directly between the capital cities.
A prominent Ivorian political figure who has been sentenced to a 20-year jail term in absentia has been detained in Mali’s capital Bamako, his party and a Malian security source said Wednesday.
Mohamed Sess Soukou, also known as Ben Souck, “was arrested in the streets of Bamako by four men in civilian clothes wearing balaclavas,” his GPS party said in a statement.
“Under armed threat, Mr. Sess was forced to get into a 4×4 with tinted windows and without licence plates. He has been missing since then,” it said.
The arrest happened on Tuesday, the statement said.
A Malian security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “Ben Souck was detained for investigation. I cannot say more for the time being. He is well and all his rights are being respected.”
A Malian judicial source said Côte d’Ivoire had filed an arrest warrant against him.
Sess is a former MP and mayor of the town of Dabou, near Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s economic hub.
He is a leader of the Generations and Peoples in Solidarity (GPS) party founded by former prime minister Guillaume Soro, who was once a close ally of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara but fell out with him in early 2019 and went into exile.
In June, Soro was given a life sentence in absentia for fomenting “civil and military insurrection” when he tried to return home in December 2019.
Among the other defendants at the trial, Sess was given a 20-year term in absentia on a charge of endangering state security. The GPS party was ordered to be dissolved.
“We don’t know what they are accusing him of,” an ally of Sess said, adding that his supporters were hiring a lawyer.
Soro, 49, was a rebel leader whose forces controlled northern Côte d’Ivoire in the first decade of the century, during the turbulent presidency of Ouattara’s predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo.
It was Soro’s military help that tipped the situation in Ouattara’s favour when conflict erupted after Gbagbo refused to accept election defeat in October 2010 and was forced out of office.
Soro was rewarded with the appointment as Ouattara’s first prime minister, and then moved to the position of speaker of the National Assembly in 2012, a post he held until he and Ouattara fell out in 2019.