Mali’s military leaders say they have not forced 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 combat armed groups.
In the absence of French troops, Mali’s military rulers enlisted the Russian Wagner group to reinforce government soldiers.
Last month, the European Union imposed sanctions on the head of Wagner’s forces in Mali, saying mercenaries were “involved in acts of violence and multiple human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings”.
Mali Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga spoke to Al Jazeera about the ongoing fight against rebels in Mali and about Bamako’s relations with France, Russia and the African Union.
Al Jazeera: How do you currently describe relations with African countries, especially after the recent African Union summit that upheld Mali’s pending membership?
Choguel Kokalla Maiga: Many African leaders understand Mali’s position well. We are moving towards what the people want, which is to fight terrorism, to achieve security and stability and to maintain the constitutional system. All of this happens under pressure from organizations. Even before the summit there was a visit from officials, and after following what we heard from them about the situation on the ground to African leaders, I believe the positions are close.
Al Jazeera: What are your expectations of African countries in light of the economic and security situation Mali is going through?
Maiga: In Mali and the neighboring countries there is a different connection by being the same country, the same organization and the same challenges. Two or three years ago the situation was much more dire and there were many clashes. But now our army has taken matters 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 to achieve security – then food security and the provision of health services, then the transition to constitutional organizations and not the other way around . We have made many reforms. We have held elections for more than 30 years, but have not achieved a result. We have countries in Asia, like Afghanistan, that held out for 20 years with foreign troops and then they pulled out. Therefore, the people should be left to solve their problems on their own.
Al Jazeera: Since things have changed, as you say, and you want to listen to what the people want, speak to us about the expected referendum that should 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 so far the electoral bodies have not been invited.
Maiga: We have set up an independent body to oversee the elections and this organization is completely independent and determines the way the referendum will take place. So we are working on the signal from the electoral body.
Al Jazeera: You have abandoned military cooperation agreements with France. How do you rate this step and the results that followed in practice?
Maiga: I want to correct this first: we have not given up cooperation with France. Let’s say that France or the leaders of France are the ones who wanted to impose on our country what should be done, what to think about and what to say. But we told them this age and this time is long gone. We choose and the people choose.
It was the choice of our French friends because there is now a government they don’t like after a new president and prime minister have been 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 thought we would beg them to stay.
Al Jazeera: What were the results of the French troops withdrawing from Mali?
Maiga: We made an objective analysis of the situation in an inclusive and objective way and we came to some conclusions: Terrorism existed in the north of Mali when the Malian government at that time demanded the help of France.
The President of France, François Hollande, decided that the French army has three goals: to defeat terrorism, to strengthen and regain the authority of the country, and to apply the constitution. In one area, France required Malians not to interfere, allowing terrorism to spread, terrorism not to be defeated, the country not to regain full authority, and UN decrees not to be applied. We also have accurate information and evidence that some terrorists were in contact with France, and we investigated different areas of the world and what is called the international community, and we saw no peace and security in many places.
I mentioned the example of Afghanistan and how 20 years later the foreign troops left the country. The French said they will leave, so let’s leave them, and we want to choose a partner we can rely on, who doesn’t blackmail.
Al Jazeera: The new partner you’re talking about is Russia, right?
Maiga: Yes, Russia is the partner, this is known, but it is not the only partner. We say we work with everyone. First, we demand the respect of our authority – orders should not be imposed on us. Secondly, it is Mali’s free choice and we have to ask ourselves what the Malian people want.
Al Jazeera: The EU and the US have expressed concern about the Wagner Group’s operations in Mali. Do you think this is legit?
Maiga: These concerns are not legitimate. Our goal is peace and security in Mali. Previously, hundreds of Malians were mistreated and we cannot continue to hear what is coming from outside. These people and the military have been killed for a long time, and if we buy an aircraft to carry our military and conduct operations, our soldiers will be killed. We received no support whatsoever, this is unacceptable. We went to work with those who are not under 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.
Much has changed through cooperation with Russia and other parties such as China and Turkey and others. That’s why we say the priority is our people, and we hear what the EU and US officials are saying, and we’ve talked to them. I spoke to the ambassadors of their countries who are present in Mali and told them about these matters and explained our position. We said that there are countries that are pushing from the EU and entering UN halls to put a stick in the wheel. This is their goal.
Al Jazeera: But what has this cooperation with Russia achieved so far, especially when it comes to security in Mali?
Maiga: The results I mentioned are that the image on the ground has changed. Before cooperation with Russia, there was genocide and murder in whole areas. Military bases were also targeted in the desert, which were even financed from outside. This was the situation and the soldiers had to leave their camp to find water.
Today we have planes, helicopters, drones, cargo and transport planes. Now we don’t need any interference from any other country. We only demand respect for our authority.
Al Jazeera: French authorities are now accusing you of inciting the French role in Africa. How do you respond to this accusation?
Maiga: In reality, we strive to solve our problems, we have no problem with the French people. As you know, in France, after the Algerians, the Malians are second in France in importance, and the French authorities must investigate this matter. Most Malians realize that there is a partnership, and the people of other countries should also look at what we have done. If this isn’t a source of inspiration, that’s on them.
This interview has been edited for length