Thousands of people demonstrated in Mali’s capital on Wednesday, according to AFP journalists, backing the nation’s military rulers and protesting perceived foreign meddling in the Sahel state.
The protest comes as military strongman Colonel Assimi Goita faces growing pressure from European powers to renounce a possible deal with Russian private-security firm Wagner.
Former colonial power France — which has thousands of troops in Mali — warned against the deal after reports Mali was close to hiring 1,000 Wagner paramilitaries surfaced this month.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said this week that her government “will not be able to cohabit with mercenaries”.
Germany, which also has troops in the war-torn nation of 19 million, said it would reconsider its deployment should Mali strike a deal with Wagner.
And on Wednesday, Estonia’s Defence Minister Kalle Laanet told Vikerraadio, a state radio station there, that if Mali reached a deal with Wagner, the Estonian contingent would leave. They have about 100 soldiers there.
French intervention ‘failed’
One police official who asked to remain anonymous said around three thousand people had turned out for Wednesday’s rally in the capital Bamako.
Many protesters waved Malian flags and carried pro-military placards, AFP journalists saw. Some also waved Russian flags.
Siriki Kouyate, a spokesman for the group that staged the protest, said France’s military intervention in Mali had failed.
“This cannot go on,” he added.
Mali has been struggling to quell a brutal jihadist insurgency that first emerged in 2012, but has since spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
France intervened in Mali in 2013 and beat back a jihadist advance, but the conflict grew despite the presence of French troops.
French military involvement has led to periodic protests in Mali, and is frequently criticised on social media.
Wednesday’s protest also comes amid increasing concerns among Mali’s partners that the government will fail to hold elections early next year.
Goita overthrew president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last year, and staged a second coup against an interim government in May.
While he has promised to uphold a February 2022 deadline for elections set by the interim government, few preparations have been made.
Earlier this month, hundreds also protested in Bamako after the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States said the election deadline was “non-negotiable”.
In a speech on Tuesday evening, Goita called on Mali’s international partners to adopt “a better reading of the situation” in the country.