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Canadian commitment to Mali questioned as coup ushers in new era

OTTAWA — When armed soldiers arrested Mali's embattled president earlier this month and forced him to resign on television in a coup that has been widely condemned by the international community, Canada was among those to speak out in unequivocal ter

OTTAWA — When armed soldiers arrested Mali's embattled president earlier this month and forced him to resign on television in a coup that has been widely condemned by the international community, Canada was among those to speak out in unequivocal terms.

"Canada strongly condemns the coup d'etat in Mali," Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said in a statement on Aug. 19, using diplomatic language usually reserved for only the most serious denunciations.

The minister went on to promise that Canada would work closely with West African countries, the African Union and United Nations to return Mali to civilian rule and continue implementation of a peace deal that ostensibly ended a civil war in 2014.

Champagne's statement largely reflected the priorities of not only Canada but much of the global community in Mali: maintaining peace and stability in a part of the world where war and instability could have serious ramifications for Africa and the West.

Yet there is a sense that despite sending hundreds of peacekeepers to Mali and investing hundreds of millions in assistance in the country in recent years, Canada has become largely disengaged from it thanks to a lack of political will and interest.

"It's kind of a token involvement," said Bruno Charbonneau, an expert on Mali at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean. "You throw money at the thing and hope it sticks somewhere, it has an impact. The political interest or will from Ottawa is not really there."

Mali has teetered on the edge of instability since 2012, when the country's military launched its first coup even as nomadic rebels in the north supported by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda rebelled against the government in Bamako.

Civilian rule was eventually restored and a peace agreement between the Malian government and rebel groups signed ending the rebellion, but the country continued to be riven by intercommunal divisions and violence as well as rampant corruption.

The coup on Aug. 18 that saw president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita arrested and forced to resign was an "exclamation point" or culmination of all those factors coming together, said Jonathan Sears, an expert on Mali at the University of Winnipeg.

In an interview with The Canadian Press last week, Champagne said the federal government was rethinking its relationship and support for Mali in light of the coup. But he insisted Canada could not and would not simply walk away from the country.

Canada has a long history in Mali. Not only has the West African nation been a top recipient of Canadian foreign aid for most of the past 50 years, it has also been home to a large number of Canadian-backed mines for gold and other precious minerals.

Canada's most visible contribution to Mali in recent years, however, was the yearlong deployment starting in August 2018 of hundreds of peacekeepers to provide helicopter-borne medical evacuation and logistical support to the United Nations.

Yet the UN had to practically arm twist Canada into the mission and the federal Liberal government resisted repeated requests for Canadian troops to stay longer, all of which was seen as a signal of its lack of real interest in the country.

Two years later, Canada has 10 military officers working at the UN mission headquarters in Bamako and five police officers helping train local security forces — far fewer police officers than the 20 that were promised in 2018.

While the European Union on Wednesday elected to suspend its own military and police training missions due to the coup, it wasn't immediately clear whether the UN — including Canadian troops and police — would be following suit.

"Canadian officials are continuously monitoring the situation, but no change to police deployments to Mali are envisaged at this time," RCMP spokeswoman Robin Percival said in an email.

Meanwhile, Mali remains one of Canada's top aid recipients; the West African nation has received more than $1.6 billion since 2000, according to the federal government, including almost $140 million in 2018-19.

But while Sears says that money is making a difference to some communities, his concern is that Canada is not doing enough to address the more foundational issues afflicting Mali.

Those include the numerous internal divisions that are contributing to the growing instability and violence plaguing Mali, as well as the growing disillusionment with the country's governing class due to corruption and other challenges.

"They've kind of enabled individuals in communities to cope with the larger structural problems," Sears said of Canadian projects in Mali. "But these small successes actually kind of further entrench the larger problems."

Even before the coup, some critics, such as former Canadian diplomat Louise Ouimet, had started to question the degree to which Canada was really helping Mali as it struggles to overcome its longstanding problems and chart a sustainable path forward.

"My country, Canada, seems absent from the discussions in Bamako, at least the media do not report it, while Mali has been an important country for international co-operation for more than 40 years," Ouimet wrote in an online post last month.

Mali isn't the only place where the government is facing questions; the federal Liberals have been accused of largely ignoring international affairs and faced calls for a foreign-policy review after Canada lost its UN Security Council bid in June.

Charbonneau said it would be unfair to blame a lack of Canadian involvement or interest in Mali for this month's coup, which some are hoping will finally pave the way for real reform in Bamako and usher in a new era of peace and stability for the country.

"Having said that, I have made the point that Canada should have taken much more of a leadership role in Mali, which they didn't obviously," he said. "There needs to a discussion about the approach that people are taking and have taken in Mali."

For his part, Sears is hoping Canada will step up and be among those preaching patience as the international community pushes for a return to civilian rule amid fears that a vacuum could lead to more instability and violence and empower jihadist groups.

"I'd like to see Canada be a voice for not rushing transition," he said. "Because my concern is we're going to reproduce most of the flaws of the previous transition and not really take into account some of the problems that have gotten worse since 2013."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press