Senegal’s President Macky Sall was voted in as the new chairperson of the African Union on February 5, 2022. He assumes the AU chair at a time when democracy in parts of the continent appears under threat. In February, Guinea-Bissau became the latest African nation to reportedly see a coup attempt. This followed closely on the heels of a successful coup in Burkina Faso in January. The year before, military juntas seized power in Guinea and Mali while in Chad, the army appointed the son of long-term ruler Idriss Deby as president in what has been called a ‘dynastic coup.’
At the same time, the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has been dragging on for more than a year while armed conflict and terrorist attacks are escalating in the Sahel, the vast semi-arid region that stretches from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east.
Sall talked to DW ahead of the 2022 AU-EU Summit which started on Thursday in Brussels.
DW: As chairperson of the African Union, how do you intend to deal with crises such as Ethiopia’s Tigray region as well as in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Chad?
Macky Sall: The picture may indeed seem bleak. But we often forget Africa is a vast continent of 54 countries and home to over 1.3 billion Africans. We also forget to talk about the positive things on our continent. Paradoxically, when democracy seems to be losing, it also strengthens, even when we are actually in a crisis.
There are internal crises here and there but above all it’s the coups, especially in West Africa, that interrupt democratic processes. These problems do happen but we can’t simply reduce Africa to these crises. Ukraine and Russia are currently dominating the world news around the world, so there are crises everywhere.
Admittedly, Africa has many security challenges, including the fight against terrorism. When terrorism was defeated in Syria and in Libya, it spread to Africa, which is becoming a soft target for international terrorism and the next battlefield in the fight against terror.
When it comes to [terrorism in] Africa and the Sahel, we have been pleading with the [UN] Security Council for the last 10 or 12 years to take greater responsibility, to have a mission with a more robust mandate. We have not been able to rally [support for] this. We also have difficulties financing peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations on the continent.
These are the challenges that we are working on with all our partners ― first and foremost, with the UN Security Council, which is responsible for ensuring peace and security in the world, but also with partner countries.
If Africa is not secure and at peace, the world will not have peace and security. This includes Europe, because of its proximity [to Africa], but also America and Asia.
These Malians have fled the terror in the north of Mali to seek refuge in Burkina Faso
What is the impact on Senegal of the political instability in its West African neighbors of Guinea, Mali and Guinea-Bissau?
Senegal’s neighbors have always suffered political crises but this has never affected our stability. Senegal has long been a democratic republic and held multi-party elections as early as 1914. Moreover, the electoral tradition is deeply anchored in Senegal. We also have religious leaders who play an important social role, especially in crises, they can mediate and they are heard. Senegal has sport, too. Look how [our victory at the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament] has reunited the nation.
No single party, even if it is the majority party, should benefit while leaving people behind. We have a certain awareness of national unity and a certain conception of the Senegalese nation. We also have a republican army that understands its mission is to defend the territory of Senegal. Its mission is to serve elected authorities and the Senegalese army knows this very well. We have excellent soldiers and generals who have carried out their missions within this context and not in any other. But I am not criticizing others. Now, in the face of new crises, we are here to help find solutions. What is happening in Mali hurts us all.
The Economic Community of West African Nations (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union have been criticized by the general public as well as by experts for not working more to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place. Shouldn’t we perhaps be reviewing the ECOWAS imposed sanctions against Mali which include border closure and financial restrictions?
No. The states that make up ECOWAS are aligned and share a common destiny based on all previously existing problems. Coups have previously happened. To provide solutions to these crises and to these interruptions of legitimately acquired political power, we have a charter on democracy and governance which bans coups d’etat and which sets out rules when the democratic process is violated.
Look at the case of Burkina Faso. The president [Roch Marc Christian Kabore] was elected [in 2020], there was no challenge, the opposition was at the inauguration ceremony. A year later, he was forced out of office. And you say ECOWAS should do nothing?
People cheer on Burkina Faso’s military after they ousted President Roch Kabore
ECOWAS has done much to fight terrorism, to create solidarity between West African nations and to support defense and security forces in our region. It has also integrated people within the ECOWAS region, for example, by allowing the free movement of persons and goods.
Sanctions against Mali have only been in place for a month. But for the 17 months before that, ECOWAS accepted the proposals of Mali’s transitional authorities. So, we can’t put ECOWAS on trial. That isn’t what the debate should be about. It should be about how to bring ECOWAS and Mali’s leaders together to get Mali out of this situation because the Malian people don’t deserve this suffering. It’s painful, but I believe boundaries need to be set. I am confident that talks will resume in the coming months and that we can resolve this problem.
But ECOWAS isn’t on good terms with Mali’s transitional authorities so what scope is there for dialogue between the AU, ECOWAS and Mali?
I don’t believe that ECOWAS isn’t on good terms with Mali. I’ve never heard an ECOWAS head of state say anything bad about Mali’s transitional authorities. We mustn’t mix up the issues. There are differing positions, differing perceptions, but one can’t say that there are difficulties between Mali’s transitional authorities and ECOWAS. Yesterday, I took the initiative of calling [Mali’s President Assimi] Goita. We don’t have a problem with the transitional authorities. There simply needs to be a framework for a transition and elections, that’s all it is.
This Malian demonstrator holds a sign saying ‘Down with ECOWAS’ to protest sanctions imposed on Mali
But ECOWAS sanctions are viewed as harsh because the prices of basic commodities are rising.
The text clearly specifies that basic necessities are not affected by these sanctions, neither are pharmaceutical products, medical products nor energy products.
How do you see the presence of private security groups like the Russian Wagner Group on the African continent? And how are you going to work with your African counterparts to curb insecurity in the Sahel?
For the moment, the strategic issue is the fight against terrorism. For us, the fight against terrorism has a framework, which includes United Nations missions and cooperation with France. We mustn’t forget that Malian authorities called on France [nine years ago to help fight the jihadist insurgency].
African nations like Nigeria have been fighting against Boko Haram for 12 years. Chad has paid a heavy price. So, African countries are fighting daily against terrorism and there are different frameworks.
There is the G5, a joint force that brings together five Sahel countries. And in southern Africa, Rwanda and the SC [Southern African Development Community] countries have come to the rescue of Mozambique. There is fighting everywhere, in Somalia to fight against al-Shabab.
The Malians tell us that they have cooperation with Russia on the military level, on the level of supervision. Others say that they are private militias. Well, it’s not for me to pass judgment on this, but it is part of the problems that we need to examine with the Malian authorities, and also internationally, on the question of crises in Africa.
Africa is not an isolated place in the world. So, Africa suffers consequences, influences. All this, of course, we must be able to examine and gradually find solutions.
Germany has around 1300 troops in Mali as part of the UN’s mission in the country
What role should Germany play in this matter, considering that Germany is also present in the Sahel as part of the UN’s MINUSMA mission?
Germany as Europe’s leading economic power definitely has a role to play, as a driving force. I know that it has always worked within the framework of the Franco-German partnership. But all of Europe is now committed to a new partnership with Africa, a partnership that also takes into account our problems and solutions proposed by us.
The era of Africa being given solutions that we should then apply is over. We are saying that Africa and Europe now have to build solutions together. Europe needs Africa and Africa needs Europe. We want to build a new partnership.
The EU-AU summit in Brussels will be a very important starting point, not just to figure out how we need each other but also for the respect of our identities.
We won’t be receiving a mandate on civilization from Europe. We are open to this partnership and we really want it in all good faith. But we are different. It is also necessary for the European side to recognize this difference and try to work with us to find mutually beneficial solutions.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was originally conducted in French.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine