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8th Dec 2022

Interview

Mali miracle: EU states in agreement

  • Since leaving his post as European Commission President in 2005 the twice Italian prime minister has devoted plenty of time to Africa (Photo: EUobserver)

When the UN appointed Romano Prodi as its special envoy to Sahel in October last year, the hot, dusty Republic of Mali in south-west Sahara was rarely in the news.

But a severe crisis was already brewing, with thousands of heavily-armed jihadists and separatists creating new strongholds in the north of the vast country.

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"When I discussed the situation with [UN secretary general] Ban Ki-moon - it was very clear that this was the flash-point. He asked me to take an interest in this area because the situation was worsening day by day," Prodi told EUobserver in an interview last week.

He said he was as surprised as anybody when the situation escalated into open war overnight, however.

The former president of the European Commission was in Mali on 10 January when rebel forces surged toward the capital and France reacted by launching air strikes in the start of a large-scale campaign.

"I was in Bamako. I was talking with the [Malian] leaders, both with the military chief and the President of the republic and the Prime Minister. At 1pm, in the first meeting, it was a normal meeting in which everybody was saying the situation was quiet, preparing the future, talking about elections, talking about governance ... Then I met the President of the republic at 4.30pm and I found myself in an unbelievable situation. His diplomatic advisor took me into a corner and said: 'Look. You know what happened in the last two hours? Our army fell into complete disarray, so there will be a French reaction as an absolutely immediate consequence'," Prodi recalled.

"Three hours later the [French] decision was taken and I don't think anybody [at UN-level or EU-level] was consulted," he added.

He said it is unclear why the rebels suddenly moved south.

"Probably because they found some unity after months of division. Probably because they did not foresee such a reaction. But I can testify that everybody was taken by surprise. On the military side in Mali, they were just resting and talking quietly and drinking tea," he noted.

He also said the French action had unanimous UN backing despite its unilateral nature.

In December, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to send an African-led mission of 3,300 soldiers to Mali to spearhead the fight against rebels.

But Prodi said France took on the job due to the scarcity of local resources.

"These [Mali's neighbours] are the poorest countries in the world. If you look at the list of countries, you find that almost all of them are among the last 10 [in terms of global wealth rankings]. So, look, their theoretical engagement is very strong, but they need help," he noted.

He said the Mali conflict has implications far beyond the "borderless" state.

"There are no borders. The weapons fly around. They went from Libya to Mali. The refugees did not only go to the southern part of Mali, they went to all the countries round about. And this is why Ban Ki-Moon didn't ask me to deal with Mali, he asked me to deal with Sahel," Prodi noted.

Looking back to the UN discussion, he said the strength of the international consensus is "unique."

"There was no such agreement on Iraq. There was no agreement on Afghanistan or on Syria. But in this case, there was a unique agreement. Do we want north Africa to become a terrorist-controlled area or do we want to co-operate in order to prepare for future development and to avoid leaving this as an empty space?" Prodi noted.

"This is my job now, to try to create that [development]," he added.

Since leaving his post as European Commission chief in 2005, the twice Italian prime minister has devoted a lot of time to Africa.

In his home town of Bologna in north Italy, Prodi in 2012 set up the Foundation of World Wide Co-operation, an NGO which promotes joint EU-US-Asian work on peace and good governance in troubled regions.

"I start from the point that everybody is frightened by terrorism, everybody thinks that to have an empty space in this area [north Africa] would be a tragedy for all of us. And I try to exploit this fear for the good ... to try to establish a forum where everybody comes on board. Is it a dream? Well, maybe. But if we want to change things, we have to dream," he explained.

As part of his efforts, Prodi plans to team 10 universities in the Sahel region with universities in the US, Europe and Asia and task them to draw up new strategies for development.

He also aims to attract international investment in the troubled area, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and which includes Mali, Mauritania and Niger, as well as Chad and parts of Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria.

But in order to short-cut multilateral funding structures, he believes each outside investor should manage its own projects with the UN in a co-ordinating role.

"If China gives money for a road ... they would put the Chinese flag on it. If the Germans pay for a hospital, they will put the German flag on it. This way there would be competition, quick action and a clear idea of the engagement," he explained.

Looking back to his experience of EU foreign policy in his time as EU commission chief, Prodi said the Union's current accord on what to do about Sahel is unprecedented.

"I can say it’s a miracle that all the 27 member states agree. I never before found such a level of agreement. This is different from Libya. This is different from any other case we had before," he noted.

He urged the EU to look beyond its immediate action of sending a military training force to Mali later this month, however.

"I do hope that the same interest will be given for the future development of Sahel," he said.

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