ABUJA, Nigeria—It looked like an impromptu—if bizarre—protest by desperate citizens demanding some stability at home but The Daily Beast can reveal that a pro-Russian demonstration held in Mali last week was a false flag operation staged by a group of serial coup plotters within the military.
Members of a military junta that detained the president and prime minister last week—less than a year after ousting the previous government—were behind Friday’s protest in Bamako, which also professed support for the coup. The Daily Beast identified at least six people in the crowd of supposed civilians as close associates of the military.
Two people who participated in the protest admitted that some of the demonstrators had met the previous day at a military base in Kati, 10 miles northwest of Bamako, to plan the event. The Kati military barracks is the home of the insurrectionists, and where both of Mali’s last two presidents were detained after being removed from office.
One of the protesters is the cousin of a senior military officer in Kati. When The Daily Beast contacted him, he admitted that the demo was planned at the barracks.
“Yes, it’s true that we met in Kati to plan [the demonstration], but we did it because we believe the army means well for Mali and deserves the support of every Malian,” said Moussa Troure. “Russia loves us and that’s why we are asking for their help.”
Military officers detained Mali’s transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane last week before stripping them of their powers and taking control of the government. The junta is seeking closer relations with the Kremlin as it bids to shore up power in the midst of international condemnation.
The demonstration was clearly aimed at catching Russia’s attention. It involved hundreds marching under a huge portrait of new interim President Assimi Goita, waving Russian flags and toting placards attacking France, which has more than 5,000 troops deployed across Africa’s arid Sahel region as part of its anti-jihadist force.
The protesters gathered in a central square in Bamako early in the day and then marched to the Russian embassy to demonstrate their love. Unlike the protests that took place last year in Bamako, where thousands, including trade unions and civil society groups, stormed the streets of the capital city to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, which eventually led to his demise, the few hundred who protested on Friday are mostly believed to have done so at the behest of soldiers.
Some of the soldiers involved in the coups already have known links to Russia. Last August, The Daily Beast reported that army colonels Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara, two members of the military junta, had trained for months in Russia. They planned the coup on Russian soil, before returning to chase Keita, 75, out of power and pave the way for the Ndaw-led transitional government.
Russia has a reputation for swooping into African countries and hoping to reshape their politics for material gain. A candidate backed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian financier indicted in the U.S. for targeting the 2016 presidential election, has emerged as the president of Madagascar; a former Russian intelligence officer is now the top security adviser to the president of the Central African Republic; and the Kremlin has been caught interfering in the domestic politics of eight African countries through social media networks traced to entities tied to Prigozhin.
Like those social media campaigns, the protest in Bamako was supposed to fool people into believing this was a spontaneous expression of popular sentiment. But at least six of the demonstrators reached by The Daily Beast were related to military officers—either siblings or cousins. One woman named Rokia Toure told the French news agency AFP that she joined the protest “to ask Russia to come and help us” but she is also the wife of a soldier. There were many like her who are closely connected to the military in the crowd.
“There were many wives, children and friends of soldiers among the demonstrators,” one military officer in Kati told The Daily Beast. “The military was part of the movement.”
It was the first time since the coup on May 24 that any group publicly showed support on the streets for the military, which has faced criticism from home and abroad for its action and has caused Mali to be suspended from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-member regional bloc whose leaders met on Sunday to condemn the coup.
Even among the demonstrators, people admitted the intentions of the military were not entirely clear, despite assurances that there would be a smooth transition to democratic rule.
“Honestly, I'm no longer sure if general elections are going to take place next year as previously promised,” said Mamadou Diarra, one of Friday’s protesters who’s related to a military officer in Kati. “I’m only hoping that the army will perform better than the previous civilian leaders.”
Before Goita and his military colleagues seized power last week, Mali had been under a transitional government headed by Ndaw, with Goita himself as vice-president, for 18 months. Ndaw's decision to announce a new cabinet in which only four of the 25 proposed ministers were military officers angered Goita. The president proposed removing the former defense minister Sadio Camara and security minister Modibo Kone, both of whom took part in the 2020 coup.
Goita claimed he wasn’t consulted about the new cabinet and ordered the military to seize power yet again.
Fears that Mali could be isolated by the international community seem to have pushed the new government into seeking even closer ties to Russia. Already, France, Mali’s biggest supporter in the fight against insurgent groups terrorising large parts of the country, has vowed to pull its troops out of the West African nation if it lurches towards what President Emmanuel Macron referred to as “radical Islamism” following the coup, and the ECOWAS suspension could hamper regional efforts to address terrorism in the country.
“Russia will clearly be happy with the situation in Mali and is very likely to jump at the opportunity to step in,” said Okon Nya, a West African security analyst and director of one of the region’s leading media consulting agencies, Tre Gong. “This is exactly what Russia has been hoping for.”
If Russia gets involved it is likely going to replicate the role it is playing in the Central Africa Republic, where it is offering security in exchange for mineral resources,” he said. “But that wouldn't help Mali. It’s rather going to create an environment of hostility and resentment.”