Europe “must stop arming dictatorships”

“There are children: kidnapped, drugged and trained to fight, and girls forced to marry. European countries have been in Mali for ten years but have solved nothing. Why?” asks Soumaila Diawara, Malian writer and poet and a political refugee who has been in Italy since 2014. His answer: “European countries allocate billions of euros to Africa but do not ask where they go. Europe must stop arming dictatorships”.

Born in 1988 in Bamako, Mali’s capital, Soumaila’s story is one of persecution in a country torn apart by poverty and violence. A country that has seen five coups d’état in the last ten years. 

In 2012, President Touré’s inability to deal with Tuareg secessionist militias in the north of the country fuelled the actions of the rebel military, led by Captain Sanogo. The government fell.. The rebels of Azawad, in northern Mali, consolidated their positions, and jihadist groups took advantage of the chaos. President Touré fled to Senegal. The military junta was apparently in favour of a transitional government.

Soumaila’s party is SADI – African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence – a pan-African, far left-wing movement that has been in opposition since 2002. In 2012 SADI organised a national conference in Bamako to which all parties and various sectors of civil society were invited. The aim was to appoint an interim president. “The former president of the Legislative Assembly, Traoré, signed-up but did not show up on the conference day. Rumours circulated that he had been assaulted while in the presidential palace and had fled to France for health treatment. 

Two months later Traoré returned to Bamako. He had an agreement with the West to receive the military support needed to end the uprisings in the north of the country. A position that gave him the power to settle accounts with his internal opponents once and for all .

As the author of the communiqué inviting other parties to take part in the conference Soumaila found himself among those, accused of being responsible for the attempted assassination attempt on President Traoré. “An excuse to get the opposition out of the way. Journalists were made to disappear. A comrade from my party, a young doctor, ended up in prison and died two weeks after her arrest”.

Whether governmental or jihadist, both parties in the conflict have carried out violence, harassment, and arbitrary arrests. Soumaila was in Burkina Faso for an African left-wing conference on the eve of the 2012 Burkina Faso elections. “The father of a friend of mine, who worked for the secret services, told me that my name was on the list of people wanted by the Malian government”.

Soumaila fled to Algeria, where he found work at the Turkish embassy, while his family in Mali suffered retaliation from the government. “The military set fire to my house, with my grandmother inside. She burned to death. She passed on to me her passion for political activism, as she had been part of the first Malian feminist movement. My father, on the other hand, was a lawyer. The government tried to get people into the bar without passing the exam. He opposed this fraud. He was killed, along with two of his cousins”.

Soumaila tried to reach Europe, hoping to take a ‘sea wagon’ from Libya, but. in Tripoli, he was stopped and arrested in the street by armed men, for no reason. “There were 30 of us in a cell. The guards forced girls into prostitution and boys into hard labour. We were hostages.” Soumaila was sent money from friends living in Sweden and paid the ransom. The price for getting out was €800 euro  , but this sum only bought him limited freedom – for Soumaila his only hope lay on . other side of the Mediterranean.   

On 24 December 2014, Soumaila and 120 other people set sail from the Libyan coast, but the dinghy sank. Soumaila was one of only 30 survivors. But he did not give up andthenext day he set off again. “In the middle of the sea, we were rescued by a Maltese merchant ship that handed us over to the Italian Navy. He was taken to Palermo, where he worked in tomato fields for a six weeks, earning 20 euros a day to pay for his residence permit. 

According to the EU agency for asylum, the number of first time applications of asylum seekers from Mali peaked in 2014 (12.807), then fell during Covid (4.001) and is now growing again (7.852). In a report of 2017, Oxfam released the results of 158 interviews done with people involved in the phenomenon of emigration from Africa. The result showed that 84% had suffered inhuman treatment, violence and torture. 74% reported witnessing murder and torture. In the same year, only 40.2% of the examined asylum applications were accepted by Italy.

Today, Soumaila lives in Rome, where he works as a cultural mediator and talks about his experiences in schools, while pursuing his career as a writer and activist. He is very critical of the role of European countries in Africa, especially France, the former-colonial power. In Africa, things got worse “when the power of the West got up one morning and decided to kill an African president on African soil. Ghaddafi was a dictator, but taking democracy by force of arms – going so far as to kill an African president despite the opposition of African states – led to the destabilisation of sub-Saharan Africa and the spread of terrorism in the Sahel” said Soumaila.

Soumaila is opposed to the embargo that European states have imposed on Mali, intended to target the military junta they have delayed the democratic transition. “To punish 10,000 people, they have left 20 million Malians without food and medicine”.

Paraphrasing one of his poems, The Sons Forced, he told us that the West forces Africa’s children to choose between three types of journey each one a metaphor fordeath. One that is caused by bombs made by foreign people. One that is from  hunger and disease. And the third of crossing the desert and the sea.