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Paper: The Rise of Public Opinion - Prince Donald Forghab

Introduction

"For the first time in history, almost all of humanity if politically activated" - Zbigniew Brzezinski


Never before could this statement be as true as now. This quotation by Zbigniew Brzezinski confirms one of the greatest mutations in the history and structure of international relations. Long before the arrival of democracy, public opinion was much disregarded. During the time of Louis XIII, Napoleon Bonaparte or worst still Adolf Hitler, the supreme leader (The king, Prince, Reich etc.) ministered the affairs of the state unilaterally, paying little attention to what citizens could think of them or the nation. The little regard they sometimes projected was only on military topics when the state had to decide on questions of going to war with other countries (Boniface, 2020). The weight of public opinion attained its apogee in the 18th century with the French Revolution. This social upheaval completely changed the relationship between the rulers and those they governed and also redefined the nature of political power. The coming of NTICs in the last four decades has only contributed to accentuating the predominant position which public opinion occupies in the international realm. Recent events around the globe like the: Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, the Malian crisis, End SARs in Nigeria, and the most famous of them all, the Arab Spring only confirms the saying of Zbigniew. Even though the public has been politically activated like never before, the role of the media cannot be left untouched, as it is a major source in shaping public opinion and political beliefs. Without a doubt, public opinion has gained high consideration in both democracies and totalitarian governments. Even if the case of North Korea isn’t true yet, nations like Burkina Faso, Mali, Eritrea, Algeria and Sudan have demonstrated their determination to bring about a considerable shift in the balance of power on their territorial boundaries. With the internet, civil society collects information and then mobilizes for counter-attack as in the case of the Arab Spring. It is almost impossible for any government to reign in this era without the partial or full support of its national populace. This isn't because democracy imposes that, but also because states have lost the monopoly of information. Today, the fight for the control of public opinion has risen exponentially and it’s reevaluated on the classification board of international diplomacy. States now have to fight on two fronts; first, convince the civil society of her policies targeting national interest and then the international community that her actions target the general good (Boniface, 2020).  


But why are governments and even multinationals paying so much attention to what the public thinks of them or perceives them to be? Why are even non-democratic nations in the classical term of the word like Russia and China mindful of their international image? Why are even little countries in the world like Hong Kong, Lebanon, or Mali experiencing a surge in public uprising and political change?  One can conclude at the moment that people in power are only mindful of public opinion in an attempt to consolidate their position in power. But can a nation be able to contend with public opinion in an era of globalization? Can governments take the risk of ignoring public opinion? This article however doesn’t answer these questions, nonetheless, it seeks to demonstrate how public opinions have led to political change or metamorphosed in a given territory. The ongoing cases of Mali and Burkina Faso will be taken as crucial examples in the African context and then that of “Black Lives Matter” in the USA and the world.


An "Anti-French Feeling" in Mali? But why and how?


The current “anti-French” feeling in Mali is one which cannot be ignored. On the 14th of January 2022, the Malians took to the streets a protest against the ECOWAS’ sanctions against Mali and the “putsch” perpetrated in their country by France since 2013 first by the SERVAL forces and then the Barkhane. “Rarely has a country or region been so hard hit by the stacking crises more than Mali and the Sahel states. It is in this difficult context that the Malian people, after several months of popular uprisings, chose another direction for our country and placed all their hopes in the ongoing political transition process of which they are the main architect (……..) Malians have the clear feeling that the mission assigned to MINUSMA has changed along the way, and in particular since 2015, following the signing of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation resulting from the Algiers process, so even that the challenges which justified its deployment have remained constant (…..) It is in this context of worrying threat that the French army, first through Operation SERVAL and then Operation Barkhane, was authorized to carry out, in support of MINUSMA and our States, the fight against terrorism in Mali. It is also in this context that the French Operation Barkhane suddenly begins its withdrawal with a view; it is said, of a transformation into an International Coalition, all the contours of which are not yet known, at least not known to my country. The unilateral announcement of Barkhane’s withdrawal and its transformation did not take into account the tripartite link that binds us, that is to say, the UN and Mali as partners engaged with France on the front of the fight against destabilizing factors. Mali regrets that the principle of consultation and concertation which should be the rule between privileged partners was not observed upstream of the decision of the French Government (…..) There is no anti-MINUSMA sentiment in Mali; any more than there is an anti-French sentiment in our country. No! I say it bluntly. Our people have never been and never will be an ungrateful people. (Choguel Maïga, 2021). This extract from the prime minister of Mali’s speech at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly confirms the fact that there is no anti-French feeling, but rather a feeling of non-trust. The Malian leader openly criticized the decision of France to suddenly depart their country in such crucial moment of the terrorist menace on Malian soil. This decision is interpreted as non-loyal and some sort of “abandonment” of France. Although his bravery was greatly acclaimed in Bamako, that wasn’t the case in Paris. The French president, Emmanuel Macron immediately reacted to his speech expressing his “shocked” nature and the shame and dishonor portrayed on France by what is not even a legitimate government. But why are both leaders reacting at such? Is it only a matter of diplomacy or is it fueled by public opinions? Let’s return to the history of this crisis.


From January to April 2012 Mali underwent the fourth Tuareg uprising of post-colonial history, an Islamist takeover of all the northern cities, and an improvised military coup. This Tuareg takeover was divided into factions and objectives, relatively organized and better united than previous rebellions which occurred between 1962-1964, 1990-1996, and 2006-2007. (Consult Malian Crisis Explained, Forghab, 2021). These include over five rebel groups involved in combat, government and foreign nations fighting for either the restoration of peace or the political control of the country and/or its vast mineral reservoirs, including but not limited to the Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, Mujao, and nations like France and Algeria, who's fighting is primarily in the center and north of the country, with principal regions such as the Kidal, Gao, Timbuktu just to name a few. The intervention of France via their Serval operation and then Barkhane in only strategic regions of the nation appeared suspicious to some experts. The Barkhane operation was supposed to last only a few weeks but ended up for over seven years. All these gave a complex nature to the crisis in Mali, leading to what Samir Amin termed “Les guerres du Sahelistan '' (Samir, 2013) where he poses numerous questions for reflection. Should we be alright with an ex-colonial power intervening in a sovereign country attacked by Islamists? Is the Sahelian war a project or a service of whose interest? (Samir, 2013). These further push one to question. But why should the joint intervention of over 5 different forces be unable to stop groups of armed militia perpetrating terrorism in a given territory? Does the insecurity in Mali favor the advancement or the agenda of some territories? 


As of 2021, the situation in Mali has hardly improved, despite the international support and the presence on Malian soil of a Peace Operation, the UN, MINUSMA, and international forces: the French Operation Barkhane, the European Force TAKUBA and the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel, the country has witnessed little improvement in peace and security. The situation gradually continues to deteriorate, to the point that entire swathes of the national territory are beyond the control of the Government (Choguel, 2021). The relationship between Mali and France has quickly deteriorated especially since the double coup d’états of 2020 and 2021. Mali under Assimi Goita, head of the junta and vice president, organized a military coup in an attempt to stabilize the situation in Mali. He quickly created a transitional government led by Choguel Maiga who was also largely applauded by the national populace. He has since then led talks in the name of the Malian population, exasperated today by the mass killings, the villages razed from the map and innocent civilians mowed down, including women and infants who are often burned alive (Choguel,2021). The population began raising their request for the departure of the Barkhane forces when the national military reported being denied access into Barkhane military bases and some parts of the national territory under the auspices of Barkhane forces. But how can a foreign nation or joint military force be able to deny access to national security forces on their soil? Under what premise will a foreign organization surpass national sovereignty? Many hypotheses have emanated from these reactions. Video footage and images have appeared online, portraying Barkhane forces extracting and transporting minerals such as gold. This stipulates that the Barkhane forces were primarily in Mali for mineral resources. This could probably explain why a country with little or no gold mines is today the twenty-sixth world’s largest exporter of gold, constituting the thirty-seventh most exported product of France (OEC,2019), and one with over thirteen mines isn’t even considered in such a classification. However, the French government has quite snubbed all of such accusations. The public opinion began to rise and eventually arrived at a point where “Malians have the clear feeling that the mission assigned to MINUSMA and Barkhane has changed along the way, and in particular since 2015, following the signing of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation resulting from the Algiers process, so even that the challenges which justified its deployment have remained constant” (Choguel,2021). 


Moving further, Mali has been in a paradoxical phase of her history. Why should an over-militarized country be so vulnerable to terrorism, and has gradually become a factor in the disintegration of the Malian societies and destabilization of the foundations of the State. The youth or should I say the population took the brave decision to follow their own path and continue with new partners. What else should the population do in the face of such a paradox? What should be done to respond to the anguish, exasperation and anger of the Malian people? What should be done to respond to the feeling of dissatisfaction both among Malians and Malian partners? (Choguel, 2021). The Malian public opinion arrived at its apogee on January 14th 2022, when over three thousand Malians took to the street their discontent against the sanctions put in place by ECOWAS in favor of western partners (France, European union). Since then, the tension hasn’t ceased to rise. With the full support and pressure from the population, the Malian junta has gotten into a full arm wrestle with almost all forces present on her territory. After France, on January 27th 2022, the Malian junta requested Denmark (TAKUBA Forces) to withdraw all its soldiers on Malian soil. Without doubt, public opinion has played a major role in boosting this new trajectory of Malian history. What will the outcome of this be? Diplomatic tension? The Final liberation of the Malian people and its political independence? An end to imperialism? History will tell. 


A similar pattern is being observed in neighboring Burkina Faso. On January 24th, a group of soldiers seized power by overthrowing democratically elected president Roch Marc Christian Kabore. The self-proclaimed Mouvement Patriotique pour la Sauvegarde et la Restauration (MPSR) has announced that 41year old lieutenant colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who has an ‘exemplary' record, will be taking over as the country’s leader (The Africa Report, 2021). Another demonstration of public opinion was manifested in Burkina Faso. On January 25th, hundreds of people flocked to Ouagadougou’s place de la Nation to applaud the military putschists. The joviality of the crowd shows how much public opinion can help reshape policies and put an end to regimes. It is important to note that before then, the Burkinabe population has tirelessly made mention of their desire to put an end to terrorism and bad leadership which has been ravaging the country in the past years. 


The Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and the world

Contrary to what many think the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t founded in 2020. Many new to the issue of racism around the world and America in particular took notice of this problem after the unceasing killing of Black persons in the year of 2020. The corona virus indeed helped showcase the ills which ate the American society like a canker-worm and which today is helping to shape equitable policies for black Americans. Police brutality in the United states has for the past decades been a usual. The most famous of hatred entrapment in the United States appeared more or less in the 1915s with the Ku Klux Klan, which made noticed of a high level of segregation and hate vis-a-vis their black counterpart. With little or no power at the time, blacks had the sole option of accepting the treatment from their white fellows. However, by 1955, native black activists began taking to the streets their desire to put an end to such inhumane treatment. That will mark the beginning of the rise of black public opinion. Martin Luther King first and then Malcolm X both contributed to expanding the extent to which black voices could be heard and considered. Nevertheless, their actions and mission were short-lived as they were both assassinated. Although the echo of blacks’ opinion wouldn’t end there, it will however slumber during a long period, thus giving growth to mass police brutality perpetrated on blacks and then hate directed towards blacks by a great number of the population. 


Moving further, it was not until the early 1990s in South Africa that Black Public opinion began to gain ground and impact. After over twenty years of apartheid, the continuous demonstration of black South Africans both peaceful and violent pushed the government of Frederick de Klerk to liberate long-time serving prisoner and activist Nelson Mandela. A liberation which in part wasn’t because of his will, but due to the weight which public opinion had on the political realm at the time. Fast forward, public opinion gained a significant stand in the USA by 2013, when the Black Lives Matter was founded in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin murderer, an African-American boy of seventeen years old, fatally shot in Miami Gardens,, Florida by George Zimmerman a Hispanic American. The movement has since then grown to become a global network in the USA, UK and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the State and vigilantes (Blacklivesmatter.com). The public's opinion on matters of racism and white supremacy will reach its apex on May 25th when a Minneapolis police officer arrested George Floyd, a 46year old black man after a convenience store called 911 and told the police that Mr Floyd had brought cigarettes with a counterfeit 20$ bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life (New York Times, 2020). The day after Floyd’s death, the police department immediately fired all four officers involved in the scene. Despite third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter charges on Derek Chauvin, the officer who placed his knee for at least eight minutes on Mr. Floyd’s neck (New York Times, 2020), a length of time which became a symbol and rallying cry for protesters. The public opinion thus didn’t deem that enough sanction. The months that followed saw a vast spread of mass uprisings all around the world. On June 6, over half a million turned out in nearly 550 places across the United States alone (New York Times, 2020). Civis Analytics, a data science firm that works with businesses and democratic campaigns, suggests that about 15 to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, making it the largest movement in US history. Similar demonstrations were observed in Spain, Germany, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, China and over thirty other nations. Since then, Derek Chauvin the main officer involved in the killing of George Floyd was sentenced in June 2021 to 22 and half years in jail, a sentence which wouldn’t have been possible if not for the severe demonstrations around the US and the world. Never before has the question of racism and police brutality been so acute in history, and less still in a country where it was a new normal. Due to the George Floyd case, numerous governments around the world have become mindful of laws and actions that discriminate against black persons. The involvement of whites in the movement makes it more complex for states around the world to bypass social injustice aimed at blacks. 


Conclusion

If the power of public opinion was long underestimated by numerous governments around the world, globalization has made it even more challenging for the most sophisticated nations to hide certain information from the public. As technology improves day in and day out, the public begins to have greater tools to challenge public authorities and policies. The influence of public opinion cannot be left unnoticed as was the case with the Arab Spring in the Maghreb region of North Africa, the case of Mali, and lastly the USA. It goes without any ounce of doubt to say that no leader or nation can reign without either the concern of the public or their partial or full support. Do NTICs represent a new outlet towards democratic inclusion and social justice? Will public opinion represent a greater good for the global economy and eventually a more harmonized environment as we face climate change? This is hopefully an opportunity to universally gather towards what may be the greatest paradigm shift in the history of International Relations.


  • Prince Donald Forghab | Open Dreams


Reference

  1. Boniface, P. 2020. LA GÉOPOLITIQUE: 5O fiches pour comprendre l’actualité.7th édition Eyrolles. Paris Cedex.

  2. Choguel Miaga. 2021. Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga of the Republic of Mali, address to the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session. New York.

  3. Samir Amin. 2013. France-Mali: Enjeux et limites. Magazine Jeunes Afrique, page 18,


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Note: The views expressed in the content are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Dreams

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