Another Coup? What’s Happening in Mali?

Mali and Coups have an intimate history; this year has seen Mali’s third coup in less than three decades. Political tensions in Mali had been brewing for some time over the government’s failure to handle a Jihadist insurgency in the North, widespread ethnic conflict, Covid -19, and alleged government corruption. These factors contributed towards Mali’s 2020 parliamentary elections in March and April being far from a shining example of democracy in practice. Corruption and violent intimidation saw ridiculously low turnouts, with ‘Voice of America’ reporting first round voting turnout in Bamako, the capital, to be just 12%. This left many questioning the legitimacy and effectiveness of a government that could not even ensure an adequately free and fair election.

In June, widespread protests, organised under the ‘June 5 Movement (M5-RFP)’, broke out against Ibrahim Keita, the president. M5-RFP presented a serious threat to Keita’s government as it unified various political and religious opposition groups. July saw the situation escalate as a rally on the 10th resulted in protesters storming the state broadcaster and attacking the parliament building. ‘Amnesty International’ reported the deaths of 11 civilians as a result of clashes between protesters and security forces on the 10th and 11th of July. 

With a history of coups and the country deep in political crisis, it was not surprising that on 18th August, Soldiers at a military base outside Bamako mutinied. The mutinying forces moved swiftly to arrest Keita and members of his government. Later that day, while imprisoned by the army, Keita resigned and dissolved the government, citing a wish for no “blood to be split”. With Mali now without a government, on the 19th a five-man military Junta, calling itself the ‘National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP)’, was announced. There doesn’t appear to be a significant connection between the protesters and coup forces and it’s unclear whether the main motivation for the coup were the same concerns as M5-RFP or was instead an example of the use of the coercive power of military forces to exploit political crisis and gain power. The junta did, however, recognise the issues Mali is facing and the need for democracy as following the coup it promised a “reasonable timeline” for new elections, albeit ambiguously, and claimed to be taking “responsibility”. This could just have been plain niceties to fend off pressure from internal and international political opposition, but it appeared to suggest the coup leadership shared the concerns of the protesters to some extent.  

Regardless of whether the Junta was committed to transferring power to, and supporting a democratically elected government, they were given little choice by the international community. Big international players such as the African Union, the US, the EU, the UN security council and France, Mali’s greatest ally, condemned the coup, calling for the release of former government officials and an immediate return to civilian government. Meanwhile, ECOWAS (an Economic Union of West African countries) took a more punitive approach, imposing sanctions and calling for borders with Mali to be closed. These responses were motivated by the multifarious geopolitical issues that the coup represented. Since 2012, Northern Mali, like much of the Sahel region of Africa, has suffered from a Jihadist insurgency. Instability in Mali, which the coup has worsened, provides an opportunity for Jihadist groups to consolidate their position in Mali and further threaten Western Africa. Last November, an attack by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) on a military base in the East of Mali killed 49. Thus, the coup presents a major security issue for Western Africa and the Global West. Furthermore, Western governments such as France and the US are militarily active in the Sahel in the fight against Jihadism. For this to continue, a cooperative government in Bamako is essential. The overthrow of Mali’s elected government also presents a political threat to the governments of its neighbouring states. A successful coup could embolden and encourage government opposition across Mali’s borders. ECOWAS member states Burkina Faso and Ghana are both holding Presidential elections later this year. Their current presidents are both facing widespread protests and so if Mali’s Junta manage to form a government on their terms and thus, the coup succeeds then it may present a legitimate threat to the re-election of Burkina-Faso and Ghana’s presidents. The political upheaval that this would represent could seriously destabilise Western Africa, exacerbating humanitarian issues and the threat of Jihadism in the Sahel. Thus, governments in the Global West, along with the governments of West African states are motivated to intervene in the coup whose outcome is key to their security. And for the latter group, their own political survival is on the line. 

For now though, tensions between ECOWAS and Mali’s government seem to have cooled. The coup leaders initially withstood the intense economic and political pressure applied by its neighbours, refusing to reinstate Keita. However, after five weeks of negotiations, in line with ECOWAS’ demands, on 25th September the Junta appointed Bah N’Daw, a civilian President committed to an 18-month transition to full civilian rule. The 6th October saw ECOWAS remove trade sanctions as N’Daw appointed a 25-person transitional government. 

This de-escalation of tensions, and the formation of a government that seems to appease the major sides of the coup is promising for Mali’s future. But you have to ask, how long will it last? The key issue for Mali’s relationship with its neighbours is the balance of power between N’Daw and the coup leadership. Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of the coup, has been made Vice-President, while other key government positions, such as Secretary of Defence, were also handed to military officials involved in the coup. Furthermore, N’Daw himself is a military veteran and was previously Secretary of Defence, and is therefore seen by some as only a “semi-civilian”. With these facts, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which N’Daw becomes, or is perceived to be, simply a puppet for the coup leadership. Such an outcome would be less than democratic and would not be conducive for a stable transition to civilian rule in 18 months’ time. It would very likely provoke ECOWAS to intervene once more in order to protect the political interest of the governments of its member states.

The success of the transitional government also depends on the involvement of domestic opposition groups. Throughout post-coup negotiations, M5-RFP have clashed with the military, accusing them of excluding opposition groups from transition talks and “trying to confiscate our revolution from us”. M5-RFP’s considerable popular influence forced the CNSP into negotiations on 10th September. These talks were ultimately fruitless as M5-RFP rejected the proposed transition period on the grounds that it was to be led by the military. While N’Daw’s new government involves M5-RFP, they have significantly less direct influence than the military as they occupy just two positions. And so, we must wait to see if M5-RFP perceive the government to be dominated by the military, forcing them to use their popular power to influence or even attempt to overthrow the government. Either way would involve mass protests and likely clashes with state security. Not only would this present many human rights issues, but it would jeopardise the transition to civilian government and further destabilise the nation. With a Jihadist insurgency in its North, any further destabilisation would present a serious security risk to Western Africa and the Global West, thus encouraging regional and international powers to intervene and making Malian politics a critical geopolitical issue.

For further conflict and the proliferation of Jihadism in the Sahel to be avoided, and relative democracy in Mali to be achieved, it is crucial than an effective balance of power, that considers Mali’s regional and domestic political tensions, is established. Without this, the transition period will likely fail to produce a stable and democratic government that is able to address the economic downturn, ethnic and Jihadist violence and social issues that Malians have been experiencing for many years.


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