After a politically tense summer with protests filling the streets of Mali’s capital, Bamako, and culminating in a military coup d’état, the country is entering a new chapter of transition for the next 1 ½ years. Democratic elections are then supposed to bring the country back to its constitutional order.
An internationally accepted transitional government took office at the beginning of October, after the ousting of the highly unpopular government by a frustrated and furious cadre of officers. Expectations, hopes, and fears are high at home and abroad. But what might this transition deliver? Are coup plotters, after having violated all democratic rules, capable of bringing the country back to the rule of law and peaceful development? After years of crises, violence, poverty, and despair, could this eventually turn out to be the new start Mali desperately needs for a better future?
The Coup that Took Everyone by Surprise
For years, Mali’s government under President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, also known as IBK, spiraled into a complex crisis. A worsening economy, unabated violence, terrorist attacks, and citizen anger and disgust over rampant corruption and government mismanagement fed anti-Keita sentiment. For a long time, he was able to shrug off most domestic criticism, as the opposition remained divided. But in 2020, an opposition movement formed named M5-RFP (June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces), headed by the powerful Imam Mahmoud Dicko. He increasingly was able to mobilize crowds who were united by a desire – and the will — to end the Keita government. A ruling by the Constitutional Court on April 30 that overturned the preliminary results of parliamentary elections in March and April in favor of the ruling party triggered many protests and rallies calling for Keita to resign.
In an atmosphere of long-simmering discontent in the military, too, about the government’s failure to address the extremist insurgencies and continued fundamentally flawed management of the rank and file, an argument over promotions seemingly led to tensions boiling over at a military base outside of Bamako. On Aug. 18, a group of military officers, calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), arrested Keita and forced him to resign on national television the same night. The reaction of Malians was swift and clear: they took to the streets in joy and cheers.
The violent clashes during the summer, nurturing some realistic fear in the CNSP that the country could plunge into chaos or revolt, probably spurred the decision of this newly formed military group to seize power, as right after the coup they appeared quite unprepared, lacking a specific plan with next steps or measures. The M5 movement and the military CNSP group are not linked, seeing each other as rivals rather than partners. Yet, whatever each of their motivations, they were driven by the same goal of ending the failed Keita government.
The surprised international community instantly condemned the coup, demanding a return to constitutional order. However, hardly anyone expressed major regrets regarding the sudden end of the Keita government. France was quite outspoken about not wanting Keita back in office, Jeune Afrique reported, calling a return unrealistic and even dangerous – the frustrations about the lack of progress and once-promised reforms were just too great.
Meanwhile, the coup plotters didn’t present any radical agenda of their own and instead insisted that they simply wanted to do the job the elected leaders had failed to do, blaming the ousted government for corruption and bad governance. They even conducted a three-day open consultation with a cross-section of representatives from the most important elements of Malian society, including their rivals, the M5 opposition movement, as well as civil society, to debate the country’s future course. The end of the conference, ushering in a charter for the transition, drew applause from the more than 500 participants for CNSP leader Colonel Assimi Goita.
The CNSP was surprisingly fast to affirm its intention to honor all international agreements. They questioned neither France’s military operation, Barkhane, nor the United Nations peacekeeping mission or the European Union’s training missions, and they were conspicuously eager to play by the rules the international community had set. During the mediation talks that ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) held with the coup plotters about the path back to constitutional order, the CNSP under international pressure quite quickly gave up its initial demands to have a military-led transitional period of three years and compromised on a civilian-led transition limited to 1 ½ years.
While this popular consultation process and the coup plotters’ claims to act in the name of democracy and the Malian people certainly brought them sympathies, decisive action to embark on a better way for Mali has yet to follow.
What to Watch for During the Transition
Transition President Bah N’Daw, a former colonel but installed in his position as a civilian, said in his inauguration speech that his priorities would be the fight against terrorist groups and against corruption, and the renewal of the country’s institutions and political system. He pledged to hand over control to the next government, which would be democratically elected at the end of the transition, and ensured that the country by then would be back on track to becoming a democratically stable, peaceful country where people can have confidence in the future.
Although this resonates well with Malians and Mali’s international partners, the tasks ahead are daunting. The country’s security conditions have deteriorated despite years of international military and civilian assistance, and self-defense militias and extremist groups continue attacking and plundering villages. In the most atrocious attack last year, the Ogossagou massacre, Human Rights Watch reported 150 civilians were killed by Dogon militiamen. Incidents like these make living conditions increasingly dire. Over 85,000 civilians fled their homes in 2019 due to the ongoing violence.
Mali’s military and other security forces are targeted, as well. MINUSMA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, counted 47 attacks that killed 108 soldiers and injured 201 just in the past three months. The security forces, feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped, and suffering from corruption and mismanagement, are themselves allegedly involved in recurring serious human rights violations. One recent example is the Binedama incident on June 5, in which at least 37 persons were summarily executed (31 men, 3 women and 3 children).
Reducing violence, ending impunity, and turning law enforcement and the judicial system into effective State services that work for everyone so that citizens regain trust in the State and its institutions is probably the most daunting but also most urgent task for Mali’s new rulers.
An important step on the way would be the implementation of the Algiers peace agreement. It was signed in 2015 to restore peace between insurgent armed groups in the North and the government. But after five years, there is only scant progress, with the most challenging endeavor still ahead: constitutional reform. It would be a major win for the whole country, if the transitional government manages to revive the dormant reconciliation and reform process.
Another key challenge is poverty. Mali continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world. The U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index ranks Mali 184th out of 189 countries, with barely any improvements since 2010. Between January and August 2020 alone, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance rose from 4.3 to 6.8 million; that means one in three Malians depends on emergency aid. Creating jobs and other economic opportunities and providing adequate education and health services — and thus creating prospects for the future — will be decisive for the way out of the crisis.
Was This the Last Coup in Mali?
The 2020 coup is the fourth in Mali’s history. In 2012, low-ranking military officers seized power, frustrated over an endless fight against rebels in the North. Although the rhetoric then was strikingly similar — anger about an incapable government and a lack of political will — the scene in 2020 is quite different.
The current junta consists of senior officers with honorable military backgrounds, who seem to perfectly understand that Mali is at the brink of turning into a failed state. Mali needs effective leadership that will swiftly and unswervingly implement the agreed transition charter; otherwise, it might indeed not be able to escape that looming fate.
There are numerous examples, like Egypt or Zimbabwe, where coup plotters claimed a popular mandate and public legitimacy but eventually ended up protecting their own privileges at the expense of others and undermining democracy. And in the case of Mali, there are worries that the military might be too influential in the transition, since they occupy several key posts. However, when meeting German government officials, they stressed that they understand from their own experience what is at stake and how bad the security situation is. Hopefully, that makes them now a part of the solution.
The transition government, in particular the military, is aware of the enormous pressure to deliver on their promises. So far, as Ghanaian President and ECOWAS Chair Nana Akufo-Addo said, they deserve some credit and a certain degree of optimism for this new beginning, but the onus now is on them. They have to make the maximum use of this 18-month window of opportunity, and the international community will be watching more closely than ever. Mali, once considered by Western observers to have potential as a role model for democracies in West Africa, certainly deserves — and can do — better.
(The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article reflect solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of the German Federal Foreign Office.)