The Malian Military Ousts a Wayward Government

The Malian military this week ejected the civilian government following two months of street protests, setting the stage for more turmoil in the restive Sahel region. On the morning of Tuesday, August 18, soldiers mutinied at the Kati military base outside the capital of Bamako and detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), Prime Minister Boubou Cisse, and a number of senior military officers and civilian cabinet officials. IBK announced his resignation and the dissolution of the cabinet and National Assembly after midnight on national television, saying that he was bowing to the military’s request because he didn’t want “any bloodshed.”

The military takeover is unfolding amid deteriorating security conditions and a pervasive malaise about the government’s corruption and indifference. IBK, who came to power in elections in 2013, dragged his feet in implementing a 2015 peace accord and was perceived by many Malians as promoting his family members to state positions and benefiting personally from international financial flows into the country. While jihadist and interethnic violence mounted in the north and central regions, IBK cycled through six prime ministers, elevated his son into a prominent political position, and relied on a supine Constitutional Court and low voter turnout due to Covid-19 to secure control of the legislature and overturn opposition electoral gains. His political maneuvering and perceived disregard of the country’s plight triggered massive protests in Bamako in early June, spearheaded by a group called the Movement of 5 June – Rally of Patriotic Forces, known as the M5-RPF.

Tuesday’s military putsch comes eight years after Mali’s last coup in 2012, which saw Malian soldiers overthrow then-president Amadou Toumani Toure due to anger over elite corruption and the government’s mismanagement of the Tuareg-led rebellion in the country’s north.

Q1: Why did the military strike?

A1: In a broadcast on state television, the coup leaders argued that Mali was “sinking into chaos, anarchy, and insecurity mostly due to the fault of the people who are in charge of its destiny.” There is some grain of truth to their public justification. The government and protesters had been locked in a stalemate: while IBK made superficial concessions, including a pledge to reform the Constitutional Court and to seat some opposition legislators, protesters continued to demand the president’s resignation. Both sides resorted to violence. The protesters ransacked a building belonging to the president’s party, and the government deployed internal security forces, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen people. The government’s inability to resolve the crisis probably tipped the military into action.

The military has its own grievances, including a lack of salary payment, which may have initially sparked the mutiny. There are also long-standing complaints around perceived government indifference about soldier deaths. In October 2019, relatives of several soldiers who were killed in extremist violence in central Mali accused the government of failure and apathy, an eerie echo of demonstrations by army widows that preceded the country’s 2012 coup. In April, Malian intelligence services arrested six individuals, including an ex-lieutenant linked to the 2012 putsch for an alleged “destabilization attempt against the institutions of the Republic.” Maggie Dwyer, who has written a book on mutinies in West Africa, explains that “mutineers’ grievances . . . reflect wider frustrations concerning underdevelopment in the region.”

Q2: What happens next?

A2: The military junta, which calls itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), vowed to restore stability and oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” period. It invited the protest movement—M5-RPF—and other civil society groups to support the transition. As was the case in 2012, it seems the military takeover has been welcomed by some of the Malian public and civil society. There were celebrations in Bamako, and the M5-RPF’s spokesperson defended the military’s actions, calling it a popular insurrection and blaming IBK for failing “to listen to his people.”

There is limited information about who is behind the CNSP and what shape the new military government may take. The charismatic cleric Mahmoud Dicko, who was a driving force behind the protests (but not explicitly part of the M5-RPF), has not directly commented on the coup, instead saying that his “mission has ended.” His support for the overthrow may be essential for its legitimacy.

The dissolution of the National Assembly indicates that the country may be in store for a longer transition than in 2012. In the last coup, the junta leader Amadou Sanogo—under regional pressure—quickly agreed to relinquish power to then-National Assembly president Dioncounda Traore, who was the constitutional successor to the deposed president. Although the military remained influential, interim president Traore nominally oversaw the transition back to civilian rule, including presidential elections in July and August 2013. A repeat of this playbook, which would entrust power to the current National Assembly president Moussa Timbine, a close ally of IBK and his son, seems less plausible under current circumstances. Timbine is among the disputed members of parliament whom the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has called on to step down as part of a meditation roadmap.

Q3: What are the security and regional implications?

A3: A prolonged political crisis almost certainly will worsen security conditions in Mali, and it may hasten the conflict’s expansion into neighboring Sahelian and littoral countries. The 2012 coup opened the door for the Tuareg-led separatist movement to declare its own state in the north, and for extremist groups to tighten their grip over key cities and move further south toward Bamako until French forces intervened in January 2013. If this current political crisis follows a similar trajectory, it will have negative consequences for counterterrorism operations and the already shaky peace process, as well as for regional stability.

  • The Malian government and northern armed groups have failed to genuinely commit to the internationally brokered peace process. There has been a lack of political will and buy-in required to implement essential pillars of the 2015 Accord—officially the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali Resulting from the Algiers Process. While the military junta has expressed support for the 2015 Accord, the takeover and resulting crisis may further weaken adherence to the agreement, which is a strategic priority for the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA.

  • The regional al-Qaeda affiliate, known as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and the Islamic State-aligned Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), will have a new opportunity to exploit the political turmoil in Bamako to sow greater violence and present themselves as more consistent providers of order than their secular counterparts. Corrine Dufka, Human Rights Watch director for West Africa, documents that both groups exploit local grievances against government corruption, state neglect, banditry, and competition over land and water to garner recruits.

  • Mali’s political crisis could further impact its neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger, and even littoral countries such as Benin and Cote d’Ivoire. In the past nine years, the insurgency in northern Mali has spread to the country’s central regions and into Niger and Burkina Faso, which has become the epicenter of violence; since the start of 2020, there have been 937 incidents of violence in the three countries, a 13 percent average monthly increase from last year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). In addition, there are more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons across the three countries as of June 2020. Mali’s current political crisis could raise questions about the status of the France’s Operation Barkhane, the regional G5 Sahel Force, and MINUSMA; the UN Security Council is holding an emergency closed door session on Wednesday, August 19, to discuss the unfolding situation.

Q4: What is the way forward for a democratic and peaceful Mali?

A4: Malians, the broader West African region, and the international community must act decisively to restore civilian rule in Mali, as well as set the conditions for a more durable democracy and peace in this troubled country. The focus should be on getting it right, not rushing prematurely to elections.

  • A coordinated regional and international response. ECOWAS immediately suspended Mali’s membership, closed all air and land borders with the country, barred financial flows between Mali and other members states, and threatened individual sanctions. The African Union, France, and the United States condemned the military takeover. If Mali’s partners intend to shape the next phase in Mali’s transition, there needs to be more effective coordination and a transparent roadmap for moving forward. The past nine years of international responses to the crisis have been underwhelming, characterized by a neglect of political realities and a poor division of labor. The international community should consider borrowing from the Somali peace process, where then-UK prime minister David Cameron convened 40 governments, multilateral organizations, and Somali authorities to address Somalia’s enduring challenges.

  • A civilian-led transition. While the dissolution of the National Assembly probably forecloses the return of the constitutional order, there are several options to create off-ramps for the military. First, the CNSP should swiftly identify a respected civilian to oversee the political transition. In November 2014, the Burkinabe security forces named a former diplomat, Michel Kafando, as the acting head of state to preside over the transition process. In January 2014, Chad pressed Central African Republic’s ruling rebel junta leader to step down in favor of former Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza. In 2003, Guinea-Bissau’s military and civil society appointed businessman Henrique Rosa as a head of a caretaker government following a coup.

  • A renewed social contract. Mali was once hailed as a democratic model, and its first transition to civilian rule and multiparty politics in the 1990s was marked by an inclusive dialogue and political process. Susanna Wing, a professor at Haverford College, has called Mali’s 1991 National Conference “a seminal moment in the country’s political history.” According to Wing, “negotiations modeled on it . . . will be essential to effectively move the country through its current quagmire.” Malian elite, however, have gradually abandoned this approach, reverting to patronage politics that have undermined voter accountability while failing to fund and implement key recommendations of successive peace processes in the north. Instead, they have chosen to simply go through the motions, including at IBK’s recent “inclusive national dialogue.” If Mali and its international partners are serious about restoring democracy, the country’s elites must regain the trust of the public, who view them as self-serving and disconnected, and commit to a new social contract.

  • A reinvigorated peace process. It is not viable to continue to reflexively uphold the 2015 Accord as the basis for the peace process. Even before the coup, Marielle Harris and I maintained that continuing to call on Malian leaders to implement the Accord—an incomplete, unfocused strategy—may be doing more harm than good. The Malian government and relevant stakeholders need a fresh approach to manage and move past the conflict, including integrating parallel processes; incorporating key actors, including Islamists; and identifying new international guarantors for a revitalized peace process.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Judd Devermont