On 22 September 2020, it was announced in the Republic of Mali that the former Minister of Defence Colonel Bah Ndaw has been appointed as the country's Interim President in compliance with the conditions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that it had set at the Accra (the capital of Ghana that currently chairs the Organisation) Summit, which was held on 15 September 2020. On 5 October 2020, the new Malian government was announced. Its formation was signed by President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Mukhtar Wan. It is comprised of 25 ministries, the military having assumed four sensitive and important ministries, namely defence, local administration, security, and national reconciliation. In response to those developments, on 6 October 2020, ECOWAS announced the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Mali.

ECOWAS and the Crisis in Mali

Mali is a member of ECOWAS, which is a regional organisation that comprises 15 countries in West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo). The Organisation was established in 1975 in order to achieve economic integration among the countries of the region. In the 1990s, it expanded its interests to issues of security and stability. For this purpose, in 1999, it established a military unit to intervene when necessary in the internal crises that occur in the member countries.

In the last two decades, the Organisation has intervened politically and militarily in several countries, especially upon the eruption of illegal military coups that require suspending the membership of the countries in which those coups take place, and imposing strict conditions for the resumption of the constitutional situation. The Organisation may even resort to the use of force to rectify the exceptional political situation.

When the recent military coup occurred in Mali against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on 18 August 2020, ECOWAS hastened to suspend Mali's membership in the Organisation and imposed severe economic sanctions on the new military government that reached the point of closing the air and land borders between Mali and the countries of the group, stopping all commercial exchanges with it except for basic food and medical supplies, and stopping the mechanisms of monetary dealing with it within the framework of the system of the CFA franc, which is the common currency of most countries of the region. Although before the military coup, ECOWAS sent an envoy, namely the former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, to Mali to mediate in the existing political crisis and has, since the fall of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, undertaken an ongoing mediation mission in Bamako, its leaders were not deeply agreed on the appropriate response formula to the new situation in Mali.

In this context, three basic positions emerged:

  • The hard-line stance towards the coup movement: its most prominent representatives are the Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and the Guinean President Alpha Condé. Both tried to force the return of Boubacar Keïta to power and thwart the military coup, before Keïta definitely resigned. They pushed strongly towards the complete handover of the transitional power to a civilian leadership. This hard-line stance can be explained by the fear of both presidents, who are about to start a third presidential term in October 2020, of a similar military action in light of a worsening internal political crisis in their respective countries.
  • The lenient and flexible attitude that calls for realistic dealing with the new situation and refraining from imposing strict economic sanctions that would cause widespread harm to the population. The most prominent representatives of this trend are the Senegalese President Macky Sall and the Nigerien President Mahamedou Issoufou.
  • The intermediate position between the two positions that accepts mitigated conditions for lifting the sanctions against the new Malian military authorities, while respecting the formalities and procedures of constitutional political transition. The most important representative of this trend was Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, which is the most important country of ECOWAS and whose capital Abuja hosts the headquarters of the Organisation.

Based on the leaked data, the role of the French government seems to have been decisive in approving the last deal that emerged from the ECOWAS Accra Summit, whose basis is as follows: willingness to lift the sanctions and recognise the new situation in Mali through the designation of a civilian figure as the country’s transitional president, the appointment of a civilian prime minister, and the reduction of the timeline for the transitional period to a maximum of 18 months.

According to the information circulating in the African diplomatic circles, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pressured the leaders of the Organisation to accept a compromise with the military authorities, citing Mali’s need for a strong role for the army in the next phase to manage the war against the terrorist groups in the north and prevent the escalation of the ethnic conflict in the central region. For this purpose, France employed the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF), which froze Mali's membership after the coup, but appointed former Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio as its envoy in Bamako to mediate in the current crisis. He showed a flexible attitude towards the military authorities.

The new political landscape in Mali

On 22 September 2020, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), which is the new military leadership in Mali, announced that after consulting the political powers and the civil society, it was decided to appoint Colonel Bah Ndaw as the country’s new president, and Colonel Asimi Guetta, the Head of the Military Council, as his deputy, provided that power would be handed over to the new president on 25 September 2020, after which he would appoint a civilian prime minister from among the ranks of the political powers supporting the military change, which has already been done.

While the prevailing impression among the political powers is the positive acceptance of the retired pilot officer Bah Ndaw (70 years), who assumed the position of Minister of Defence for a short period in 2013, many components of the Rally of Patriotic Forces (RFP) coalition stated that they were not consulted regarding the selection of the new president. At the forefront of the leaders of the political powers is Imam Mahmoud Dicko who implicitly objected to this choice and called on the Military Council to bear its consequences.

With the recent announcement by ECOWAS of lifting its sanctions on Mali, attributing this to what it called in its statement "the notable advances towards constitutional normalisation", the impression that prevailed earlier in the region’s diplomatic circles was established, namely that this deal, in which the French government was involved, has respected the essence of the Organisation's conditions by choosing a civilian president (albeit with a military background), respecting the time frame set for the transitional process, and appointing a civilian prime minister in coordination with the political and civil powers.

Prospects for the political situation in Mali

Despite announcing the lifting of the sanctions on Mali, ECOWAS continues to call on those responsible for the transitional phase in Mali to "rapidly" implement the other ECOWAS decisions, especially the release of all military and civilian officials who have been arrested since 18 August 2020 and the dissolution of the CNSP, i.e. the Military Council that carried out the coup. The detained officials and civilians have yet to be released and the Military Council has yet to be dissolved. In light of this, three likely scenarios can be identified in anticipating the future of the Malian political situation after the recent developments:

1. The scenario of normalising the political situation by the emergence of a national consensus on the mechanisms for managing the transitional phase. This would pave the way for Mali's return to membership of the ECOWAS after lifting the sanctions against it. This scenario requires the acceptance of the new equation by the political and civil powers, together with development of an acceptable plan for political and constitutional reform, and the organisation of transparent and fair elections that would enable the country to return to democratic rule.

2. The scenario of a worsening political situation: in case the political and civil powers reject the new equation emerging in the country, which might happen if the Vice President and the Military Council become the sole decision-making authority, or if the trust between the military authorities and the active powers in the street collapses, the political situation would worsen, and ECOWAS would resort to re-establishing its economic and trade sanctions against Mali.

3. The scenario of the explosion of the political and security situation: in the event that things get out of control and the violent movement returns to the street, or if the terrorist wave and the internal ethnic conflict escalate, which may result in a new military coup and the intervention of ECOWAS forces to impose security and stability in the country.

On balancing the proposed scenarios, it seems that the first scenario is the most likely in the foreseeable future, as a result of the state of enthusiasm prevailing in the Malian street for the military change movement and the clear acceptance of the transitional president who is described as being fair and moderate, as well as the support of France and West African countries for this deal. However, this scenario would bump into several obstacles in the future as a result of the difficulty of the transitional phase, the complexity of the political and security arena, and the multiplicity of the actors therein both internally and regionally. This would enhance the possibility of a deterioration in the political situation in the middle or at the end of the transitional phase regarding deciding on the constitutional options, organising the presidential and legislative elections, and choosing future leaders, considering the possibility that the military establishment would nominate one of the political figures close to it together with the ensuing reactions to this nomination on the part of the political class in Mali.

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