On August 18, 2020, Mali experienced a military coup, a response to the political crisis that had been suffocating the country for months. While the regional and international community have denounced the coup, African initiatives have been developing an approach for managing the transitional phase in Mali: negotiations with the ruling military council have been held, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has been forced to resign, and the parliament and Keïta’s government have been dissolved.

This paper will examine the political developments in Mali, and will discuss the prospects for the country’s future.

Background to the new military coup

Three military coups have taken place in Mali, each during an acute political crisis, and each leading to an important qualitative shift in the country's political life: The first coup occurred on November 18, 1968, when Lieutenant Moussa Traoré took power from then President Modibo Keïta, who had led the country into independence and had established a one-party revolutionary socialist system. The former president remained in detention until his mysterious death in 1977. The second coup took place on March 26, 1991, against the backdrop of a massive popular uprising against President Traoré. It was led by Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, who established a pluralist democracy in Mali and oversaw presidential and legislative elections in 1992, before stepping down from power at the end of the transitional period, at which point Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected as his replacement. The third coup occurred on March 21, 2012, when junior officers rose up against President Toumani Touré, who was in the last days of his second presidential term and had proven himself unable to combat armed rebel groups in the north and extremist terrorist movements. The African and international community widely rejected the coup. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won the presidential elections held in 2013, and was reelected for a second term in 2018.

The recent coup is therefore simply the latest manifestation of the usual method of political transformation in Mali, in which the military establishment was forced to intervene in order to put an end to the country’s extreme political tensions, which had spiraled downhill over the past two years, and particularly in recent months.

The following are the most prominent military leaders of the coup, who together form the National Committee for the Salvation of the People:

  • Colonel Assimi Goïta: A well known officer, Goïta was commander of the Special Operations Brigade in central Mali, a highly armed battalion that includes key counterterrorism units and has close ties to Western (primarily US and French) military bases and advisors. Goïta has a good reputation among the Malian armed forces and among Mali’s international partners.
  • Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué: Official spokesperson of the military council, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Malian Air Force, and respected pilot. Wagué is very popular among military and civilian circles.
  • General Cheikh Fanta Mady Dembélé: Although retired and not a member of the military council, Dembélé is likely to arise as the strongman of the new military system. He has extensive experience in the field and in conflict management and strategic planning. He previously worked as an expert for the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, and has close links to the opposition coalition. Various sources have indicated that he is close to France, with some even claiming that the French military intelligence apparatus used General Dembélé to interfere in the coup.

Domestic and regional context behind the new power equation in Mali

Predictably, the member States of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have suspended Mali’s membership and imposed strict political, diplomatic, and economic sanctions on the new military authorities, including closing air and land borders and excluding Mali from the CFA franc monetary system. The African Union has also suspended Mali’s membership in line with its rules of procedure, which oppose the forcible seizure of power. African mediation efforts, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, are continuing, although tangible results have yet to be achieved.

While African organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union have abandoned calls for President Keïta to return to power following his resignation and refusal to return, disagreement remains regarding how the transitional period should be managed and who should oversee it. Although African mediators have called for the application of the constitutional provisions on the transitional process, the dissolution of parliament makes this impossible, as the president cannot be charged with managing the country’s affairs until a new president is elected in accordance with the Constitution. The forty-day period provided for in the Constitution is not sufficient to allow for the necessary political reforms to be carried out and for elections to be held.

The military council has proposed a three-year transitional period, supervised by a figure from within the military in consultation with political forces, which together will form a national coalition government. During the negotiations, it has become apparent that the military council may be willing to shorten this proposed period to two years and to appoint a retired military officer as a consensus president. While some African Union member States, namely Senegal and Niger, support this option, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea remain staunchly opposed to the military coup.

The opposition coalition, associated with the “Movement of June 5 — Rally of Patriotic Forces”, has fully backed the coup, seeing it as a response to its fundamental demands for Keïta’s resignation and removal from Malian politics. Negotiations with the opposition forces are still in their infancy, and even the broad strokes of the final agreements with the military council remain unclear.

At international level, although France condemned the coup superficially, it welcomed Keïta’s removal, accusing him of failing to confront the terrorist threat and contain the domestic political crisis. According to confirmed reports, the most recent meeting between President Macron and former President Keïta, on the sidelines of the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott on June 30, was stormy, with the French President angrily expressing his views on the situation in Mali. France appears to have convinced the heads of the G5 Sahel States not to make the reinstatement of Keïta one of their demands during the current negotiations with the coup authorities, and it has announced that it will continue to cooperate with the military council on military and security issues. While the European Union has also condemned the coup, demanded a return to constitutional order, and suspended its military support program in Mali, it is relying on France – as the member State most concerned with affairs in Mali – to ultimately resolve the situation. The International Organization of la Francophonie, which has also suspended Mali’s membership, has adopted the same position, and supports the efforts by the African Union and France to achieve a political solution. The US government, meanwhile, has condemned the coup and has suspended its (albeit limited) military support for Mali, but it will likely support African mediation.

Although the international community has condemned the military coup as a threat to the democratic gains made in Mali, it understands the roots and background of the crisis, and is supporting African political mediation with the aim of establishing a consensus-based transitional phase, through which Mali could return to democracy while preserving the country’s unity and stability.

Prospects for the political situation in Mali

Mali’s political future remains unclear, as it is subject to conflicting tensions. There are three possible scenarios:

  1. Consensus outcome with regional and international support: Political forces in Mali may manage to reach a compromise with the military leadership, with the support of regional African organizations. This may include the formation of a civil–military transitional council to oversee political reforms and the election process, based on the Sudanese model. Within one or two years, the council would have to conduct presidential and legislative elections under African and international supervision. Some names have been circulated as potential nominees to lead the African mediation on the transitional process, most notably Senegalese President Macky Sall and former Mauritanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed El-Hassan Ould Labbat, who oversaw the successful political dialogue process in Sudan last year. This is the most likely scenario.
  2. Political crisis and stagnation: If the African mediation process or the internal political dialogue fail, the political crisis in Mali may worsen. The inability of the transitional authorities to combat rebellions and terrorist activity in northern and central Mali, and the further impact of international sanctions on the economic crisis, support this outcome.
  3. Another coup: Another coup may yet be carried out given the dangerous split that has appeared within the military, and the unwillingness of some military leaders to support the most recent coup, which has forced the country into a new political situation.

Conclusion

  • Mali’s most recent military coup was a response to the political crisis that had been suffocating the country for months. After seizing power, the newly established military council forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to dissolve parliament and to resign. While the political opposition has welcomed the coup, the regional and international community have condemned it.
  • The military council and the African mediators have yet to agree on how the transitional phase should be managed and who should oversee it. The military council may be willing to shorten the proposed transitional period to two years and to appoint a retired military officer as a consensus president. While Senegal and Niger support this option, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea remain staunchly opposed to the military coup.
  • The main international players – France and the USA – appear to have taken a pragmatic approach to the coup, and are supporting African political mediation with the aim of establishing a consensus-based transitional phase, through which Mali could return to democracy while preserving the country’s unity and stability.
  • Mali is most likely to adopt the Sudanese transitional model, in which the political forces in Mali reach a compromise with the military leadership, with the support of regional African organizations, including on the formation of a civil–military transitional council to oversee political reforms and the election process, provided that presidential and legislative elections are held within two years, under African and international supervision.

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