President Keita of Mali has announced his resignation after being arrested by members of the armed forces, who have promised fresh elections for the troubled country, but in the face of international condemnation the situation on the ground remains uncertain.
At around midnight on 18 August, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali announced his resignation and the dissolution of parliament in a TV broadcast from a military camp where he was being held by mutinous soldiers along with Prime Minister Boubou Cissé.
Hours later the military junta that had overthrown him stated its intention to set up a “civilian political transition” leading to elections within “a reasonable time”. The coup is the second to have taken place in the country since 2012.
“Our country is sinking into chaos, anarchy and insecurity mostly due to the fault of the people who are in charge of its destiny,” said air force deputy chief of staff Col-Major Ismaël Wagué in a televised announcement on behalf of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). Colonel Assimi Goita, a member of Mali’s special forces, has emerged as its leader.
At time of writing in late August, the outcome of the military takeover remains uncertain. A large demonstration took place in support of the coup in the capital, Bamako, on 21 August, but the United Nations, African Union and European Union have all expressed condemnation.
“I strongly condemn the forced detention of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, the Prime Minister and other members of the Malian government, and call for their immediate release,” said the chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in a statement.
“The events in Mali are great setbacks for regional diplomacy, with grave consequences for the peace and security of West Africa,” tweeted President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria on 20 August. “It is time for the unconstitutional ‘authority’ in Mali to act responsibly and ensure restoration of constitutional order, peace and stability.”
The initial response of the Economic Community of West African (ECOWAS) was to announce that Mali would be suspended from its decision-making bodies, borders with the country would be closed, financial flows would be halted and that no form of legitimacy should be conferred on the coup.
After meeting in a video conference on 20 August, ECOWAS heads of state called for the immediate reinstatement of President Keita and the activation of the ECOWAS Standby Force, a multidisciplinary force that provides personnel for peace support operations and intervention missions.
An ECOWAS delegation was sent to Bamako to “ensure the immediate return of constitutional order” under the leadership of former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, but after three days it left without reaching any agreement with the leaders of the coup.
The delegation also met with the detained former president. Jonathan told reporters that Keita had said that he had not been forced to resign but that “he is not interested in governance again.”
According to a report by Jeune Afrique, the former president was set free in the early hours of the morning on 27 August.
Events of 18 August
Trouble had been brewing for many months, but events moved rapidly on 18 August. Soldiers loyal to an adviser dismissed by Prime Minister Cissé seized arms from the military base in Kati. They later entered the capital in a convey and surrounded the President’s residence before arresting him and the Prime Minister and taking them back to the base in Kati.
Supporters of the M5-RFP (Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques) coalition of opposition groups celebrated these developments in the streets – the military were cheered by joyful crowds as they swept through the capital.
The opposition has been gaining strength on the back of the President’s poor handling of ethnic and Islamist insurrections in the country’s north and centre, discontent with pervasive corruption and revisions to the results of parliamentary elections held in March.
Outrage over revised election results
On 10 April, the country’s Constitutional Court overturned the results for 31 seats in the country’s recent parliamentary elections on grounds of irregularity. The new result gave the President’s Rassemblement pour le Mali party a majority of 10 seats, leading to outrage.
Growing discontent led to the coming together of opposition parties in the M5-RFP coalition at the end of May, followed by nationwide protests in June and July calling for the President’s resignation and fresh elections, in which 11 people died. Demonstrations began again on 12 August, when security forces used water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters in the capital.
Goodluck Jonathan had been acting on behalf of ECOWAS as a mediator between the opposition and the government in order to forestall a coup, although the extent to which the army may have acted in coordination with civilian opponents of the regime is as yet unknown.
Corrupt government, state failure
President Keita had been re-elected with a 67% majority in the 2018 presidential election, but faced accusations of vote rigging.
“This was widely seen as a corrupt government that has basically been unaccountable to the people for a number of years,” Susanna Wing, Associate Professor of Politics at Haverford College in the US, told the BBC’s World Service. “There was a great deal of disillusionment with the poor government of the country.”
She said that Mali was in a similar situation to 2012, when former President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown. “People don’t trust the system,” she said.
Writing in Le Monde, French journalist Cyril Bensimon commented that Keita had been overthrown by an army that played a major role in bringing him to power in 2012 but that since then “the failure of the Malian state had continued unabated”.
The French government has also condemned the “mutiny”. The situation is complicated for the former colonial power, which has over 5,000 troops in the region as part of its Operation Barkhane security operation against Islamist insurgency in the Sahel.
Their presence has been another aggravating factor for the opposition, Vincent Rouget of Control Risks security consultancy told the BBC World Service.
The coup means that French troops could be faced with some “tricky questions” in terms of cooperation, he said. However, he did not think that the situation would create any big opportunities for the Jihadists to exploit.
Mali’s insurgency began in 2012 with an ethnic-based Tuareg rebellion in the north, but later Islamist groups gained control of the area. Central government control was restored with the aid of French troops but fighting continues. The conflict is estimated to have cost some 3,500 lives and has led to the displacement of over 200,000 people.
For more on security problems in the Sahel, see ‘The growing threat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Africa‘ by security expert Al Venter; for more on efforts to resolve the region’s problems, see ‘How we can bring peace and security to the Sahel‘ by Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West & Central Africa.
Which way forward for Mali?
At time of writing the unfolding of the situation in Mali is hard to predict. While governments and international bodies are steadfast in their opposition to the coup some individual commentators welcome the end of a regime that has not benefited the people of the country. Others warn of the perils of military takeovers.
“African leaders must be shaking. They are now being unseated by 25 year olds. Kids born in the 90’s,” tweeted South African author Sue Nyathi, referring to the youthfulness of Malick Diaw, one of the coup’s leaders.
“With [Keita’s] resignation I hope Mali will carefully choose an inclusive path forward. This is a precarious moment, but one with possibilities,” said Susanna Wing on Twtter. “Mali can turn this around and improve governance. But that is in no way inevitable. [It will] require a lot of hard and thoughtful work.”
“Belief in corrective coup remains deeply entrenched for soldiers and civils,” tweeted Mali researcher Marc-André Boisvert.
“Be careful what you wish for, #Mali. Just ask Zimbabweans,” tweeted Jeffrey Smith, founder of the pan-African pro-democracy campaigning organisation Vanguard Africa.
Writing in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Professor Nic Cheeseman warned that a reluctance among the international media to label the Malian military’s actions as a coup could have grave consequences. “If this trend continues, Africa’s fragile anti-coup norm will be fatally undermined,” he said.
“[A]s in Zimbabwe, the political role of the military will have grown and the potential for political stability further undermined. Although it is tempting to think that the military will be well organised and so able to deliver development and security, the evidence from across Africa shows that this is a false hope.”
In an Afrobarometer dispatch, Massa Coulibaly, Carolyn Logan, and E. Gyimah-Boadi say that according to the organisation’s research in March and April, the popularity of the coup should come as no surprise, but Malians reject military rule as a system of government.
The study they quote found that 86% of those polled thought that the country was going in the wrong direction and 82% expressed trust in the military, but 69% rejected military rule and 75% said that elections are the best way to choose leaders.
“Even if many citizens appear willing to accept military intervention in the short term, they reject military rule as a system of government,” say Coulibay, Logan and Gyimah-Boadi. “Findings suggest they will hold coup leaders to their promise to call elections and transition back to civilian government.”
Crucial questions for the future of Mali, according to regional expert Alex Thurston writing in his Sahel blog, include reactions to the coup outside the capital, the ability of the junta to retain “(partial) control” of the country, whether international actors attempt to restore Keita to power and the ramifications for international security forces in the region.
From the archives: More about the history of conflict in Mali and the Sahel