ECOWAS Leaves Bamako Empty-Handed; M5-RFP in the Driver’s Seat By Holding Firm

The June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a collective calling for the resignation of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), has upended politics in the capital Bamako through a series of three protests on June 5, June 19, and July 10 (see previous coverage, in chronological order from earliest to most recent, here, hereherehere, and here).

Regional and international governments are alarmed and are working to prevent a scenario where Keïta resigns. The face of that effort has been the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has undertaken two mediation missions to Bamako. The latter mission, a delegation headed by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (in office 2010-2015), was in Bamako from July 15-19. Their mission failed in that they did not convince the M5-RFP to drop its demand for IBK to step down.

By my count, the M5-RFP has only really wavered on that core demand once, with its July 1 announcement proposing various institutional arrangements that would have made IBK a figurehead but would have kept him in office. On the whole, though, the M5-RFP has been quite consistent in calling again and again for Keïta’s departure. Meanwhile, both IBK and ECOWAS have proposed concession after concession. IBK has granted several concessions or would-be concessions already:

  • the ongoing effort to form a new government;
  • the pledge to appoint a new slate of judges to the Constitutional Court (perhaps the M5-RFP’s second-most important political target after IBK himself);
  • the various proposals IBK has made regarding 31 politicians whose apparent victories in the legislative elections of March/April were stripped away by revised results the Constitutional Court issued on April 30; and
  • the resignation of IBK’s son Karim (another prominent target of the M5-RFP) from a powerful parliamentary committee.

ECOWAS, in a July 19 memorandum, essentially recycled those first three proposals but with a bit more complexity/specificity in the mechanisms by which they are to be accomplished; for example, ECOWAS wants the “government of national unity” to include 50% members from the ruling coalition, 30% members from the opposition, and 20% members from civil society. And there is a complicated formula for choosing the new members of the Constitutional Court. ECOWAS noted, without any irony, that everyone it met welcomed those proposals except for the Strategy Committee of the M5-RFP.

The overall dynamic of one side attempting to conciliate and the other side not budging has steadily increased the M5-RFP’s bargaining power. If I were better read, I could probably point to some theoretical literature on this topic but the basic point is easy to grasp: if I just keep saying I want X and you keep throwing out offer after offer, eventually you start to look desperate. You start moving, inadvertently, closer and closer to my position. You said, “X is off the table,” but now you’ve offered so many Ys and Zs that it starts to look like you are chipping away at X itself, beginning to offer me small pieces of it. And meanwhile many of the ramparts that defended X are now down, they’ve been breached, and you’re starting to run out of meaningful Ys and Zs to offer. We’re still negotiating over X, but now your position is weaker than when we began, I haven’t given up anything, and you’ve acknowledged that you’re scared of me. This is where IBK and ECOWAS find themselves now vis-a-vis the M5-RFP.

Does this mean IBK will resign? The chances are certainly ticking upwards. The strategy from IBK’s team may be to just play for time, try to let the M5-RFP’s momentum drain away, experiment with combinations of conciliation and repression until they find the one that works. A further problem for IBK’s side, though, is that they did not hit on that combination the weekend of July 10-12, after the third protest. Had they refrained from arresting M5-RFP leaders, had they not deployed the FORSAT anti-terrorism unit against protesters, had they not been so quick with the teargas and the live ammunition, the authorities and particularly the presidency might have been able to claim the moral high ground and dismiss the protesters as mere troublemakers. There are valid, even devastating criticisms to be made of the M5-RFP – they have little support outside Bamako, their leadership includes plenty of opportunists, they have not articulated detailed plans for resolving Mali’s crises beyond the departure of IBK, etc. – but the presidency undercut its ability to make those criticisms resonate, domestically and even internationally, by overreacting to the July 10 demonstration.

And does IBK have the time to outlast the M5-RFP? At the conclusion of ECOWAS’ second mission, the M5-RFP called for renewed “civil disobedience” beginning Monday, July 20 (today). The M5-RFP’s momentum is growing, not dissipating. The M5-RFP has done quite well, I think, at managing the media spectacle surrounding the protests; as a multi-headed movement, there is plenty of opportunities for press conferences, statements, media profiles, etc. And IBK and ECOWAS inadvertently feed the media spectacle even as they try to resolve the crisis, with each press conference or speech that they hold serving to keep the M5-RFP in the news.

If three protests have caused this much of a crisis for IBK, how will two or three more protests play out?

I leave you with a few noteworthy analyses from elsewhere:

2 thoughts on “ECOWAS Leaves Bamako Empty-Handed; M5-RFP in the Driver’s Seat By Holding Firm

  1. Pingback: All at Once: a View From Bamako, this Time with Added Political Crisis

  2. Pingback: Mali’s Temporary Skeleton Cabinet | Sahel Blog

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