Today was turbulent in Mali, with fast-moving narratives emerging and competing throughout the day. At around 17:00 Bamako time/13:00 Eastern time, however, AFP confirmed that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé had been arrested by the leaders of a mutiny. Things are so confused that, as of the time of writing, it’s still not clear to outsiders who is in charge of the mutiny/coup.
The coup comes amid a summer of protests by the “June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces” (French acronym M5-RFP), a Bamako-centric coalition of opposition politicians, civil society actors, and the prominent Imam Mahmoud Dicko. The M5-RFP’s core demand has (had?) been for President Keïta to resign. This week, the M5-RFP had planned and begun to carry out a series of protest actions, to culminate in another mass protest on Friday. Today, images and videos circulated showing civilian protesters congregating in Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance, the locale for previous M5-RFP protests. Further images and videos showed the protesters welcoming and supporting the mutineers:
Amid the dramatic events unfolding in Bamako, foreign powers – France, the United States, and the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – were attempting to forestall a coup and plead for calm. ECOWAS has been the formal mediator between the presidency and the M5-RFP.
Today’s apparent coup has already evoked numerous comparisons with the last two coups in Mali, which occurred in 1991 and 2012, respectively. To speak at a level of crude simplicity, the sequence of mass protests followed by a coup evokes parallels with 1991, while the sequence of a mutiny at Kati escalating into a coup in Bamako evokes parallels with 2012.
What happens next is, of course, anyone’s guess. But here are some questions I have:
- How far in advance was this apparent coup planned? Is it spontaneous, representing an improvised escalation of a (spontaneous) mutiny? Did it arise partly or wholly out of the dismissal of a major officer by the president? Or was it planned further in advance by elements within the armed forces who had been encouraged by the protests – and/or who were broadly losing confidence in President Keïta? From one perspective, the protests can be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of the presidency’s problems. After all, well before the protests began, Mali faced a multi-faceted security, institutional, economic, and political crisis.
- If the apparent coup was planned, who was informed in advance? Were M5-RFP leaders informed? Did the coup leaders convey their intentions to any international audiences?
- If there is any convergence – past, present, or future – between the mutineers/coup-makers and the M5-RFP, how long will that last?
- How long will the mutineers remain in (partial) control of the state? Is the era of long-lasting military juntas decisively over – that is, will pressure from ECOWAS, France, the United States, and others force a transition to a civilian caretaker regime within a relatively short time? The 2012 junta was in power for only a few weeks. Within the Sahel as a whole in recent years, coup-makers have typically ceded power to civilians within 18 months or less (Burkina Faso 2014, Niger 2010-2011, Mauritania 2008-2009, etc.) – although in Mauritania a general became a civilian and then effectively ceded power to himself.
- Will international actors attempt to restore IBK to power? Theoretically, his term is set to expire in 2023; he is the legal president of Mali unless he formally resigns. On the one hand, international actors have throughout the summer consistently implied that they would be loath to see IBK go. On the other hand, bringing him back could simply set up Mali for a repeat of this scenario within weeks or months.
- If the mutineers/junta last only a short time in power and IBK formally resigns, will constitutional procedures be followed – will the President of the National Assembly become interim president, followed by new elections? If so, how will the military deal with the fact that the current National Assembly President, Moussa Timbiné, is one of 31 parliamentary deputies whose legitimacy is contested?
- If (when) there is a new election, what future is there for Mali’s “political class,” which as a body always appears to come out on top, with familiar faces cycling through key posts. If the coup gives way to a new act for the same political class, that could be quite disheartening for all those in the streets now. But is there an alternative to the “political class”?
- What does the coup mean for the various components of the international security presence in Mali – the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping operation, France’s Operation Barkhane counterterrorism mission, the G5 Sahel Joint Force battalions, etc.? As Peter Tinti comments, “The coup in Mali, if confirmed, is a policy disaster for France, ECOWAS, the UN, EU, etc. All were counting on IBK muddling through the rest of his mandate (or stepping down via negotiations).” What are the coup-makers’ attitudes and intentions toward the international security presence? And perhaps even more importantly, how will the funders and architects of that presence evaluate the continued value and importance of these security deployments, training missions, and stabilization efforts?
- What reactions will the coup elicit within Mali but outside Bamako? The M5-RFP has elicited only weak demonstrations of active support beyond the capital. Key actors with stakes in the existing (old?) order will have reasons to be very unhappy with a coup in the capital. For example, the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) might conceivably declare independence for the Kidal Region, its home turf – but it appears much more likely that the CMA will be very nervous and unhappy about the prospect of disruptions to the Algiers Accord, a 2015 peace deal. The CMA has, along with IBK, been guilty of slow-rolling the accord’s implementation, but they are also highly invested in its continuation.
- What does all this portend for Mali’s future as a whole? What will be the human consequences of what appears like a new low for the country? The trajectory of the country could always change – but in the short term, it seems things will get even worse.