Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part One – IBK’s Mistakes

In March 2012, Mali had a coup, and in August 2020, Mali had another coup. Was it inevitable that Mali would cycle back around to this point? And if not, what could have been done to avoid this outcome?

Trying to answer this question, I’ve divided this post into two parts. Here, in part one, I take a look at general features of ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK)’s managerial style as well as specific decisions he and his team made. One could argue that the cumulative effect of his performance, as well as a few specific decisions, made a coup highly likely. But I also think it’s too simple to just lay blame at the feet of IBK. That’s partly because he and his approach are features, rather than bugs, in Malian politics, and partly because the overall situation would be challenging for anyone to successfully preside over. And then tomorrow, in part two, I will look at general features of international/Western actors’ approach to Mali, and specific decisions key international actors made – they, too, deserve significant blame here.

In the interest of relative brevity I’m not going to dwell too long on any particular point, and all of my lists are non-exhaustive.

General Features of IBK’s Managerial Style

There were at least six recurring problems in how IBK approached the presidency:

  1. He put family members into key positions – especially his highly visible son Karim, but also in-laws and family members’ close associates and friends. And top political appointees put their family members into key positions, and so forth. These appointments stoked popular anger and undermined people’s trust in the president. This issue of family members in government was something the new junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, specifically mentioned in their first statement.
  2. He stumbled into big corruption scandals, notably the fallout from the excessively inflated price of a presidential jet purchased in 2014.
  3. He fired prime ministers and reshuffled cabinets too often – six prime ministers in seven years. By overplaying that card, that meant that when he tried to play it again this summer in the face of mass protests it did little good. The turnover also fed speculation that he was difficult to work with and jealous of his power. And the turnover reinforced widespread perceptions that there is no real accountability in Malian politics, only a game of musical chairs – ministers and military officers would be fired, seemingly for good cause, only to resurface in a later cabinet.
  4. He never decisively cracked down on security force abuses or militias. And on the few occasions when he tried to contain and dissolve various government-adjacent militias, it was too late. He allowed a culture of impunity and abuse to thrive, which in turn (a) fueled conflict, (b) increased the salience of ethnicity in violence and in politics, and (c) created new centers of power in the country that ended up undermining his own power.
  5. He repeatedly misread the popular mood in Bamako and pushed ahead with electoral initiatives that were not, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary to his own political survival – and in the process wasted political capital. Here I am thinking specifically of the abortive constitutional referendum of 2017 and the legislative elections of this year; more on the latter issue below.
  6. He crossed Imam Mahmoud Dicko. They fell out for real circa late 2017 and early 2018 for complicated reasons, including IBK’s appointment of a prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, with whom Dicko had serious friction. IBK won re-election in 2018 despite Dicko’s explicit opposition, but it is clear now that IBK underestimated Dicko greatly. Dicko is not the only cleric in the country, but he is distinctive in the combination of his willingness and his ability to turn people out in the streets of Bamako to challenge elected authorities – other clerics might be able to, but appear more reticent about doing so and especially about being the face of popular contestation. Dicko may not determine electoral outcomes, but by mobilizing mass protests this summer he – deliberately or accidentally – softened up IBK for this coup.

Specific Decisions IBK and His Team Made

Here are decisions I would qualify as mistakes, in chronological order:

  1. Buying that jet, man… (March 2014)
  2. Sending then-Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal in an attempted show of force against ex-rebels, provoking an embarrassing clash and withdrawal (May 2014)
  3. Not reacting more swiftly and decisively when sustained jihadist violence began in central Mali (January 2015)
  4. Pursuing the constitutional referendum (summer 2017)
  5. Firing Dicko from his role exploring the possibility of negotiating with jihadists (very late 2017/early 2018) and getting into open conflict with Dicko; not finding a way to reconcile Dicko and then-Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga (in office December 2017-April 2019)
  6. Firing Maïga (April 2019). This one is highly debatable but Maïga was one of IBK’s most capable (and longest-serving) prime ministers. Maïga was fired, at least officially, due to the massacre of over 160 villagers in central Mali in March 2019 – but this firing appears to have been at least partly an act of deflection on IBK’s part. Again, less turnover in government might have given IBK more cards to play when protests broke out in summer 2020.
  7. Intervening (most likely) in the High Islamic Council election to replace Dicko (April 2019). By deepening the conflict with Dicko, IBK set the stage for the conflict to escalate further this summer.
  8. Not reacting swiftly and decisively when opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped (March 2020). Keïta should have immediately formed a task force/crisis cell, rather than waiting for a few weeks, and should have brought in heavyweights (yes, probably including Dicko) to try to secure Cissé’s release quickly. Cissé remains in captivity as of this writing.
  9. Holding the legislative elections (March/April 2020) and then almost certainly ordering the manipulation of some results (April 2020). This was the most proximate mistake, a key trigger for the protests in June and ultimately for the coup. And it built on the general problems and the earlier mistakes. As a good democrat, I obviously support holding elections on time rather than indefinitely delaying them; but from the perspective of realpolitik, IBK should have used COVID-19 as a reason for once again delaying the elections (which were originally scheduled for 2018).
  10. Flailing in response to the protests this summer (June-August). Offering things piecemeal, rather than as a package – to go full bore conciliatory or to completely refuse any conciliation would have likely been better than the middle course he tried.

Initial Conclusion About IBK

It’s easy for me in Ohio, or the think tankers and intelligence analysts and diplomats and NGO staffers in Washington, Paris, London, or New York, or Dakar, or Bamako, to think any one of us would have avoided IBK’s mistakes and run the presidency as a disciplined, meritocratic, highly responsive and decisive institution. But it’s unsatisfying to say that IBK was simply bad at his job, or somehow exceptionally venal in comparison with his peers.

In fact, some of the seemingly flagrant misjudgments he made are actually instances of relatively widespread patterns. For example, it’s relatively common in the Sahel and elsewhere for heads of state to empower their children – in Mali’s neighbor Niger, a blogger recently spent several weeks in detention after a commenter on her Facebook feed happened to criticize President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son. Major corruption scandals are unfolding right now in Niger and in another of Mali’s neighbors, Mauritania.

Governing or trying to govern a country like Mali involves delicate balancing acts, difficult tradeoffs involving whom to trust, and myriad temptations and opportunities for overreach. And Keïta, a former prime minister and National Assembly president, was no naif. Hindsight is 2020, and in most of the instances I’ve qualified as mistakes, there were competing arguments for action or inaction, decisiveness or indecisiveness. To always hang back when it’s best to hang back, to always act when it’s time to act – that would require immense political talent and foresight.

IBK was also dealt an objectively bad atrocious hand. Just imagine presiding over a country that is (a) desperately poor and landlocked, (b) trying to move past a coup and a de facto partition, (c) crawling with foreign soldiers, and (d) the central target of a major regional jihadist force. Add to that a peace accord that was/is very difficult to implement (although IBK compounded that difficulty by so often dragging his feet on implementing it). The accord became a kind of prison, locking him into complex negotiations with some extremely skilled and stubborn interlocutors who sometimes seemed to hold more cards than he did – and contributing to his decisions to forge ahead with various (in retrospect) ill-considered electoral gambits. Add to that the shocking pace at which the situation in central Mali deteriorated, all while the north-focused peace accord remained the international community’s primary political priority for Mali. And then try to govern from a capital roiled by political intrigues, hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers away from the main conflict theaters in the country.

Moreover, it’s also not as though the real contenders for presidential power in post-2012 Mali represented a wide menu of approaches, backgrounds, and outlooks. IBK comes out of a deeply entrenched, stagnant “political class” of technocrats-turned-party politicians. If IBK hadn’t become president of Mali in 2013, it’s highly likely that someone more or less like him would have. Is there a cab driver in Bamako, or a schoolteacher in Ségou, or a shepherd in Youwarou, who would do a better job at being president? Probably – but they have no shot. And at the regional level, IBK’s profile is not too different from the background of Niger’s current President Mahamadou Issoufou or Burkina Faso’s current President Roch Kaboré: highly educated, deeply experienced in government and party politics, in and out of the opposition, etc. Nor is IBK’s profile too different from that of Soumaïla Cissé, the runner-up in both the 2013 and 2018 elections. So while today it is easy to say, “Oh yes, IBK fell because he regularly overreached and unperformed,” we might equally easily, in some slight variant of this timeline, be saying the same about Cissé or any of a dozen other leading politicians.

So was it inevitable than anyone taking the Malian presidency in 2013 would fall before the end of his/her second term? No, and I for one certainly didn’t think a coup was a leading scenario for the country (although the idea was definitely in the air by July). But I do think the pressures of the Malian presidency require extraordinary skill and sensitivity to manage and balance, and any president could easily become a focus for popular dissatisfaction (and soldiers’ dissatisfaction) amid the many extremely serious and overlapping predicaments in which many Malians find themselves. The next president of Mali may enter office knowing that it’s unwise to appoint their children to key posts, and unwise to antagonize Dicko, but those guidelines won’t get them too far – the next president is also highly likely to find that ugly tradeoffs are practically built into the job and that all political alliances are unstable.

But IBK is only part of the story. If I can gather my thoughts sufficiently, I will be back tomorrow with part 2, dealing with international actors



2 thoughts on “Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part One – IBK’s Mistakes

  1. Thanks Alex.
    There are two issues one should add, a) the rapidly growing population that demands much higher spending on education and a booming job creating economy. Plus b) the negative effects of Europe’s anti migration policies are having on West Africa.

  2. Pingback: Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part Two – The International Community’s Mistakes | Sahel Blog

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