Yesterday, September 15, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional trade and political bloc for West Africa, met leaders from Mali’s military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP) in Accra, Ghana. ECOWAS and the CNSP are continuing to debate what form a transitional regime for Mali should take.
Since the CNSP’s coup against (now former) President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on August 18, ECOWAS has sought to pressure the CNSP to hand power to civilians.
Both sides took the Accra meeting seriously – CNSP President Assimi Goïta and spokesman Ismaël Wagué attended, and from the ECOWAS side there were at least seven heads of state from ECOWAS’ member countries. The meeting or “Mini-Summit” followed an extraordinary ECOWAS summit on August 28, where Mali was the central topic, and an ordinary ECOWAS summit on September 7, where Mali was one major topic. ECOWAS had previously set September 15 as a deadline for the CNSP to hand power to civilians – a deadline the CNSP did not obey, although by showing up in Accra they showed that they don’t dismiss ECOWAS’ concerns and demands. In Accra, the CNSP presented its transition plan and ECOWAS commented.
Here is the communiqué from the September 15 meeting. The key passages come on page 4, where ECOWAS reiterates its demand that the president and prime minister of the transitional government both be civilians, that the CNSP be dissolved once the transitional government is in place, and that the 18-month transition begin as of September 15. The lifting of ECOWAS sanctions on Mali (border closures and certain financial restrictions) is contingent on the designation of the transitional president and prime minister.
For its part, the CNSP’s charter, which was in Reuters’ phrase “pushed through” on September 12, leaves open the possibility of a military-led transition. (I believe this to be a reliable copy of the charter – I’ve seen various photographs of the document circulating on social media.) In Accra, the CNSP did not agree that the transition leaders must be civilians. From another Reuters story:
“We have not reached any agreement with the military junta,” said Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo, the acting ECOWAS chair, after the talks. He said that a mediating mission would return to Mali next week to try to resolve outstanding issues.
To put things crudely, I think the CNSP holds more cards, still, than does ECOWAS.
Just in terms of the optics of the situation, the CNSP feels comfortable missing ECOWAS’ deadlines. That in itself starts to make ECOWAS’ authority seem partly symbolic; it’s not that they can’t impose real consequences, and escalating sanctions, on the CNSP and on Mali, but the junta seems to calculate that they have a fair amount of latitude when negotiating with ECOWAS. The CNSP’s trial balloon for a three-year, military-headed transition was decisively popped, but the CNSP may well get an 18-month transition headed by a soldier. The pattern of ECOWAS delegations coming to Bamako this year, both before and after the coup, is also one of West African mediators walking away more or less empty-handed: I wouldn’t expect much from the next ECOWAS visit.
Political dynamics in Bamako also strengthen the CNSP’s hand. The CNSP seems to be exerting a kind of gravitational pull over political factions in the capital, with some drawn closer into its orbit and others more distant, but with no faction fully able to resist the new junta as not just the “facts on the ground” but also as a political actor. There is a lot of power at stake, after all. The spectacle of politicians explicitly or implicitly aligning themselves with the CNSP, and the spectacle of M5-RFP* leaders openly disagreeing with one another over how to approach the CNSP and the charter, inadvertently undercuts any argument that the CNSP are dictators with no broader support. And they still appear to have some real support in “the street,” at least in Bamako.
These dynamics in turn weaken ECOWAS’ negotiating position; it’s harder to make the argument that the key to Malian stability is civilian-led government when you see civilian politicians attempting to curry favor with soldiers. And then you have the additional challenge of ECOWAS’ own inconsistency regarding democratic norms among its own members.
One other major question is what happens if the CNSP settles on a civilian president and prime minister, but with a vice president from with the CNSP leadership. What influence would the VP have, particularly if the president and PM are made to understand that their decisions still have to be quietly vetted by the CNSP, formally disbanded or not?
*June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces, a movement that held several mass rallies calling for Keïta’s resignation this summer, prior to the coup.