Is Mali’s transition advancing? Is it a transition to civilian rule? Who is making the decisions? There’s an odd rhythm and uncertainty to events in Bamako this week.
To recap the last month or so, a group of soldiers mutinied and then took power on August 18. They formed the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). The junta immediately faced pressure from international actors, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in the forefront, to step aside in favor of a civilian president and a civilian prime minister. The CNSP missed an ECOWAS deadline of September 15, but the CNSP met ECOWAS in Accra, Ghana at an inconclusive “Mini-Summit.”
ECOWAS has wielded economic sanctions and border closures as levers to move the CNSP. The effects on the Malian economy are reportedly severe, although the pressure has not completely bent the CNSP to ECOWAS’ will.
On Monday of this week (September 21), the CNSP convened an 11-member “college” to pick the transitional authorities and announced, that same day, the choice of retired Major Colonel Bah Ndaw (spellings vary) as president-designate and CNSP leader Colonel Assimi Goïta as vice president-designate. Ndaw is technically a civilian, and so Goïta has called upon ECOWAS to lift the sanctions, essentially arguing that the junta has fulfilled ECOWAS’ main conditions.
As the Malian news site Jigi lays out, however, there are at least five crucial conditions still unmet:
To translate/paraphrase, those conditions would be:
- Freeing all individuals held in extrajudicial detention (i.e., in connection with the coup);
- Dissolving the CNSP;
- Naming a civilian prime minister;
- Abrogating an August 27 declaration that made the CNSP’s head Mali’s head of state; and
- Modifying the transition charter so that the vice-president doesn’t replace the president if he resigns.
That third point has been on my mind this week, and I find it odd that the CNSP hasn’t moved on it yet. From a purely political perspective, I think it was a masterstroke on the CNSP’s part to pick a retired, technically civilian officer as the transition president, and the combination of a retired officer and a CNSP vice-president may be a strong signal that the transition will just be the CNSP in another guise, or a kind of CNSP 2.0. At the same time, I find the delay in naming a prime minister to be quite clumsy – why not bring the whole package forward at once?
One explanation may be that the now much-criticized “political class” in Bamako considers the PM spot the real prize, and so the behind-the-scenes lobbying and competition for that post may be posing some real tradeoffs for the CNSP. In other words, perhaps the politicians have all accepted that continued military authority, whether overt or masked under technicalities, is the reality when it comes to the head of state – and so the PM slot then takes on even greater significance, in part because of positioning for an anticipated election in late 2021 or early 2022, and in part because of power and influence in the present. And for the CNSP, then, picking one politician means you can’t pick another, and so there are risks both ways – perhaps enough to make the CNSP hesitate. Or perhaps they want to float a candidate to ECOWAS, whose mediator, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, is expected in Bamako this week (even today, September 23, according to some reports). ECOWAS, however, has been silent so far about the choice of Ndaw and Goïta.
Then you have another aspect of ambiguity, which is the role of the protest movement-turned-political bloc, the M5-RFP.* The bloc has been consulted to some extent by the CNSP, but public infighting among M5-RFP leaders, and contradictory information in the press, makes the M5-RFP’s influence unclear – and the very atmosphere of contradiction and ambiguity, I think, is now weakening the M5-RFP’s power further. The latest example is that the M5-RFP was initially reported to have had two seats on the 11-member college that selected Ndaw, but now (some?) M5-RFP leaders deny that the M5-RFP participated in the process – essentially calling the CNSP, and Goïta specifically, liars. Is this an aversion, on the M5-RFP’s part, to taking responsibility and/or to seeming like a tool of the junta? Or was the college a complete farce, a mere rubber stamp for CNSP dictates?
In any event, things are clearer in Bamako than they were a week ago, but a lot of the main actors still appear tentative and uncertain about making the final decisions that will set the parameters of Malian politics for the next 18 months or so.
*June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces, named for the date of its first mass protest earlier this summer.