Mali: A Foiled Coup Attempt Against the Junta?

In a May 16 statement, Mali’s transitional military-dominated government described what it calls a coup attempt that allegedly occurred on the night of May 11-12:

The language of the statement is charged, condemning the actions of a “small group of anti-progressive Malian officers and non-commissioned officers” and accusing an unnamed “Western state” of supporting the alleged plotters. In the context of severe diplomatic tensions between the Malian junta and France, the transitional authorities appear to be leaving the impression that there was a French-backed plot against them. Claiming the mantle of progress, too, is a vague effort to attach a kind of politics to what has become an open-ended and rather policy-devoid transition.

Is the narrative plausible? Sure. The junta, which took power in August 2020 and then took on a more blatantly military and authoritarian character in a May 2021 follow-on coup, has been deliberately isolating itself from France, the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and most other partners. The junta’s refusal to set a clear and fast timetable for transitioning back to civilian rule elicited a tough sanctions package from ECOWAS in January. Meanwhile, the transitional authorities have been vindictive against even major critics in the capital Bamako, all while beginning to lash out at communities and alleged jihadists in the conflict-torn central regions of Mali. All of that could certainly provoke a reaction from within segments of the Malian Armed Forces; plenty of officers and ordinary soldiers would have ample cause to worry over the grim trajectory of the country, which looks set to become grimmer in the months to come. (None of this, by the way, is my way of defending the pre-August 2020 status quo, which was obviously bad enough to provoke the original coup – one can argue both that the pre-August 2020 trendline was bad and unsustainable, and that the current junta is not solving Mali’s old or new problems.)

As some coverage has pointed out, too, there was already one prior assassination attempt against military leader Colonel Assimi Goita, when a knife-wielding man tried to attack him in a Bamako mosque in July 2021.

On the other hand, some commentators are appropriately skeptical about the story of a foiled coup plot.

After all, a major component of the diplomatic war between France and Mali is the information war – and as demonstrated by the swirling narratives around the mass graves at Gossi, the accusations at play in this information war can be quite dramatic. Would the Malian junta gain politically by generating a fake story of a foiled coup? Absolutely, if they are hoping to drive up the kind of “rally round the flag” effect that is part of their current appeal – perhaps even their main domestic political narrative at this point. One could also speculate that the junta is sending a message to actual would-be coup plotters within the ranks, conveying something along the lines of “we are on alert, we recognize this is a possibility, and we will deal harshly with any attempts.” Ultimately, I think a coup is the greatest medium-term threat to the junta at this point. They have shown a great deal of stubbornness in the face of sanctions, even amid escalating defaults on debts; they do not seem to fear a mass civilian protest movement, and one does not seem to be in the cards in the near term; there is little possibility in my view of an external military intervention in the short term; the major politicians in Bamako are being coopted, intimidated, or kept complacent through the promise of eventual elections; etc. That leaves an internal coup as the biggest or most unpredictable threat – and it is not clear to me how unified the armed forces were behind the junta in the first place. And if there was no major schism in the ranks in August 2020 or May 2021 that does not mean that everyone is on “team junta,” so to speak.

To be a bit wishy-washy by way of conclusion, it’s very hard for me to adjudicate these competing possibilities about whether the latest alleged coup is real, fake, or perhaps some minor incident that the junta is deliberately exaggerating. In any case, even announcing a fake coup attempt could be read as a sign of some nervousness at the top.

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