Mali: With a Civilian Prime Minister, the Top Tier of the Transitional Government Is Complete

On Friday, Mali swore in an (ostensibly) civilian president, retired Major Colonel Bah Ndaw (spellings vary), and an active military duty vice president, Colonel Assimi Goïta.

Up until the inauguration, Goïta had been serving as head of the military junta that took power in a coup the night of August 18-19. As head of the junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), Goïta had also been – by the CNSP’s declaration – Mali’s head of state. That role now shifts, obviously, to Ndaw.

The shift from explicit military control to whatever Mali has now was largely prompted by demands from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). That regional bloc applied political and economic pressure to the CNSP and to Mali as a whole. ECOWAS’ key demand was for the CNSP to appoint an interim civilian president and an interim civilian prime minister, but there were and are a host of other demands, including freeing political prisoners. The CNSP defied ECOWAS at several moments on both substance and timelines, but ECOWAS pressure may have shut down any ambitions the CNSP had to rule the country solely and explicitly on their own, and may have curbed CNSP desires for a multi-year transition – the agreed-upon length now appears to be 18 months.

The CNSP’s choice of a retired military officer raised a lot of eyebrows, including mine, as Malians and foreigners wondered – and continue to wonder – what the CNSP’s and the military’s real power will be even with apparent civilian control. The announcement of Goïta as vice president obviously compounded suspicions that the CNSP’s role in politics is far from over, and there has been debate between ECOWAS and the Malian authorities (ongoing, from what I understand, unless I’ve fallen behind) over provisions in the interim government’s charter that would allow the vice president to succeed the president in the event of a resignation.

ECOWAS’ lead mediator, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (in office 2010-2015), attended the inauguration in Bamako, but ECOWAS declined to lift sanctions until the new prime minister was announced. I found it clumsy on the CNSP’s part that they did not announce the whole slate of top officials at once – I am keen to know the whole story behind that one.

The prime minister-designate was ultimately announced on Sunday, September 27: Moctar Ouane, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2004-2011 under President Amadou Toumani Touré (in office 2002-2012), who was himself ousted in a coup. Many now expect ECOWAS to lift sanctions. I think ECOWAS may have fallen short of getting the substance of what it wanted out of Mali’s transition, but it has certainly now gotten the form.

Ouane, at 64, is not at all old in the context of Malian politics (ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is 75). Yet Ouane has not been, so far as I am aware, a major figure on the Malian political scene recently. When it comes to the question of how the junta was picking a prime minister, I called this one partly wrong, I think. I expected that the delay was because of major politicians lobbying the junta for what I assumed would be a coveted spot as prime minister. Some of that jockeying for position reportedly happened, with journalists counting 14 self-declared candidates just among the big tent of the Bamako-centric protest movement the M5-RFP. But the lobbying was not the only dynamic at play, and it seems some of the really big players strategically held back from throwing their names in the hat. I casually mentioned the issue to my parents over the weekend,* and they remarked that perhaps no major politician would want the reputational risks that might come with doing the job, on an interim basis and in service of leaders whose orientations and goals are not at all clear. Perhaps that analysis, rather than mine, is being proven correct now, and/or perhaps the CNSP found it politically advantageous to select someone perceived as more politically neutral. RFI adds that Ouane’s perceived “equidistance” from all political parties may boost the legitimacy and transparency of the elections that the interim authorities must eventually organize. RFI further notes that Ndaw, coming out of retirement, needs the kind of rolodex that Ouane brings, particularly when it comes to West African contacts – from 2011 to 2014, Ouane was an advisor to the West African Economic and Monetary Union, to which eight of ECOWAS’ fifteen members belong.

*No, in case you’re wondering, I don’t usually inflict conversations about Malian politics on family and friends here in the United States. Although I did try to explain the coup to my three-year-old when it happened, and he recommended “kicking them out of town” – not a bad idea, but then again that’s often his default policy recommendation.

Mali: An Ambiguous Week in Bamako Politics

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:

  1. Freeing all individuals held in extrajudicial detention (i.e., in connection with the coup);
  2. Dissolving the CNSP;
  3. Naming a civilian prime minister;
  4. Abrogating an August 27 declaration that made the CNSP’s head Mali’s head of state; and
  5. 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.

Mali: An ECOWAS-CNSP Meeting in Accra, and the CNSP’s Continued Negotiating Advantage

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.

Mali: Filling in the Portrait of the CNSP a Bit More

Mali had a mutiny/coup on August 18, overthrowing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK, in power 2013-2020). Last week I wrote a sketch of Mali’s new military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). Since then, structures have solidified a bit, top coup leaders have given numerous interviews, and more details about the leaders’ biographies and backgrounds have emerged. Even though the CNSP’s plans and proposals are still somewhat in flux and subject to negotiation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and others, a fuller portrait of the CNSP is nevertheless possible to draw.

Let’s return to this still image from the CNSP’s first television appearance the night of the coup (early hours of August 19), captioned by a well-informed Malian observer:

Since August 19, the three men in the center have been the most prominent public faces of the junta.

Reuters has a short “factbox” with a few sentences on each officer. The Africa Report also has brief biographies of these five officers as well as some discussion of a general, Cheikh Fanta Mady Dembélé, whom some observers believe is unofficially connected with the CNSP.

Here is the hierarchy of the CNSP so far, and which type of unit each figure came out of:

  • President: Colonel Assimi Goïta (special forces)
  • 1st Vice President: Colonel Malick Diaw (national guard)
  • Spokesman: Major Colonel Ismaël Wagué (air force)

I have not been able to find the formal positions that Camara and Koné were given in the CNSP, but I suspect there may be more than one vice president (see this photo where Diaw’s name placard reads “1st Vice President”).

Let’s look a bit more closely at the first three, then.

Goïta, second from left in the photo above, quickly emerged as president of the CNSP. Search for his name and you will find pieces talking about how he is “U.S.-trained,” just as you will find pieces framing the junta as trained by Russia or some other foreign country. In my view this issue is mostly/entirely a red herring because any officer who rises to a certain rank is likely to have had contact with a foreign military. That’s not to excuse the U.S. or anyone else – but my takeaway is that a lot of foreign trainings, especially on themes like civil-military relations or human rights, are essentially a kind of theater and credentialing ritual for both the trainers and the trainees. And Denis Tull and Andrew Lebovich put it well:

Jeune Afrique profiles Goïta here, first discussing his style – which is much more restrained, as they point out, than those of Guinea’s Moussa Dadis Camara (in power 2008-2009) or Mali’s Amadou Sanogo (in power 2012). That profile then discusses his military career. Among some interesting details are the idea that his time in the special forces since 2014, and particularly as commander of a special forces unit since 2018, made him visible and respected throughout the army. Also, as various outlets have noted, he was reportedly ordered back to Bamako (from central Mali) in July 2020 to help deal with the anti-IBK protests – an irony, I think, rather than any sign of collusion between him and the protesters. In terms of English-language biographies, here is one sketch from APA News, describing his military career. He has a formidable résumé, no question about it.

The CNSP’s 1st Vice President is Colonel Malick Diaw, fourth from left in the photo above, whose name was one of the first – even before Goïta’s – to emerge in early media coverage of the mutineers/coup leaders. He was deputy head of the Kati military camp where the mutiny began on August 18. There are some important details about him in this account of the mutiny written by Libération‘s Léa Masseguin and Olivier Dubois; the authors write that Diaw has been complaining for quite some time, on behalf of his men, about conditions the military is facing. The same report says Diaw was a “key actor” in the 2012 coup. That report depicts Diaw and Camara as the leading actors in the mutiny.

The CNSP’s spokesman is Major-Colonel Ismaël Wagué, who had been deputy chief of staff of the Air Force. He has been all over the media but I have not yet seen a detailed biography of him either. Jeune Afrique has an interview with him that’s worth a read.

I haven’t seen much on Koné and Camara beyond the few sentences one reads in the reports I linked to above from places such as Reuters and Africa Report.

As I mentioned in my previous sketch of the CNSP, this strikes me as neither a pure “senior officers’ coup” in the sense of the top generals removing the head of state, as happened for example in Mauritania in 2005 and 2008; nor is this a junior officers’ coup akin to 2012 in Mali, much less something like Samuel Doe’s 1980 coup in Liberia. But it’s a lot closer to the senior officers’ coup than the junior officers’ coup. Check out this thread from Marc-André Boisvert about the savvy and one might even say professionalism that the CNSP leaders have shown so far:

Another note: whether the mutiny/coup was spontaneous or not, it is remarkable how the CNSP put together, quite quickly, the support of key officers from multiple units and branches of the armed forces.

Finally, I’m still not sure whether any of the Twitter accounts claiming to be the CNSP’s account are genuine. But one is here.