Mali Roundup: Transitional Cabinet Meets, ECOWAS Lifts Sanctions, Prisoners Exchanged with JNIM, Malaria Cases Rising

There’s so much news out of Mali this week (every week?) that I will just round some of it up today, rather than attempting to analyze one of the major stories.

The Transitional Government

On September 25, a little more than a month after the August 18 coup, Mali swore in the president and vice president of the transition; they are, respectively, retired Major Colonel Bah Ndaw (spellings vary) and Colonel Assimi Goïta. The latter was head of the brief-serving military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). On September 27, the interim authorities announced the designation of former Foreign Affairs Minister Moctar Ouane as prime minister and head of the transitional government. With the top three figures in place, authorities turned to assembling the cabinet.

On October 5, authorities announced the cabinet. Much coverage focused, appropriately, on the fact that the military/CNSP was taking key ministries: defense (Col. Sadio Camara), security (Col. Modibo Kone), national reconciliation (Maj. Col. Ismaël Wagué), and territorial administration (Lt. Col. Abdoulaye Maiga). Those first three, along with Goïta and Col. Malick Diaw, were the most visible leaders of the CNSP.

Here is the full list of new government members:

Commentators scrutinized the list, asking which other political actors got which posts, and how many. This exercise is far from simple – for example, here is one leader of the M5-RFP* protest movement denying that his movement has any representatives within the new cabinet. Two key northern political-military blocs, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA) and the Plateforme, were also represented:

Andrew Lebovich has some pertinent analysis:

The danger, rather, is that the military will not relinquish its grip. The fact that both N’Daw and Ouane have no real domestic political constituencies makes it all the more imperative that pressure and attention remain focused on governance reforms as well as creating durable civilian authorities. So far the CNSP appears unwilling to pursue real reform. The choices around the transitional leadership are a case in point, whereby early post-coup promises by the junta of an inclusive process came to nothing: candidates for prime minister from the opposition coalition Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) submitted their paperwork at the request of the CNSP, only for Ouane’s appointment to be announced the next day; his appointment under the CNSP’s direction was clearly already in the works. The CNSP also made a number of key security and political appointments before N’Daw’s appointment, and his nominal government continued to name military officers to posts within the presidency and elsewhere, even before the transitional government formalised the junta’s ministerial roles. The CNSP continues particularly to promote the activities of Goïta – hardly a signal of readiness to disband and cede any real authority.

The cabinet met for the first time on October 6.

*June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces

ECOWAS Sanctions Lifted

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been the key regional actor pressuring the CNSP to step aside, and has been the face of the international response to the coup. ECOWAS’ main lever has been economic sanctions. The CNSP and the transitional government slowly met ECOWAS’ demands during September and now early October, although it sometimes appeared to me that mostly the form, and not necessarily the substance, of the demands was being met.

Following the formation of Ouane’s government, ECOWAS announced on October 5 that it would lift sanctions on Mali:

Prisoner Exchange

On October 4, buzz and reporting began to the effect that Malian authorities had released some 180 prisoners as part of a possible exchange with the jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

Details were still emerging as I was writing this post late on October 6, but the exchange seems to have concerned at least two prominent hostages – Mali’s opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, who was kidnapped in March of this year in the Timbuktu Region, and French national Sophie Petronin. Here is a piece I wrote in June that gives some context on Cissé’s kidnapping. At least anecdotally, from what I could tell, news of Cissé’s likely/imminent release sparked a lot of happiness among Malians and Mali watchers – Cissé is not necessarily super-popular as a candidate, but I think even beyond his core supporters the thought of him in captivity was not only disturbing and upsetting in and of itself, but also came to symbolize the difficult period Mali is traversing.

JNIM, meanwhile, spoke of 206 people being released. I translated a few key phrases from one of their statements here:

There has also been some debate about who exactly might have been released back to JNIM. And the journalist Wassim Nasr makes the excellent point that JNIM may have lobbied for, and secured, the release of some individuals beyond its own members – a “deft political maneuver” that speaks to the group’s sophistication:

Adam Sandor comments, in a parallel vein, that arrests of innocent people can be not just accidental, but instead reflective of what he and a co-author call “security knowledge.” See their brand-new article, comparing Mali and Afghanistan, here.

Aurelien Tobie raises some key questions:

I would also refer readers to my 2018 paper on “political settlements with jihadists,” where I frame some settlements as stabilizing and others as destabilizing. I am concerned that what is happening now in Mali may be more ad hoc than strategic.

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Kidal and Beyond

I wrote briefly on the topic here, earlier this week. The journalist Ali Ag Mohamed also uploaded some videos showing stagnant water, a major contributor to the high case rate:

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.