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.

Appearance on the World Politics Review Podcast Trendlines to Discuss Mali and ECOWAS

This week I was a guest on World Politics Review‘s Trendlines podcast to discuss the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with an emphasis on ECOWAS’ role in Mali’s political crises. The episode can be found here, and pairs well with my short post from yesterday about the September 15 “Mini Summit” between ECOWAS and Mali’s military junta, a meeting that took place in Accra, Ghana. Readers’ comments welcome as always.

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.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.

Podcast Episode on the Coup in Mali with Derek Davison’s Foreign Exchanges

Yesterday I joined Derek Davison on his podcast. We discussed the coup in Mali, the background to it, and possible scenarios for the medium-term future. The episode is available here. Derek’s broader Foreign Exchanges project is a vital newsletter for keeping up with events and trends around the world.

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.

Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part Two – The International Community’s Mistakes

Amid the continued fallout from the August 18 coup in Mali I, like others, have been thinking about whether all this was inevitable. What could have gone differently between the previous coup in 2012, and this coup? Yesterday, in part one, I looked at ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and what I consider general flaws in his overall approach as well as specific mistakes he made.

Today, in part two, I look at the international community,* again considering what I see as both macro flaws and concrete turning points. In my view, these trends and events made a coup more likely by inadvertently fueling conflict and by making Mali more difficult to govern. I think the coup resulted from a confluence of factors, but I think that examining the interaction between IBK’s mistakes, the recurring patterns in Malian politics, and the approach of international actors toward conflict management in post-2012 Mali is a crucial starting point for understanding what happened.

As before, these are non-exhaustive lists – and there is quite a lot of room for debate. I imagine some readers who agreed with most of what I wrote about IBK will agree with very little of what I write below.

Even before discussing the macro flaws, I think there is an overall problem, namely that it is extremely difficult to escape a certain conceptual prison. The approach followed by international actors, with France in the leading role, has been: “Hunt and kill the bad guys, make a show of implementing the 2015 Algiers Accord, hold presidential elections at mandated intervals, and say platitudes about ‘good governance’ and ‘the return of the state’.” More on this below, but the point I want to up front first is that it’s very difficult – including for me – to imagine genuine alternatives to this overall approach. Even some of the seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that have been floated in recent years, like negotiating with jihadists or replacing the Algiers Accord with something else, ultimately represent only modest adjustments to hegemonic assumptions about how all this has to go: kill, haggle, vote. It is difficult to imagine other paths that international actors might have followed in the period 2012-2020, but there must be alternatives out there that could have helped prevent this coup.

Moving to the next level of analysis, here are what I think are some deeply problematic features of the international community’s approach:

  • There is a circularity built into the way international actors talk about the relationship between political stability and counterterrorism. Is counterterrorism a means to make politics more stable? Or do politics need to be stable so as not to disrupt counterterrorism? Which is the higher priority and why? And what message does ambiguity on this point send?
  • What does counterterrorism really mean? Let’s say it means killing people who wave black flags, because we deem their politics unacceptable and we think that the more power they get, the more likely they are to try to attack Europe and the United States. But then why does a Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission target conventional rebels (in Chad, February 2019)? And if the black flag-waving jihadists are not actually the ones responsible for the most killings, why does other non-state actors’ violence not count as terrorism? Killing 160 villagers is not terrorism? The likely authors of that massacre get to (got to) have a deputy in the Malian parliament? What message are ordinary people supposed to take from all this? And then counterterrorism or perhaps “counterinsurgency” success is ultimately supposed to depend on buy-in from those same audiences of ordinary people? What if they don’t share the international community’s definition of who is a terrorist? What if counterterrorism is making things worse in Mali, not better?
  • In Sahelian politics more broadly, there seem to be just two non-negotiable rules that all actors adhere to: there must be an elected president as head of state, and the guys (currently) holding black flags can’t sit at the peace talks. Everything else is up for negotiation. You took power in a rebellion in 1990 and you want to win every presidential election from 1996 until 2033? Have at it. You’re running for re-election and you want to keep your opponent, whom you have accused of being a child trafficker, in jail throughout the campaign? Go ahead. You led a coup against the only democratically elected civilian president your country ever had, and now you want to run and win as a civilian? Here’s ten years in power for you. You got re-elected in a presidential election where violence forced the closures of over 700 polling places in a single region, and in which armed non-state actors (whose leaders are also members of your party) helped provide security in several other regions, where you ended up winning massive majorities? Cool. You used to be a jihadist and now you’re a parliamentary deputy? You’re under UN sanctions and you want to be a deputy? No problem. And on and on. What message is sent by all that? The message is that the international community’s talk about “good governance” is mostly bullshit. And it is no wonder that politicians sometimes take actions that prove to be reckless, or that politicians occasionally ignore pushback from the streets until it is too late; they get so used to relative immunity to political consequences that they seem to sometimes forget that there can be blowback to their decisions.
  • Nobody really defines what the international community wants the political end-state to look like or why the international community gets to have much of a say at all. “Good governance” is code for saying that if only everyone tried a little harder and cleaned up their act, Mali could have nice things. Saying “the return of the state” never confronts the ways in which the state itself was and is part of the problem in many areas – corrupt judges, abusive soldiers, etc. Saying that France needs a “political strategy” in Mali becomes, in its vagueness, a way of dodging all the ugly questions: What does it mean for one country to have a strategy for another country’s politics? How far is the international community supposed to go in dictating what Mali’s politics look like? And how must all this feel to Sahelien soldiers – dictated and condescended to by outsiders, let down by their own political leaders, feeling caught in an interminable conflict?
  • The international community only adds to its security deployments, it never cuts them or really assesses them or even replaces them. MINUSMA and Barkhane aren’t enough? Add the European Union Training Mission. Add the G5 Sahel Joint Force. That’s not working either? Add the Coalition for the Sahel. Add Takuba. And after the dust settles from this coup, how many of these missions will be rethought, let alone wrapped up? My prediction: zero. How many of the Western diplomats and military officers shaking their heads over IBK’s blunders would really want a mirror held up to their own institutions’ performance in Mali? These deployments did not trigger the coup, but the tendency to just keep adding external missions has become a replacement for thinking about alternatives – and outside pressure can fuel security force abuses, which in turn exacerbates instability and further complicates the position in which soldiers find themselves. Assume for a second that you were a deeply frustrated but well-meaning** Malian colonel: you can’t kick out the foreigners, you can’t win the war against multiple elusive enemies. Who’s the logical target if you want to change something big?

And here are what I think are some specific mistakes and turning points. Some of them are directly and obviously connected to the coup against IBK, whereas others, in my view, indirectly helped set the stage for the putsch.

  1. Whatever happened in Kidal between France, the Tuareg-led separatists, and the ex-jihadists (circa February 2013). I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it seems France contributed, by design or by accident, to what evolved into a de facto partition of Mali.
  2. The creation of Operation Barkhane (summer 2014): I think having a standing counterterrorism mission for the whole Sahel sent the wrong message and created some bad incentives – now every major Barkhane decapitation strike is greeted as a potential turning point for the conflict (it never is), even as mistrust of Barkhane among ordinary Sahelians seems to grow. I don’t see why individual strikes against jihadist leaders couldn’t be conducted without this kind of essentially permanent structure. Maybe now is time to think about wrapping up Barkhane, or even wrapping up everything other than MINUSMA (spoiler: won’t happen).
  3. Allowing the Algiers Accord to replicate past accords (spring/summer 2015): You can read extended analyses of this problem here and here. In brief, though, recycling old ideas and empowering mostly familiar actors helped to create incentives for the implementation to become a desirable end-state in and of itself for some of those actors, while at the same time excluding considerable swaths of the northern population from key decisions.
  4. Not taking the crisis in central Mali seriously until it was too late (2015 on). For example, it was not until 2019 that MINUSMA was given a second strategic priority (in addition to the first priority, supporting implementation of the Algiers Accord) to help stabilize and restore state authority in the center.
  5. Not responding more forcefully to credible allegations of widespread security force abuses against civilians (2015 on). The beginnings of the cycle wherein these abuses would fuel conflict were already visible by mid-2015.
  6. Publicly rejecting the idea of dialogue with jihadists following the Conference of National Understanding (April 2017). French dismissals of the idea, which came out of Malian civil society, came across as arrogant and peremptory. The French antipathy to the idea seems to have undercut some momentum toward dialogue on the part of civil society and elder statesmen in 2017 while reinforcing a tendency for the Malian government’s own efforts at dialogue to stay opaque and halting.
  7. Partnering with northern militias against the Islamic State (early 2018). Such collaboration between Barkhane, MSA, and GATIA, simply sent the wrong message to the Malian state, other militias, and ordinary people.
  8. Accepting the results of the 2018 presidential election without qualification (August 2018). As I alluded to above, there was so much violence in the Mopti Region that I would argue that no election worthy of the name occurred there. And that was just one problem. The response should not have necessarily been to say “IBK must go” or “IBK isn’t legitimate” but to simply say “sure, that was fine, let’s move on” sent, again, the wrong message.
  9. Accepting the revised results of the 2020 legislative election (April 2020). Again, I think international actors could have done more to convey that they actually did care about deep flaws in the election process and outcome. Here it might have been worthwhile to publicly reject the Constitutional Court’s revised results and to say that the initial results from the Ministry of Territorial Administration should stand.
  10. Treating the M5-RFP protests with contempt (June-July 2020). I don’t think international actors listened or really wanted to listen to what the anti-IBK protesters were saying this summer. And many actors’ contempt for protest leaders, particularly for Imam Mahmoud Dicko, was clear in the French press and elsewhere. And when West African leaders tried to mediate, the message was essentially, “Take the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Tourism in the unity government, and pick a few judges for the new Constitutional Court, and then go home.” I’m not saying the international community should have tried to shove IBK aside, but they could have tried a more open-ended process than simply arriving in Bamako and dictating “you get this, this, and this, and you better like it” and then being shot down.

Brief Conclusion

A depressing but quite likely outcome of this coup would be a return to the status quo ante, but with a new president at Koulouba. If you measure success in Mali in terms of stability, then the international community’s approach has been failing since at least 2015, clearly failing since violence began dramatically escalating in 2017, and absolutely failing now that this coup has happened. But that doesn’t mean the assumptions, the policies, or the players will change.

*”International community” is a garbage euphemism, of course, though sometimes I feel stuck with it. What I mean here is France, the United Nations Security Council, the  Economic Community of West African States and its members, the European Union and its members, and the United States, in roughly that order.

**Not saying the new junta (the CNSP) is necessarily well-meaning.

Could Mali’s Coup Have Been Avoided? Part One – IBK’s Mistakes

In March 2012, Mali had a coup, and in August 2020, Mali had another coup. Was it inevitable that Mali would cycle back around to this point? And if not, what could have been done to avoid this outcome?

Trying to answer this question, I’ve divided this post into two parts. Here, in part one, I take a look at general features of ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK)’s managerial style as well as specific decisions he and his team made. One could argue that the cumulative effect of his performance, as well as a few specific decisions, made a coup highly likely. But I also think it’s too simple to just lay blame at the feet of IBK. That’s partly because he and his approach are features, rather than bugs, in Malian politics, and partly because the overall situation would be challenging for anyone to successfully preside over. And then tomorrow, in part two, I will look at general features of international/Western actors’ approach to Mali, and specific decisions key international actors made – they, too, deserve significant blame here.

In the interest of relative brevity I’m not going to dwell too long on any particular point, and all of my lists are non-exhaustive.

General Features of IBK’s Managerial Style

There were at least six recurring problems in how IBK approached the presidency:

  1. He put family members into key positions – especially his highly visible son Karim, but also in-laws and family members’ close associates and friends. And top political appointees put their family members into key positions, and so forth. These appointments stoked popular anger and undermined people’s trust in the president. This issue of family members in government was something the new junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, specifically mentioned in their first statement.
  2. He stumbled into big corruption scandals, notably the fallout from the excessively inflated price of a presidential jet purchased in 2014.
  3. He fired prime ministers and reshuffled cabinets too often – six prime ministers in seven years. By overplaying that card, that meant that when he tried to play it again this summer in the face of mass protests it did little good. The turnover also fed speculation that he was difficult to work with and jealous of his power. And the turnover reinforced widespread perceptions that there is no real accountability in Malian politics, only a game of musical chairs – ministers and military officers would be fired, seemingly for good cause, only to resurface in a later cabinet.
  4. He never decisively cracked down on security force abuses or militias. And on the few occasions when he tried to contain and dissolve various government-adjacent militias, it was too late. He allowed a culture of impunity and abuse to thrive, which in turn (a) fueled conflict, (b) increased the salience of ethnicity in violence and in politics, and (c) created new centers of power in the country that ended up undermining his own power.
  5. He repeatedly misread the popular mood in Bamako and pushed ahead with electoral initiatives that were not, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary to his own political survival – and in the process wasted political capital. Here I am thinking specifically of the abortive constitutional referendum of 2017 and the legislative elections of this year; more on the latter issue below.
  6. He crossed Imam Mahmoud Dicko. They fell out for real circa late 2017 and early 2018 for complicated reasons, including IBK’s appointment of a prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, with whom Dicko had serious friction. IBK won re-election in 2018 despite Dicko’s explicit opposition, but it is clear now that IBK underestimated Dicko greatly. Dicko is not the only cleric in the country, but he is distinctive in the combination of his willingness and his ability to turn people out in the streets of Bamako to challenge elected authorities – other clerics might be able to, but appear more reticent about doing so and especially about being the face of popular contestation. Dicko may not determine electoral outcomes, but by mobilizing mass protests this summer he – deliberately or accidentally – softened up IBK for this coup.

Specific Decisions IBK and His Team Made

Here are decisions I would qualify as mistakes, in chronological order:

  1. Buying that jet, man… (March 2014)
  2. Sending then-Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal in an attempted show of force against ex-rebels, provoking an embarrassing clash and withdrawal (May 2014)
  3. Not reacting more swiftly and decisively when sustained jihadist violence began in central Mali (January 2015)
  4. Pursuing the constitutional referendum (summer 2017)
  5. Firing Dicko from his role exploring the possibility of negotiating with jihadists (very late 2017/early 2018) and getting into open conflict with Dicko; not finding a way to reconcile Dicko and then-Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga (in office December 2017-April 2019)
  6. Firing Maïga (April 2019). This one is highly debatable but Maïga was one of IBK’s most capable (and longest-serving) prime ministers. Maïga was fired, at least officially, due to the massacre of over 160 villagers in central Mali in March 2019 – but this firing appears to have been at least partly an act of deflection on IBK’s part. Again, less turnover in government might have given IBK more cards to play when protests broke out in summer 2020.
  7. Intervening (most likely) in the High Islamic Council election to replace Dicko (April 2019). By deepening the conflict with Dicko, IBK set the stage for the conflict to escalate further this summer.
  8. Not reacting swiftly and decisively when opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé was kidnapped (March 2020). Keïta should have immediately formed a task force/crisis cell, rather than waiting for a few weeks, and should have brought in heavyweights (yes, probably including Dicko) to try to secure Cissé’s release quickly. Cissé remains in captivity as of this writing.
  9. Holding the legislative elections (March/April 2020) and then almost certainly ordering the manipulation of some results (April 2020). This was the most proximate mistake, a key trigger for the protests in June and ultimately for the coup. And it built on the general problems and the earlier mistakes. As a good democrat, I obviously support holding elections on time rather than indefinitely delaying them; but from the perspective of realpolitik, IBK should have used COVID-19 as a reason for once again delaying the elections (which were originally scheduled for 2018).
  10. Flailing in response to the protests this summer (June-August). Offering things piecemeal, rather than as a package – to go full bore conciliatory or to completely refuse any conciliation would have likely been better than the middle course he tried.

Initial Conclusion About IBK

It’s easy for me in Ohio, or the think tankers and intelligence analysts and diplomats and NGO staffers in Washington, Paris, London, or New York, or Dakar, or Bamako, to think any one of us would have avoided IBK’s mistakes and run the presidency as a disciplined, meritocratic, highly responsive and decisive institution. But it’s unsatisfying to say that IBK was simply bad at his job, or somehow exceptionally venal in comparison with his peers.

In fact, some of the seemingly flagrant misjudgments he made are actually instances of relatively widespread patterns. For example, it’s relatively common in the Sahel and elsewhere for heads of state to empower their children – in Mali’s neighbor Niger, a blogger recently spent several weeks in detention after a commenter on her Facebook feed happened to criticize President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son. Major corruption scandals are unfolding right now in Niger and in another of Mali’s neighbors, Mauritania.

Governing or trying to govern a country like Mali involves delicate balancing acts, difficult tradeoffs involving whom to trust, and myriad temptations and opportunities for overreach. And Keïta, a former prime minister and National Assembly president, was no naif. Hindsight is 2020, and in most of the instances I’ve qualified as mistakes, there were competing arguments for action or inaction, decisiveness or indecisiveness. To always hang back when it’s best to hang back, to always act when it’s time to act – that would require immense political talent and foresight.

IBK was also dealt an objectively bad atrocious hand. Just imagine presiding over a country that is (a) desperately poor and landlocked, (b) trying to move past a coup and a de facto partition, (c) crawling with foreign soldiers, and (d) the central target of a major regional jihadist force. Add to that a peace accord that was/is very difficult to implement (although IBK compounded that difficulty by so often dragging his feet on implementing it). The accord became a kind of prison, locking him into complex negotiations with some extremely skilled and stubborn interlocutors who sometimes seemed to hold more cards than he did – and contributing to his decisions to forge ahead with various (in retrospect) ill-considered electoral gambits. Add to that the shocking pace at which the situation in central Mali deteriorated, all while the north-focused peace accord remained the international community’s primary political priority for Mali. And then try to govern from a capital roiled by political intrigues, hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers away from the main conflict theaters in the country.

Moreover, it’s also not as though the real contenders for presidential power in post-2012 Mali represented a wide menu of approaches, backgrounds, and outlooks. IBK comes out of a deeply entrenched, stagnant “political class” of technocrats-turned-party politicians. If IBK hadn’t become president of Mali in 2013, it’s highly likely that someone more or less like him would have. Is there a cab driver in Bamako, or a schoolteacher in Ségou, or a shepherd in Youwarou, who would do a better job at being president? Probably – but they have no shot. And at the regional level, IBK’s profile is not too different from the background of Niger’s current President Mahamadou Issoufou or Burkina Faso’s current President Roch Kaboré: highly educated, deeply experienced in government and party politics, in and out of the opposition, etc. Nor is IBK’s profile too different from that of Soumaïla Cissé, the runner-up in both the 2013 and 2018 elections. So while today it is easy to say, “Oh yes, IBK fell because he regularly overreached and unperformed,” we might equally easily, in some slight variant of this timeline, be saying the same about Cissé or any of a dozen other leading politicians.

So was it inevitable than anyone taking the Malian presidency in 2013 would fall before the end of his/her second term? No, and I for one certainly didn’t think a coup was a leading scenario for the country (although the idea was definitely in the air by July). But I do think the pressures of the Malian presidency require extraordinary skill and sensitivity to manage and balance, and any president could easily become a focus for popular dissatisfaction (and soldiers’ dissatisfaction) amid the many extremely serious and overlapping predicaments in which many Malians find themselves. The next president of Mali may enter office knowing that it’s unwise to appoint their children to key posts, and unwise to antagonize Dicko, but those guidelines won’t get them too far – the next president is also highly likely to find that ugly tradeoffs are practically built into the job and that all political alliances are unstable.

But IBK is only part of the story. If I can gather my thoughts sufficiently, I will be back tomorrow with part 2, dealing with international actors