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.

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.

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.

Mali: A New Slate of Judges for the Constitutional Court

A political crisis in Mali began with the legislative elections in March/April and escalated with the M5-RFP protest movement’s rallies in June and July – the M5-RFP being the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces, a coalition of civil society and opposition groups. The protesters have focused their energies on multiple targets: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), his son Karim, the National Assembly, and the Constitutional Court. The protesters’ complaints about all of these figures and institutions are interlinked; among other relationships at play, it was the Constitutional Court that overturned the results of 31 legislative races and in so doing created one of the main grievances fueling the protests.

On August 7, President Keïta named a brand new slate of nine members for the Constitutional Court, fulfilling a pledge he had made and conforming to a demand from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc that is the lead mediator between IBK and the M5-RFP. The new slate take their oaths of office today, August 10.

The old, departing slate included Manassa Danioko, a career judge and diplomat who had been appointed president of the Court in 2015. She became a symbol for the M5-RFP of the Court’s corruption, while she presented herself as a defender of the Constitution. The letter of protest that she and two colleagues wrote to IBK protesting their dismissal – calling it unconstitutional and illegal – is worth reading, not just because it captures her perspective but also because it raises thorny issues about judicial independence. Various sides within Malian politics and the international community are trading accusations about what is constitutional or unconstitutional, and as actors improvise I don’t think either IBK or the M5-RFP can claim to be consistent defenders of the constitution. That does not mean, though, that I sympathize with Danioko – her approach to public relations during the protest has been poorly conceived, to say the least.

The formula for picking out the new judges was a bit complicated – three chosen by the president, three by the President of the National Assembly, Moussa Timbiné, and three chosen by the High Council of the Magistrature. Here is the list:

  1. Amadou Ousmane Touré, magistrate – picked by IBK
  2. Aser Kamaté, magistrate – picked by IBK
  3. Doucoure Kadidia Traoré, lawyer – picked by IBK
  4. Malick Ibrahim, lawyer – picked by Timbiné
  5. Ba Haoua Toumagnon, magistrate – picked by Timbiné
  6. Beyla Ba, retired magistrate – picked by Timbiné
  7. Demba Tall, magistrate – picked by High Council
  8. Mohamed Abdourahamane Maiga, magistrate – picked by High Council
  9. Djènéba Karambenta, magistrate – picked by High Council

The new president of the Court is the above-listed Amadou Touré, a prosecutor and former auditor general and ambassador to Cote d’Ivoire. Most recently he has been chief of staff to Prime Minister Boubou Cissé (h/t Serge Daniel).

I do not think these appointments will depoliticize the Court, either in practice or in the eyes of the M5-RFP. This is not a question about the qualifications of the new appointees, who all appear to be accomplished legal professionals – rather, it has to do with the mechanisms by which they were selected and, at least in Touré’s case, with their professional itineraries. Selecting an executive branch staffer to head a judicial institution whose independence is in question from multiple directions is not really a good look. The Nord Sud Journal even reports that another appointee, Demba Tall, is PM Cissé’s cousin (h/t Baba Ahmed), which takes us back to the question of family networks in Mali’s top institutions.

Also, as Andrew Lebovich points out, there is a problem with Timbiné getting to pick one-third of the new slate:

To spell this out further, Timbiné – although President of the National Assembly – is himself one of the 31 “mal-elected” deputies whom ECOWAS and others want gone from the legislature, or at least compelled to do a re-run election. And, moreover, the M5-RFP refused to participate in naming the new judges. So this overhaul of the Court ticks a box vis-a-vis ECOWAS’ stipulations, but is unlikely to mollify the protesters. IBK may have to rely on cracks within the M5-RFP, rather than these institutional shakeups (which are, I’m trying to say, likely less impactful than they might first seem), to withstand the protests.

 

 

 

ECOWAS Leaves Bamako Empty-Handed; M5-RFP in the Driver’s Seat By Holding Firm

The June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a collective calling for the resignation of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), has upended politics in the capital Bamako through a series of three protests on June 5, June 19, and July 10 (see previous coverage, in chronological order from earliest to most recent, here, hereherehere, and here).

Regional and international governments are alarmed and are working to prevent a scenario where Keïta resigns. The face of that effort has been the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has undertaken two mediation missions to Bamako. The latter mission, a delegation headed by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (in office 2010-2015), was in Bamako from July 15-19. Their mission failed in that they did not convince the M5-RFP to drop its demand for IBK to step down.

By my count, the M5-RFP has only really wavered on that core demand once, with its July 1 announcement proposing various institutional arrangements that would have made IBK a figurehead but would have kept him in office. On the whole, though, the M5-RFP has been quite consistent in calling again and again for Keïta’s departure. Meanwhile, both IBK and ECOWAS have proposed concession after concession. IBK has granted several concessions or would-be concessions already:

  • the ongoing effort to form a new government;
  • the pledge to appoint a new slate of judges to the Constitutional Court (perhaps the M5-RFP’s second-most important political target after IBK himself);
  • the various proposals IBK has made regarding 31 politicians whose apparent victories in the legislative elections of March/April were stripped away by revised results the Constitutional Court issued on April 30; and
  • the resignation of IBK’s son Karim (another prominent target of the M5-RFP) from a powerful parliamentary committee.

ECOWAS, in a July 19 memorandum, essentially recycled those first three proposals but with a bit more complexity/specificity in the mechanisms by which they are to be accomplished; for example, ECOWAS wants the “government of national unity” to include 50% members from the ruling coalition, 30% members from the opposition, and 20% members from civil society. And there is a complicated formula for choosing the new members of the Constitutional Court. ECOWAS noted, without any irony, that everyone it met welcomed those proposals except for the Strategy Committee of the M5-RFP.

The overall dynamic of one side attempting to conciliate and the other side not budging has steadily increased the M5-RFP’s bargaining power. If I were better read, I could probably point to some theoretical literature on this topic but the basic point is easy to grasp: if I just keep saying I want X and you keep throwing out offer after offer, eventually you start to look desperate. You start moving, inadvertently, closer and closer to my position. You said, “X is off the table,” but now you’ve offered so many Ys and Zs that it starts to look like you are chipping away at X itself, beginning to offer me small pieces of it. And meanwhile many of the ramparts that defended X are now down, they’ve been breached, and you’re starting to run out of meaningful Ys and Zs to offer. We’re still negotiating over X, but now your position is weaker than when we began, I haven’t given up anything, and you’ve acknowledged that you’re scared of me. This is where IBK and ECOWAS find themselves now vis-a-vis the M5-RFP.

Does this mean IBK will resign? The chances are certainly ticking upwards. The strategy from IBK’s team may be to just play for time, try to let the M5-RFP’s momentum drain away, experiment with combinations of conciliation and repression until they find the one that works. A further problem for IBK’s side, though, is that they did not hit on that combination the weekend of July 10-12, after the third protest. Had they refrained from arresting M5-RFP leaders, had they not deployed the FORSAT anti-terrorism unit against protesters, had they not been so quick with the teargas and the live ammunition, the authorities and particularly the presidency might have been able to claim the moral high ground and dismiss the protesters as mere troublemakers. There are valid, even devastating criticisms to be made of the M5-RFP – they have little support outside Bamako, their leadership includes plenty of opportunists, they have not articulated detailed plans for resolving Mali’s crises beyond the departure of IBK, etc. – but the presidency undercut its ability to make those criticisms resonate, domestically and even internationally, by overreacting to the July 10 demonstration.

And does IBK have the time to outlast the M5-RFP? At the conclusion of ECOWAS’ second mission, the M5-RFP called for renewed “civil disobedience” beginning Monday, July 20 (today). The M5-RFP’s momentum is growing, not dissipating. The M5-RFP has done quite well, I think, at managing the media spectacle surrounding the protests; as a multi-headed movement, there is plenty of opportunities for press conferences, statements, media profiles, etc. And IBK and ECOWAS inadvertently feed the media spectacle even as they try to resolve the crisis, with each press conference or speech that they hold serving to keep the M5-RFP in the news.

If three protests have caused this much of a crisis for IBK, how will two or three more protests play out?

I leave you with a few noteworthy analyses from elsewhere:

On Gambia and ECOWAS for World Politics Review

Today’s post, on the role that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played in the Gambia’s recent crisis, is outsourced to World Politics Review (paywalled). An excerpt:

Do ECOWAS’ actions in Gambia’s crisis show a growing willingness by the bloc to use force against West African leaders who overstay their welcome? Likely not. The overall trend in West Africa from the past decade suggests that ECOWAS takes political crises case by case, and that its default mode is to proceed cautiously.

If you read the whole piece, please share your reactions in the comments section below.

The Gambia: What Happens to Yahya Jammeh?

Last week, the Gambia’s post-electoral crisis came to a formal and relatively peaceful end. President Adama Barrow, who won election in December, took the oath of office at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal, on January 19, the constitutionally-mandated transition day. (You can watch the full ceremony here.)

Outgoing president and long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh had disputed the election results and refused to leave power. But Jammeh finally bowed to domestic, regional, and international pressure: he left the Gambia on January 21. It seems he may have taken a lot with him – as much as $11.4 million, if the Barrow team’s information is correct.

What comes next for Jammeh? That partly depends on what deals were struck between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Jammeh, and Barrow. As I wrote in an earlier post, rumors in the Senegalese press held that Jammeh was pushing for full immunity – financial and criminal – for himself, his family, and hundreds of associates.

There are contradictory signs about whether such a deal is in place. The joint statement from ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations seemed to be not-so-subtly urging Barrow to avoid pursuing charges against Jammeh and his associates. An excerpt:

ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that it assures and ensures the dignity, respect, security and rights of HE former President Jammeh, as a citizen, a party leader and a former Head of State as provided for and guaranteed by the 1997 Gambian Constitution and other Laws of The Gambia.

Further, ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that it fully guarantees, assures and ensures the dignity, security, safety and rights of former President Jammeh’s immediate family, cabinet members, government officials, Security Officials and party supporters and loyalists.
ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that no legislative measures are taken by it that would be inconsistent with the previous two paragraphs.
ECOWAS, the AU and the UN urge the Government of The Gambia to take all necessary measures to assure and ensure that there is no intimidation, harassment and/or witch-hunting of former regime members and supporters, in conformity with the Constitution and other laws of The Gambia.

The relevant section of the Gambian Constitution is Chapter VI, Article 69 (.pdf).

The joint statement sounds a lot like immunity for Jammeh, and a strong signal from the international community to Barrow to leave Jammeh and his people alone.

But there are other signals from Barrow’s camp:

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Barrow said he wanted to create a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during Mr Jammeh’s time in office.

This pledge is not nearly as strong as the promises of prosecution that came from Barrow’s team in December. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation committee would be more an exercise in collective memory and honesty than a body empowered to prosecute people and seize assets. But it is clear that Barrow does not seem to simply wish to move on.

African leaders’ attitudes toward Jammeh are affected, it seems to me, by two basic considerations. First, as ECOWAS’ posture makes clear, Jammeh was widely disliked and mistrusted by his peers. The swiftness and decisiveness of ECOWAS’ rejection of Jammeh, including its rapid deployment of troops to enforce its directive, does not represent the usual posture of African heads of state toward their peers. Jammeh’s fall was not inevitable; had he been more popular and had he managed things differently, he would likely still be in power.

But second, even though they dislike him, some African heads of state have an incentive to see that Jammeh is not prosecuted. Penalties for Jammeh and his associates would set a precedent where African heads of state are held accountable for crimes committed in office (or, if one counts the trial of Hissene Habre in neighboring Senegal, Jammeh’s prosecution would strengthen that precedent). I suspect, too, that the prospect of domestic punishment worries other autocrats more than the prospect of trial at the International Criminal Court or some other international forum. So it seems that some of Africa’s “presidents for life” will feel better about their own retirement prospects if Jammeh can enjoy a peaceful exile somewhere, without facing charges in his own country.

For my own part, I think that he should be held accountable to the extent possible under the Gambian Constitution. But the matter is for the new president and the Gambian people to decide.

The Situation in Gambia on Inauguration Eve

Tomorrow is the Gambia’s inauguration day, and it is clear that incumbent President Yahya Jammeh has no plans to step down. Jammeh initially recognized the results of the December 1 election and conceded to opposition candidate Adama Barrow, but then reversed himself, generating the present crisis.

Barrow remains in Senegal under official protection from the national gendarmerie (French). Plans to inaugurate Barrow are proceeding, but the inauguration may take place at a Gambian embassy (likely the one in Senegal), which is technically Gambian territory. Here is Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama explaining:

An embassy is a territory of a particular country that that embassy represents. The constitution provides for a swearing-in by a judge of a superior court and there are a number of those that are available.

The inauguration will, in the eyes of other West African leaders, the African Union, and most of the international community, make Barrow the recognized president of the Gambia. Enforcing that recognition is another matter. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is openly talking about a military intervention in the Gambia to remove Jammeh, but it is unclear how seriously and quickly West African leaders would move to launch such an intervention. Nigeria’s decision to send a warship to the Gambia could be one sign of seriousness.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS continues to urge Jammeh to step down peacefully and accept asylum in the region, possibly in Nigeria.

Inside the Gambia, Jammeh is attempting to forcefully assert his rule, notably by declaring a 90-day state of emergency on January 17. Jammeh has already begun to clamp down on dissent, shutting down radio stations and harassing Barrow’s supporters – one of whom, the mayor of the capital Banjul, has fled to Senegal.

Jammeh’s crackdown and refusal to leave power, however, are beginning to produce major dissent from within his own government. At least five ministers – communications, foreign affairs, finance, trade, and environment – have resigned from Jammeh’s cabinet. (You can read the foreign affairs minister’s letter to Jammeh here.) Their departures represent a real loss of confidence in Jammeh, and suggest that many Gambian elites feel he will eventually lose his struggle against Barrow and ECOWAS. Meanwhile, other institutions are also bucking Jammeh’s authority – the head of the Independent Electoral Commission remains outside the country, and the Supreme Court is refusing to hear Jammeh’s petition to overturn the election results. In a sense, the Court’s decision gives Jammeh a pretext for staying in power – he says that he must wait until the Court rules, which might not be until May – but in another sense the Court’s posture shows that it is unwilling to help him in any legal maneuvering.

The crackdown is making ordinary Gambians fearful, and many are reportedly fleeing for Senegal.

Tomorrow, then, may bring Barrow’s inauguration abroad, and Jammeh’s refusal to step down. It will be ECOWAS’ move then.