Piece for Responsible Statecraft on Changing Post-Coup Norms

The Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft asked me to expand a bit on my post here the other day about the lengthening tenures of ostensibly transitional West African military regimes. My piece for Responsible Statecraft is here. An excerpt:

American policymakers should not get comfortable with military regimes. If harsh sanctions and threats do not work (ECOWAS tried a sweeping sanctions package for Mali and then backed down when it did not sway the junta), neither should American policymakers fool themselves into thinking that a given autocrat is some vital ally on another priority. The African autocrats who survived the “third wave of democracy” did so because they partnered closely with Washington, Paris, or some other major power.

At the moment, American-Russian (and American-Chinese) competition and the African versions of the “War on Terror” have both led American policymakers to accept certain African leaders’ abuses — sometimes for decades, as in the case of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. The tradeoffs are not worth it, including reputationally, when American backing becomes closely linked with a ruler’s anti-democratic behavior and human rights abuses.

The Fall of Bamako? Some Scenarios

The jihadist coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a subsidiary of al-Qaida, is now openly menacing (French) Mali’s capital Bamako. The threats are more than rhetorical – the July 22 attack on the country’s core military base at Kati, just outside Bamako, showed JNIM’s reach and daring. Jihadist incursions into southern Mali and even into Bamako are not at all new; Bamako suffered a major terrorist attack as far back as 2015. Yet the overall trend line in Mali is more and more violence, and the south (French) is under greater threat than ever before, meaning that jihadist threats to encircle and blockade Bamako are at least partly credible.

What scenarios, then, are possible? Olivier Walther of the University of Florida, a leading expert on patterns of violence in the region (I have contributed to some of his multi-authored reports for the OECD), outlined one grim scenario in a short, provocative thread the other day:

Here are a few other scenarios:

  • Hard jihadist blockade: This would put Bamako in the position of Djibo, a major town in northern Burkina Faso. On and off for the past few years, jihadists have cut off Djibo from surrounding areas, accelerating displacement, further ruining the local economy, and compelling desperate negotiations that often advantage the jihadists. This would be much harder for jihadists to achieve with Bamako, however – it would entail controlling or at least terrorizing six major routes (versus just three in Djibo), and targeting a national capital instead of a provincial town.
  • Soft jihadist encirclement: This would put Bamako in the position of Niger’s capital Niamey, which is surrounded by regions and departments under a state of emergency. Niamey is not cut off from surrounding areas per se, and a degree of normalcy continues there, but traveling even nearby the city can bring unexpected risks, as occurred with the August 2020 killing of some French humanitarians and their Nigerien driver not far from the capital.
  • Increased terrorism in the city: This would make Bamako into an analogue of Maiduguri, Nigeria in the years after Boko Haram’s resurgence starting in 2010 – something far short of jihadist control, but still suffering a frequent clip of terrorist attacks (and I don’t mean just attacks by jihadists, but more specifically terrorism in the sense of attacks meant to instill fear among the civilian population). What that ultimately gains jihadists is unclear; in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s terrorism set off a cycle of violence between the group and the security forces that initially seemed to benefit Boko Haram, but then state-backed vigilantes (reflecting, in part, popular fatigue with the violence) helped partly push Boko Haram out of the city.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid French intervention: The outright fall of Bamako to JNIM, whether violently or through surrender, would in my view almost immediately provoke a kind of Operation Serval Part 2. The fall of Bamako would very likely entail the fall of the ruling junta there as well, unless some very low-probability and bizarre scenario emerged whether the junta and JNIM shared power (I can’t see it). The fall of the junta and the jihadist takeover of Bamako, then, would almost certainly have the French screaming “I told you so!” and organizing an intervention. I do not think the French government’s appetite for counterterrorism has diminished, overall; I think they’re just frustrated specifically with the Malian transitional authorities, and that they would go back into Mali without hesitation if the political situation there change. If France came charging in, they would send JNIM scurrying, and after the dust settled Mali would be back to something like where it was in 2013, except worse, with JNIM rebuilding in the countryside and a flimsy, pro-French civilian government in Bamako. Then the cycle of the last decade would likely repeat, perhaps with a beefed-up G5 Sahel Joint Force as a replica of the African Union Mission in Somalia.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid African intervention: What if Bamako fell and France somehow passed on an intervention? Perhaps in this scenario French authorities would calculate that the French public could not stomach Operation Serval Part 2, or perhaps a vestigial junta (could Bamako somehow fall, and the junta try to rule from elsewhere in the south?). That might leave France (and the US) in support roles as the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or some subset of Mali’s neighbors and peers (Niger + Chad, as in their intervention in Nigeria in 2015?) organized a military intervention. The question then would be whether African forces would organize rapidly or not; in 2012, when jihadists controlled northern Mali, there seemed to be some hesitation on ECOWAS’ part, or at least a preference for attempting negotiations. Would that allow JNIM to look something like Somalia’s al-Shabab in 2009-2010, carving out a substantial territory that it openly governed? Of course, even in al-Shabab’s case their control over the capital was eventually broken.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by stalemate: Would both France and ECOWAS (and Niger, Chad, Senegal, etc.) hesitate to intervene? What then – would there be a kind of Talibanization of JNIM, where they agree to implement their vision within the borders of a single state? Where would that leave JNIM’s ventures in Burkina Faso and further afield? Would JNIM use Mali as a launching pad for some kind of more ambitious attacks elsewhere (potentially returning Mali to the scenario of a rapid French intervention)? Or would the scenario settle into a long-term stalemate, even longer-lasting than al-Shabab achieved in Mogadishu circa 2009-2011? I find this one unlikely but not impossible.
  • The fall of Bamako followed by chaos: What if Bamako falls but no one really “wins”? That is, what if Bamako proves ungovernable for JNIM, amid what would likely be a very unenthusiastic population, massive civilian flight, an immediate suspension of most international assistance and programming, crippling diplomatic and economic isolation of an already desperately poor and landlocked country, etc.? How would other Malian actors react – would there be a bizarre scenario of JNIM controlling Bamako but not Kidal, Timbuktu, Gao, etc? Would JNIM march into Bamako and then march into Mopti, Segou, etc? Or would there be some kind of war of all against all?
  • A failed jihadist attempt to take or hold Bamako, followed by blowback for JNIM: Blockading a city or terrorizing it is not the same as attempting to take it and hold it. What if JNIM seriously tried to take control and then lost to the Malian armed forces – or even to a popular uprising? JNIM leaders must know that even in the best-case scenarios for them, taking Bamako would entail considerable exposure. If JNIM captured Bamako, would Iyad ag Ghali, Amadou Kouffa, Yusuf al-Annabi, and other senior leaders show their faces, as the jihadist leadership did in northern Malian cities in 2012? Or would they rule through proxies? If they show their faces, they’re essentially putting targets on their back, but if they don’t show face, why bother taking the city in the first place – and could they trust mid-level commanders to run a whole capital for them? There is a significant possibility of jihadist overreach here – no matter how much their capabilities have grown, it seems to me that overt state-building efforts still carry more risks than rewards for jihadists. I suppose that’s why ultimately, I still think the first few scenarios I described are much more likely than these scenarios further down the list.

Changing Post-Coup/Transition Norms in West Africa?

I think I’ve made this point elsewhere (can’t remember where), but yesterday’s roundup on Burkina Faso reminded me of it, in the context of discussing the visit by an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation to Ouagadougou. The point is this: ECOWAS seems now to be comfortable with (or reluctantly acquiescing to) two-year transitions, which differ from the previous expectation in two ways – the length (eighteen months) and the precision (“two years” can date from a more or less arbitrary point that is not necessarily when a given junta took power).

The coups in Mali (August 2020, May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January 2022) all upended business as usual in West Africa and confronted France, ECOWAS, the United States and other external actors with a major dilemma – how much pressure to apply to coup-makers, and to what end? The “gold standard” for an orderly post-coup transition, in the West African regional context, appears to be the fourteen-month transition in Niger in 2010-2011, and ECOWAS (with French backing) sought to enforce a standard of eighteen months. But intransigence from Mali in particular forced ECOWAS into negotiating. Sometimes ECOWAS negotiated in a tough way, as when ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions on Mali from January-July 2022 in response to the junta’s proposal for a transition that could have lasted through 2026. Yet even at its toughest-minded, ECOWAS was always negotiating at a disadvantage – ECOWAS is not, I think, going to physically force any junta from power, and I think the juntas all know that. So the end result – and here the juntas watch each other, clearly – is an adjusting of the norms in the ways I described above. Mali’s junta ended up getting sanctions lifted by offering a “two-year” transition plan (but dating from March 2022, meaning that March 2024 will in fact mark three and a half years since the junta took power) and Burkina Faso’s junta now appears to be on the same page as ECOWAS about a “two-year” transition plan (dating from July 2022, giving that junta as much as thirty months in power – not a far cry from what it demanded originally).

(ECOWAS’ mediation/negotiation efforts with Guinea – the new mediator [French] is former Beninese President Boni Yayi – are still ongoing.)

If one thinks that Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are part of an “epidemic” of West African (or African) coups and if one expects that “epidemic” to claim further victims – I’m ambivalent on both questions – then the next question is what expectations the Malian and Burkinabè experiences set up for potential coup-makers elsewhere in the region. Again, I’m not necessarily expecting any more coups in the short term, but any aspiring West African coup-makers now know that they can likely expect at least thirty months in power. Depending on how one reads their motivations – and especially if one is ultra-cynical and sees coup-makers as primarily there for their own enrichment and empowerment – then the incentives are clear. That ultra-cynical view is a bit too strong for me; I think it’s hard to get in the mind of Assimi Goïta (Mali) or Paul-Henri Damiba (Burkina Faso) and separate what may be, on the one hand, their legitimate frustrations over insecurity, civilian corruption and fecklessness, and pressures from below from their own soldiers versus, on the other hand, more self-serving motivations. But even if one sees these officers as heroes (I don’t), the coup/transition combo itself becomes something different depending on the length of time it lasts. Fourteen months, eighteen months…that’s hitting a reset button on the country’s politics, for better or worse. Thirty months, forty-two months…that’s a full-blown military regime. The pendulum has not, I think, swung back to where it was in the 1980s (Mauritania 1984, Burkina Faso 1987, Chad 1990) or earlier, when a coup-maker could expect to come into power and stay there practically indefinitely, perhaps with the occasional rigged election or cabinet reshuffle to placate various foreign and domestic stakeholders. But the pendulum has certainly swung a bit in that direction versus where it was a decade ago, when coup-makers had a lot more trouble making their rule stick – including in Mali (2012) and Guinea (2008).

Mali and Burkina Faso: ECOWAS Kicks the Can to July

On June 4, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held an extraordinary summit in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the situations – i.e., the military juntas – in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Tension between ECOWAS and Mali’s junta are particularly severe, and ECOWAS imposed country-level, sweeping economic sanctions in January 2022 in an effort to pressure the Malian junta to set a rapid timetable for holding elections and handing over power to civilians.

In its communiqué from the summit, ECOWAS had a few qualified words of praise for the Burkinabè junta, but took no major decisions, electing to maintain the sanctions on Mali and revisit the situations in all three countries at the next ordinary summit scheduled for July 3.

There’s a fair amount being reported about intra-ECOWAS divisions on how to proceed, especially with Mali. RFI calls Niger, Ghana, Gambia, and to some extent Nigeria the hardliners, in other words the really pro-sanctions crowd. Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire are, or at least as of early May reportedly were, also in the pro-sanctions camp. There is also a lot online about the role of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, who is now formally mediating between Mali and ECOWAS; I’m having trouble cutting through the speculation to find what’s reliable, but there is a lot of speculation that Togo is open to a much softer line on Mali. For whatever it’s worth, his tweet about the summit spoke of “stability and peace” rather than, say, “democracy.”

Piece for Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft: France Should Try Taking a Break from/with Mali

I have a piece at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft blog:

France’s best option, in the current environment, is to take a strategic pause in its efforts to shape Malian politics and the politics of the wider Sahel region. Such a pause would entail reacting indifferently to any further diplomatic provocations from Mali. The pause would also entail encouraging West African regional authorities to ease sanctions on the Malian economy and defer the question of when the junta will hold elections — essentially, France and its West African allies might consider ignoring Mali for the rest of 2022 and shrugging at whatever else the junta comes up with. Such a policy would, admittedly, amount to rewarding the junta for its stubborn refusal to yield power to civilians. Yet punishing and arguing with the junta has not worked, and a diplomatic breather might allow for an opening within a few months — and might also avoid pushing Mali further into the arms of Russia.

A French-Malian pause and then reset would also be in the interest of the United States, especially because Mali is a key piece of an increasingly delicate regional puzzle that involves growing threats to democracy and security in the overwhelming majority of West Africa’s fifteen states. There is little to gain in supporting failing French and regional West African policies, even if those policies theoretically serve U.S. goals such as promoting democracy, countering Russian influence, and containing insurgents. The United States, less resented than France in the Sahel, might try a phase of quiet and exploratory diplomacy aimed at discerning what could bring Mali’s junta to hand power back to civilians. This moment calls for creativity, especially as juntas in Mali’s neighbors Guinea and Burkina Faso take cues from the Malian junta’s defiance of regional and Western powers. There is a middle ground between coddling dictators and turning Mali into a pariah.

Mali: A Foiled Coup Attempt Against the Junta?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mali: Snapshots of the Economy Under Sanctions, and a Bit on UEMOA Politics

Mali has been under draconian sanctions since January of this year. The sanctions were imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in an attempt at pressuring Mali’s military-dominated transitional government (took power in an August 2020 coup, and reconsolidated power in a May 2021 follow-on coup) to accelerate its timeline for transitioning back to civilian rule. The sanctions include border closures and tight restrictions on financial transfers, exports, etc. Mali’s government had already defaulted on $180 million in debt servicing by March, which is beginning to have some domino effects through the suspension of some World Bank projects and other fallouts.

RFI (May 8) looks at the impact of sanctions, centering interesting comments by the Senegalese economist Pape Demba Thiam. He argues that the Malian economy will reorient rather than collapse. Thiam sees gold, the “war economy,” and the internal economy broadly as factors that are allowing (and will allow) the Malian junta to keep pressing ahead, despite early predictions that the sanctions would lead to collapse within weeks.

Speaking of the World Bank, in April 2022 they released a new “Macro Poverty Outlook” for Mali. I don’t know much about the Bank but bizarrely for a note released in April 2022, the document includes the line that “this projection assumes that the sanctions will expire by the end of March 2022.” In any case, here’s a useful excerpt (p. 2):

The extreme poverty rate is projected to stagnate at around 17.5 percent in 2022, due to the high projected population growth rate of 2.9 percent over 2021-2023. Protracted sanctions may reduce employment and incomes for the urban poor engaged in construction, transport, commerce and hospitality. Internally displaced persons and refugees will increasingly flock into Bamako when the government is ill-equipped to mitigate humanitarian crises and support the vulnerable.

The outlook is subject to multiple downside risks, the most important being regional sanctions extending beyond March, but also from intensified insecurity, further climatic shocks, food insecurity and new COVID outbreaks. It is likely that at least some of these risks will materialize and
concurrent shocks are possible. The Russia-Ukraine war presents additional risks through higher food and energy prices. The projections reflect recent sharp increases in commodity prices since January 2022, though with a high degree of uncertainty. Higher gold prices could help offset the negative impact of surging oil prices.

Jeune Afrique, meanwhile, looks at the West African Monetary and Economic Union (French acronym UEMOA) and its internal divisions regarding the sanctions regime for Mali. The UEMOA’s eight members (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) are all members of ECOWAS as well (also right now some members are suspended). Dynamics involving the UEMOA and Mali are now quite complex – in March (here I’m quoting Reuters), a UEMOA court “ordered suspension of the eight-nation body’s sanctions against Mali, imposed in January after the junta delayed elections…[but] it was not immediately clear whether UEMOA would follow the court decision.” Going back to the Jeune Afrique article, UEMOA leaders met yesterday (May 9) in Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan on the margins of the COP15 summit there. Jeune Afrique describes two camps. One camp favors the lifting of sanctions; so far, this camp appears to consist of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé (recently asked by Mali’s government to act as a mediator). The other camp favors continued sanctions; key players are Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, and Senegal’s Macky Sall. Burkina Faso, itself under military rule, is not in good standing, nor is Mali, obviously; the article says that Benin’s President Patrice Talon has not yet taken a clear stance, and the article doesn’t mention Guinea-Bissau’s position.

Even though the UEMOA meeting was yesterday, I haven’t seen any news yet about any decisions taken there – so I assume no game-changing moves have been made yet.

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

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

The Transitional Government

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

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

Here is the full list of new government members:

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

Andrew Lebovich has some pertinent analysis:

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

The cabinet met for the first time on October 6.

*June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces

ECOWAS Sanctions Lifted

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

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

Prisoner Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

Aurelien Tobie raises some key questions:

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

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Kidal and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.