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.

Quoted in Al Jazeera on France and Niger

Al Jazeera’s Mucahid Durmaz has a new piece out called “Analysis: Can Niger become the main Western ally in the Sahel?”

I’m quoted briefly. An excerpt:

“[Former Nigerien President Mahamadou] Issoufou knew that he only had to clear a minimum bar to appear like a democrat,” said Alex Thurston, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati.

[…]

“The West looked the other way as authorities leveraged the law to constrain the ambitions of Hama Amadou [Issoufou’s rival has been imprisoned and barred from running as an opposition candidate in the last election],” Thurston told Al Jazeera. “Western governments also did not scrutinize the 2016 and 2020/2021 elections, both of which had irregularities.”

Analyzing Niger’s National Assembly Vote on French Forces [Lightly Edited]

On April 22, Niger’s National Assembly approved a policy change that gives greater leeway for the redeployment of two French-led counterterrorism missions – Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba – from Mali to Niger. The vote was 131 to 31, representing all but four of the National Assembly’s members.

In a sense, the vote was theater. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum had already effectively accepted the French redeployment back in February (see his series of posts on Twitter starting here). Moreover, on March 5, the parties of the presidential majority released a joint statement welcoming the redeployment of foreign forces. Yet the April 22 vote was theater that the government took seriously – Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou addressed the deputies before the vote, evoking Niger’s dire security situation and arguing that Niger cannot face the threat alone.

Why bother with such a vote? Likely to head off, or at least wield a powerful talking point against, the anti-French sentiment in the country and in the Sahel as a whole. It’s a better optic to have the redeployment approved by a huge majority vote in parliament than to merely impose it by presidential decree. See more on the logic of the vote here.

French forces (or, that is, additional French forces) are coming from Mali to Niger primarily because of the deterioration in diplomatic relations between France and the junta in power in Bamako. After the August 2020 coup that brought the junta to power, there was still a fair amount of normalcy in French-Malian relations until the May 2021 follow-on coup that consolidated the junta’s power. Since then, relations went into a tailspin, with big consequences for Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014 as a successor to the French-led Operation Serval, the operation that broke jihadist control over northern Malian towns in 2013. Amid international outcry over the May 2021 coup, French President Emmanual Macron announced “the end of Barkhane as an external operation” (whatever that means, and clearly not a description that applies even amid big changes for Barkhane). Then, as the junta increasingly signaled that it would defy international and regional pressures to hold elections by February 2022, relations worsened further, to the point where Malian transitional authorities expelled the French ambassador in January of this year. That led Macron and allies to announce, in February, a shift of Barkhane and the associated Takuba Task Force (a special forces unit drawing personnel from multiple European countries) elsewhere. Other factors were involved too, though, including the above-mentioned anti-French sentiment in the region, particularly in Mali, as well as some domestic fatigue back in France with the tactically sophisticated but strategically aimless Barkhane and its attendant casualties.

Niger was the logical fallback for Barkhane and Takuba – a country adjacent to Mali, with two presidents (Mahamadou Issoufou, in office 2011-2021; and Bazoum, elected in 2021) who have shown themselves overwhelmingly friendly if not outright deferential to France, the United States, Germany, the European Union, etc.

A bit of background on Niger’s domestic politics: Issoufou and Bazoum, close allies, both belong to the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (French acronym PNDS). When Issoufou hit his two-term limit, he backed Bazoum (who had held multiple senior positions within Issoufou’s governments and within the party) as the PNDS’ presidential candidate. Bazoum won the run-off election in 2021. The PNDS, in legislative elections in 2020-2021, won a total of 80 seats out of 166 (it is supposed to be 171, but five seats allocated for the diaspora ultimately went unfilled because of the difficulty of organizing diaspora-based elections amid COVID-19). The speaker of parliament is Seyni Oumarou, who placed third in the first round of the 2020-2021 presidential elections; his party is the National Movement for the Society of Development (MNSD), currently part of the presidential majority in the National Assembly. Reuters and others put the presidential majority at 135 seats. The largest opposition party in parliament is MODEN/FA, the party of ex-speaker and Issoufou enemy Hama Amadou.

The National Assembly vote on Barkhane and Takuba’s redeployment was along party lines, although I have not been able to find the precise breakdown of which deputies voted for or against the policy change. In terms of what was actually voted on, this concerned a revision of the 2021 “Declaration of the General Policy of the Government,” and specifically its first plank, which relates to security. The deputies voted on a measure adding new language to that policy document, now formally allowing the government “to build the largest possible alliances for fighting terrorism, to welcome allied forces on its soil and to have them participate in joint military operations.” From what I can tell, the deputies were not directly voting on Barkhane and Takuba, but it was clear what foreign deployments the vote would authorize.

The opposition, meanwhile, objected on the grounds that the redeployment violates national sovereignty, and on the grounds that the measure is unconstitutional, legally feeble, and/or gives too much power to the government. Multiple observers, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at the visit of the French Agency for Development’s Director General to Niamey just days before the vote, seeing it as yet another instance of the continued existence of “Françafrique.”

Meanwhile, there was a minor cabinet reshuffle in Niger on April 23, the day after the vote – but I’ll have to tackle that in a future post.

See some footage of the Prime Minister’s speech, and the vote, here.

Mali: Roundup on the Massacre at Moura, the Mass Grave at Gossi, and the Surrounding Information War

I am slowly working on an analytical piece about Mali, France, and Russia, but in the interval it is crucial to simply attempt to keep up with developments and narratives as they unfold.

Two major atrocities have been reported in Mali in the past month or so. Alongside these atrocities is an information war involving Mali’s ruling junta and the associated transitional authorities, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa), the French state, the Kremlin-aligned mercenaries in the Wagner Group, the Russian state, journalists of various persuasions, and a host of other actors.

The first recent atrocity occurred at Moura (Djenné district, Mopti Region, central Mali) in late March. The most informative things I have read are:

  • Human Rights Watch, “Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers.” A key excerpt: “Malian armed forces and associated foreign soldiers allegedly summarily executed an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022…The men were among those detained during a military operation that began on March 27. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict. Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that over the course of several days in late March, Malian army forces and foreign soldiers – identified by several sources as Russians – executed in small groups several hundred people who had been rounded up in Moura. A Malian defense ministry statement on April 1 said that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 ‘terrorists’ and arrested 51 more. The statement said the army had acted on intelligence suggesting that armed Islamists were planning a ‘meeting with different Katibats [battalions]’ in Moura.”
  • Read more interviews with/testimonies from residents and survivors here and here.
  • Deutsche Welle analyzes how hard it is to get accurate information about Moura in a climate of crackdowns by Malian authorities on dissenters and independent voices.
  • France24 on the information war.
  • Hannah Armstrong gives crucial context, examining the Moura massacre in light of the overall trajectory of Mali over the last decade. Note that it’s possible to say both that Russia is making things worse and that France failed in Mali: “Mass-casualty violence cropped up on the back of counterterrorism efforts. Intercommunal clashes and ethnic violence flared as self-defense groups—sometimes with French support—donned the counterterrorism mantle to target their rivals, often among the Peul ethnic minority, in central Malian sites like Ogossagou and along the Mali-Niger border. As insecurity spread, the inflows of cash deepened corruption and discredited political authority. Despair drove many Malians to support the coups d’état in 2020 and 2021 and the subsequent security partnership with Russia.”

The second recent atrocity occurred at Gossi (Gourma-Rharous district, Timbuktu Region, northern Mali) in April. French forces handed over a military base at Gossi to Malian forces on April 19, part of a series of such transfers over the past six months or so. A good piece of reporting on the handover, and on some locals’ anticipation that security might degrade and jihadists might be empowered in the wake of the French withdrawal, can be found here.

Days after the handover, the French military released drone surveillance footage appearing to show Wagner Group personnel burying bodies near the Gossi base (I am briefly quoted in the linked piece). According to the French, the Wagner Group’s intent – Russia’s intent – was to smear the French and accuse the French of having covered up atrocities in the north. This is certainly quite plausible. The corpses at Gossi are thus now very much a geopolitical issue – this, from Clingendael’s Anna Schmauder, is well said. In any case, here’s a few other important items:

  • The official statement (counter-statement?) from FAMa is here. The FAMa’s version is that after the handover, a patrol of theirs stumbled upon the mass grave, and now an investigation is underway.
  • RFI (April 23) gives Malians’ reactions, noting that – as with Moura – the relative silence from some politicians and civil society actors speaks to the overall chill on free speech in Mali in recent months under the junta’s and transitional authorities’ crackdown on dissent.
  • Yvan Guichaoua notes that the French have now changed the dynamics of the information war, but in so doing the French have risked highlighting some unanswered questions (where did the bodies come from?) and also highlighting their own surveillance capabilities, potentially feeding “the already disproportionate paranoia in Bamako.”
  • For some pre-scandal background, here’s a piece of reporting from Gossi (French) from 2019.

Recent Pieces on Mali for the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft Magazine

I’ve recently written two pieces on Mali for the Quincy Institute, where I’m a non-resident fellow.

January 13: “Regional states seek to compel elections in Mali.” Excerpt:

Nevertheless, the Malian government may believe it can out-negotiate ECOWAS. At each major juncture since August 2020, Goita and the colonels have either preserved or increased their power. In the latest negotiations with ECOWAS, tense as they may be, the Malian government has shown some flexibility about the timetable, while simultaneously creating a political reality that no elections will take place in February 2022. Even as ECOWAS sanctions Mali and readies its Standby Force in what appears to be a threat of military intervention, it has nevertheless implicitly accepted that the transition timetable is slipping. If Goita and Maiga find a way to de-escalate, they may emerge having bought themselves many more months in power.

January 18: “One step backward: US to assist French in failing African counter-terror ops.” Excerpt:

Top-level commanders, including the leader of al-Qaida’s northwest African affiliate, have been killed, and yet the situation worsens year by year in the Sahel. The French effectively lack a strategy beyond doing more of the same, and changes to their approach have been driven more by public relations than by serious engagement with grim realities in the Sahel. 

Negotiations with Jihadists Are Already Occurring in Multiple Places in Mali

My brain is fried, so I’ll let a few data points speak mostly for themselves.

Le Drian, October 26:

Koro cercle, Mopti Region, July 2020:

In July, a new meeting was organized between the representatives of Mono Bemou and the jihadists, somewhere in a corner of the brush between the villages of Dinangourou and Dioungani. The jihadists set their conditions, extensive and onerous, to say the least: “They told us that no one, except them, could carry weapons. And that they only used these weapons for targeting the State. They also demanded that they be able to deliver sermons wherever it seemed good to them, and they forbade the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes…They did not forbid the republican school, but they demanded that the madrasas and instruction in Arabic be put in the forefront.” The last demand of the jihadists: “That no one revisit the question of who stole whose animals” in order to not “create other problems.”

Farabougou, Ségou Region, November 2020:

Many days ago, discussions were initiated with the jihadists. This mediation, conducted by local notables with the support of the army and the authorities, moved forward considerably at first. In particular, the intercommunal tensions preceding the jihadists’ actions had been resolved. But blockages appeared last week. Many sources within the mediation explain that at present, the jihadists demand, for lifting the siege, to collect the weapons of Farabougou’s traditional Dozo hunters. They also demand that sharia, as they conceive it, be applied. The discussions are thus more difficult, but they continue.

Not saying the dialogues/negotiations always work, or work at all. But they are happening, sometimes from the bottom up, sometimes from the top down, in different places in Mali. How could it be otherwise? What France wants, or says, only matters to some extent. And these are only some of the negotiations that are reported – imagine what goes unreported.

What Is Politics, Anyways? France’s Dead End in the Sahel

RAND’s Michael Shurkin has a new article out in the Texas National Security Review‘s Winter 2020/20201 issue called “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.” I strongly advise you read it in full – it’s excellent.

At the meta level, for a wild-eyed anti-intervention leftie like me to express skepticism about France’s Operation Barkhane is…not news. But when someone as even-handed and sober-minded as Shurkin is expressing doubts about Barkhane’s long-term prospects, I hope policymakers in Paris and Washington will really listen.

Shurkin writes,

The success of France’s operations depends on political changes that it refuses to impose itself, and frequently, its actions serve to perpetuate a political dispensation that is a principle driver of conflict. While aspiring to be apolitical and declining to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, France is, wittingly or not, profoundly affecting the political landscape. Moreover, when France does meddle, it risks undermining the host nation’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Every French army officer and Foreign Affairs Ministry official will say that military action can lead to nothing outside of an appropriate political framework, and that security operations may be necessary but are never sufficient to foster an enduring peace. However, they do not know how to act politically without being political.

Here I want to build on what Shurkin writes – what is politics, anyways?

This is not just a problem for political theorists (or for academics scratching their heads over how to respond to Reviewer 2). Defining the sphere of the political and whether and how to act within it is a problem for anyone (everyone) who says, “This conflict has no purely military solution” (and everyone says that about every conflict nowadays, even people who secretly think there is a purely military solution). Once one starts grappling with these questions, you have problems on multiple levels right away, many of which Shurkin gets at directly and indirectly in the excerpt I quoted above. Here are a few problems, for starters:

  1. A foreign military intervention is, inherently, a political act, and the foreign presence constitutes a political actor whether or not the foreigners want it to be;
  2. The foreign presence affects and distorts the political field around it;
  3. Attempting to stay out of the sphere of “formal politics” (elections, and here we might even add coups, transitions, etc.) is itself a political act, and will be perceived and misperceived by plural audiences in diverse ways;
  4. As Shurkin writes elsewhere in the piece, “COIN, per French doctrine past and present, requires some form of political transformation to occur within the host nation, with the understanding that the status quo ante is what engendered the insurrection in the first place. However, post-colonial interventions have tended to restore the status quo ante and relieve problematic regimes from pressure to reform.”

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.

From what I understand of Malian politics, I don’t think France has tried to impose a strongman on Mali, and I don’t think France imposed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on Mali or saw Keïta as a potential strongman. The French are wise to avoid that blatant kind of political intervention. But I do think that it’s hard for these military interventions and counterinsurgencies to break with earlier models of doing politics in other people’s countries. Shurkin points out how the colonial model haunts contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice – and you can’t really take doctrines applied in a context of anticipated long-term possession and occupation and translate them into a different context, I think. I would add that the Cold War model (“let’s find ‘our son of a bitch’ and put him in there for as long as possible”*) no longer seems viable in many places either, because of local pressures and international norms militating for some level of democracy. So, oftentimes, you can’t impose a strongman (nor do I think you should!!) – but if you don’t impose a strongman, what is the alternative?

I don’t know; maybe if the French could, they would clone Idriss Deby and put the clones in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso. But even if they could, you can’t just manufacture a Deby-like figure out of thin air and impose him – Deby has roots, networks, constituencies. So if you can’t possess the place, and if (as Shurkin points out repeatedly) you constantly signal that your presence is temporary, then the colonial model is out. And if you can’t or won’t impose a strongman (or if imposing a strongman is essentially rolling the dice, a la Maliki), then the Cold War template is out too.

And I don’t know that there really is a post-Cold War template. Because again, it’s still an exercise in trying to shape someone else’s politics. But now that effort at manipulation is so abstract and indirect that I think Western policymakers are sometimes in denial about the fact that they really are still attempting serious forms of manipulation, not all of which can be inherently and completely benevolent. So you’re left trying to provide security to give space for elections, for example, but the elections can’t be truly representative amid conflict, and the main contestants are mostly familiar faces with very limited popularity and appeal, many of whom are architects of the same status quo ante that Shurkin aptly points out is a cause of the conflict itself. Or you’re left in this very awkward dual role of killing the bad guys on the one hand and trying to act as the country’s coach on the other hand, saying, “This is how you run an army! This is how you try not to kill civilians! This is how you run a ministry!” But it doesn’t really work, and when it doesn’t work the Western policymakers and implementers let themselves off the hook by turning the concept of “governance” into a moral critique of African leaders and bureaucrats, and telling themselves the Africans “just don’t want it [peace] badly enough.” Again, I don’t think Shurkin will necessarily agree with my reasoning or my crude phrasing, but these are the implications I take from his piece and from the broader patterns that I see.

In short, maybe France can’t articulate a serious political strategy in Mali and the Sahel because there really isn’t one to be articulated. So you’re left saying “the return of the state” or “security-development nexus” for like 20 years, and then one day you go home.

*Yes, I know the possibly apocryphal quote was uttered in a pre-Cold War context, but still.

Chad: Authoritarianism, Counterterrorism, and International Silence – Comments on Two Pieces at Just Security

Just Security has published two pieces on Chad, with complementary content, this month:

  • Olivier Guiryanan, “Counterterrorism Assistance to Chad for the Sahel: The Price the People Pay,” September 2.
  • Eugène Le-Yotha Ngartebaye, “Chad’s Counterterrorism Support Abroad Drives Repression and Discontent at Home,” September 10.

The titles indicate the arguments the piece make – arguments that resonate with me and that others have made, at varying lengths and applied to both Chad and other Sahelien countries, before.

Here is Guiryanan’s conclusion, one of the strongest parts of his article:

As long as Chad’s security forces have easy access to a global armory with zero accountability to their citizens, they will have little interest in developing a sustainable security architecture that is shaped by Chadians and capable of resolving community grievances, investigating and punishing abuses, and preventing violent conflict. With a turbulent history, neighbors in turmoil, and a population tired of economic inequality and repression, the costs of staying the course could be dangerously high.

And here is a good excerpt from Ngartebaye’s piece:

Despite this diplomatic boost for Chad’s government [from external military deployments] and certain, though limited, economic benefits from the military aid and foreign missions, Chad’s citizens have found their country’s regional involvement significantly less rewarding. The government, fearful of reprisals by groups similar to or allied with the armed groups that its military has been fighting abroad, has cracked down on a wide and seemingly arbitrary range of civic freedoms, including the right to beg, hold public demonstrations, wear the burqa and the turban (based on the rationale that both sometimes hide people’s faces). In April this year, the government finally amended the country’s draconian anti-terror law to remove the death penalty for terrorism-related charges, after domestic and international criticism when 44 alleged members of Boko Haram died in pre-trial detention in the country’s capital.

I recommend both pieces, although they would have benefited from more careful editing. There are a few mistakes (about the number of troops Chad contributed to France’s Operation Serval, for example) as well as various statements that are inauspiciously phrased and could be read as mistakes. So they make for a great overview but if you’re not well-versed in the details, just be a bit cautious.

I have three more substantive comments, revolving around a single premise (of mine, not the authors’): international actors do not care about making Chad more democratic or making the Chadian state more interested in human rights.

Here are my comments, then:

  1. Guiryanan has some really interesting ideas about how Chad’s donors could insist that Chadian authorities empower civil society organizations as watchdogs over security spending and human rights issues. That makes sense to me – although I’m not sure Chad’s donors are interested in that; I think some donors, including the U.S. and France, are comfortable with the current, unstated bargains, and have been happy with those bargains for quite some time now. Guiryanan devastatingly diagnoses, moreover, how donors tend to treat civil society in Chad (with remarks that apply elsewhere in the region too): “Civil society is too often restricted to being passive pawns in donor-funded security projects and workshops encouraging ‘social cohesion’ and improved military-civilian relations. Rather than hold the military and government accountable, their presence is used to legit[i]mize the military and lend tacit support.” I don’t see that pattern changing any time soon, but I am glad that Guiryanan and Just Security are doing what they can to up the pressure.
  2. Ngartebaye also has recommendations for international actors. The most actionable recommendation is that the United Nations should take over paying the salaries of Chadian soldiers deployed as peacekeepers in Mali. His other suggestions – that “international assistance should be redirected to real internal reforms” and that “the complicit silence adopted by Chad’s partners should be replaced by a frank dialogue on human rights issues in Chad” – get to the core of the problem. But again, I think that international silence comes out of international actors’ basic comfort with the status quo. I doubt that your average senior State Department official or National Security Council director spends too much time worrying about the status of Chadian democracy. It’s clear that powerful international actors hold potential levers over Chad – but who holds levers over those actors when it comes to Chad?
  3. One of the most notable aspects of Chadian politics is when and how pushback against President Idriss Deby arises, especially when pushback succeeds. In fact, if Chadian politics is “who gets to be head of state,” then there is no Chadian politics; but if Chadian politics is “what power struggles play out within the existing system,” then there is a real politics within the country. Both authors point to examples of this – Guiryanan, for example, writes, “In recent years, public sector workers and students have become a powerful force on the streets, as they fought to reverse cuts to state allowances and aid.” (See also the really interesting episode of a regional governor being fired in 2018 over abuses.) Ngartebaye, meanwhile, astutely advises international actors to increase the potential for give-and-take within the system; he writes that donors should stipulate “that citizens can freely choose their local leaders (governors, mayors, and members of Parliament) through free and transparent elections.” Chad is not a totalitarian dictatorship (the state is too weak for that, if “totalitarianism” is even possible in the first place), and there would be ways of making the country even less authoritarian. Again, though, international donors seem uninterested in using those levers.

Roundup of Thoughtful Commentary on Mali’s Coup

A lot of garbage has been written about Mali’s coup. Here are some pieces, though, that I find good and thoughtful. I’ll add the obvious disclaimer that I don’t agree with every word of every piece, and in some cases I disagree with the thrust of the piece as a whole, but nevertheless what follows is some of the best writing I’ve seen on the coup:

  • Ibrahim Maïga interviewed by L’Essor, “Le problème du Mali va au-delà d’IBK” [“Mali’s Problem Goes Beyond IBK”] August 25. One point Maïga makes, which I don’t think non-Malian analysts (including me) have made enough, is that it was not just the M5-RFP protest movement but also strikes in the health, justice, and education sectors that the president was in real trouble.
  • Niagalé Bagayoko interviewed by France24, “Au Mali, une junte militaire qui ‘connaît les normes internationales et sait les utiliser'” [“In Mali, A Military Junta That ‘Knows International Norms and How to Use Them’.”] August 28. One crucial point Bagayoko makes is that the junta, by claiming they are acting on behalf of a “popular revolution” rather than carrying out a coup, implicitly highlight the ways in which (a) not all leaders with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are themselves champions of supposed regional and international norms, and (b) not all ECOWAS leaders may themselves enjoy strong  popular support at present.
  • Alain Nyamitwe, “Mali’s Unconstitutional Change of Government: Rules Are Made for the People,” The Elephant, August 28. Nyamitwe, a former Burundian minister of foreign affairs, discusses a wide range of coups, revolutions, and third term bids and also discusses how norms and practices are evolving. His conclusion: “Sanctions in the form of an embargo only punish the masses. In the current global context of COVID-19, an embargo on Mali would only contribute to worsening an economic situation which is already difficult to say the least. The legitimate grievances of the people of Mali must come before the interests of regional and international actors. It is our hope that the next ECOWAS Summit will “rewrite the script” on Mali. The ECOWAS mediator in Mali, former president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, continues efforts on the ground where even other international actors are meeting the “colonels”, the new big boys in town. In all these efforts, people should come first. It’s all about them.”
  • Rémi Carayol, “Mali. Le coup d’État marque la fin des illusions françaises” [“Mali: The Coup d’État Marks the End of French Illusions”] OrientXXI, August 28. The title’s prediction is almost certainly wrong! But the content is good – a look at how the failures leading to the coup came from the Malian political class and from France, and perhaps most of all from the relationship between the two as represented in the person of IBK – at first, according to Carayol, the favored candidate of France in 2013; and then, by 2018, someone who had lost France’s confidence but whose corrupt tendencies and problematic re-election drew no real criticism from France. 
  • Gilles Yabi, “Organiser des élections le plus vite possible au Mali serait une grave erreur” [“Organizing Elections As Fast As Possible in Mali Would Be a Serious Mistake”] Jeune Afrique, August 25. Yabi’s suggestions are quite sensible – creating broadly acceptable transitional structures, drawing up a clear roadmap for the transition, adopting a “realistic calendar,” and insisting on the personal integrity of senior office-holders – but I wish he would have been more specific about who exactly is supposed to make sure that all that happens.
  • Peter Tinti, Raouf Farrah, and Matt Herbert, “Crime After Mali’s Coup: Business As Usual?” Global Initiative, August 31. An excerpt: “One high-level official arrested by the CNSP shortly after the coup was General Moussa Diawara, who led Mali’s main intelligence directorate. According to a United Nations Security Council report, Diawara provided protection and promises of impunity to traffickers from the Lamhar Arab community in exchange for payments from Mohamed Ould Mataly, a representative in Mali’s national assembly. Ould Mataly has long been tied to drug trafficking, including via his son-in-law, Mohamed Ben Ahmed Mahri, one of the most well-known drug traffickers in the Sahel. It is unclear what other arrests or resignations will follow in the coming weeks. However, there is little indication that these arrests or Keïta’s removal from power will diminish the role and power of patronage networks within Mali’s political and security establishment, nor impact criminal networks’ exploitation of them.”
  • Michel Goya, “Quand t’es dans le désert” [“When You Are in the Desert”], La voie de l’épée, August 24. From the conclusion: “With raids and strikes, Barkhane whacks and waits. At the price of the loss of a soldier every two months on average, and at the cost of a million euros per enemy combatant eliminated, we have waited for seven years for Mali to stop being inert, for a real force coming from who knows where to offer to relieve us, or for an extraordinary change to shake up everything.” I’m not really a fan of this imagery of an “inert” Mali – the thread running this and so much other commentary is that ultimately, everything is the Malians’ fault for not having the will to solve their own problems, and I don’t agree with that – but I think the piece captures very well how French thinking and operations have evolved, and not evolved, in Mali.

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.