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.

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.

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.

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

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

Mali: Filling in the Portrait of the CNSP a Bit More

Mali had a mutiny/coup on August 18, overthrowing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK, in power 2013-2020). Last week I wrote a sketch of Mali’s new military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). Since then, structures have solidified a bit, top coup leaders have given numerous interviews, and more details about the leaders’ biographies and backgrounds have emerged. Even though the CNSP’s plans and proposals are still somewhat in flux and subject to negotiation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and others, a fuller portrait of the CNSP is nevertheless possible to draw.

Let’s return to this still image from the CNSP’s first television appearance the night of the coup (early hours of August 19), captioned by a well-informed Malian observer:

Since August 19, the three men in the center have been the most prominent public faces of the junta.

Reuters has a short “factbox” with a few sentences on each officer. The Africa Report also has brief biographies of these five officers as well as some discussion of a general, Cheikh Fanta Mady Dembélé, whom some observers believe is unofficially connected with the CNSP.

Here is the hierarchy of the CNSP so far, and which type of unit each figure came out of:

  • President: Colonel Assimi Goïta (special forces)
  • 1st Vice President: Colonel Malick Diaw (national guard)
  • Spokesman: Major Colonel Ismaël Wagué (air force)

I have not been able to find the formal positions that Camara and Koné were given in the CNSP, but I suspect there may be more than one vice president (see this photo where Diaw’s name placard reads “1st Vice President”).

Let’s look a bit more closely at the first three, then.

Goïta, second from left in the photo above, quickly emerged as president of the CNSP. Search for his name and you will find pieces talking about how he is “U.S.-trained,” just as you will find pieces framing the junta as trained by Russia or some other foreign country. In my view this issue is mostly/entirely a red herring because any officer who rises to a certain rank is likely to have had contact with a foreign military. That’s not to excuse the U.S. or anyone else – but my takeaway is that a lot of foreign trainings, especially on themes like civil-military relations or human rights, are essentially a kind of theater and credentialing ritual for both the trainers and the trainees. And Denis Tull and Andrew Lebovich put it well:

Jeune Afrique profiles Goïta here, first discussing his style – which is much more restrained, as they point out, than those of Guinea’s Moussa Dadis Camara (in power 2008-2009) or Mali’s Amadou Sanogo (in power 2012). That profile then discusses his military career. Among some interesting details are the idea that his time in the special forces since 2014, and particularly as commander of a special forces unit since 2018, made him visible and respected throughout the army. Also, as various outlets have noted, he was reportedly ordered back to Bamako (from central Mali) in July 2020 to help deal with the anti-IBK protests – an irony, I think, rather than any sign of collusion between him and the protesters. In terms of English-language biographies, here is one sketch from APA News, describing his military career. He has a formidable résumé, no question about it.

The CNSP’s 1st Vice President is Colonel Malick Diaw, fourth from left in the photo above, whose name was one of the first – even before Goïta’s – to emerge in early media coverage of the mutineers/coup leaders. He was deputy head of the Kati military camp where the mutiny began on August 18. There are some important details about him in this account of the mutiny written by Libération‘s Léa Masseguin and Olivier Dubois; the authors write that Diaw has been complaining for quite some time, on behalf of his men, about conditions the military is facing. The same report says Diaw was a “key actor” in the 2012 coup. That report depicts Diaw and Camara as the leading actors in the mutiny.

The CNSP’s spokesman is Major-Colonel Ismaël Wagué, who had been deputy chief of staff of the Air Force. He has been all over the media but I have not yet seen a detailed biography of him either. Jeune Afrique has an interview with him that’s worth a read.

I haven’t seen much on Koné and Camara beyond the few sentences one reads in the reports I linked to above from places such as Reuters and Africa Report.

As I mentioned in my previous sketch of the CNSP, this strikes me as neither a pure “senior officers’ coup” in the sense of the top generals removing the head of state, as happened for example in Mauritania in 2005 and 2008; nor is this a junior officers’ coup akin to 2012 in Mali, much less something like Samuel Doe’s 1980 coup in Liberia. But it’s a lot closer to the senior officers’ coup than the junior officers’ coup. Check out this thread from Marc-André Boisvert about the savvy and one might even say professionalism that the CNSP leaders have shown so far:

Another note: whether the mutiny/coup was spontaneous or not, it is remarkable how the CNSP put together, quite quickly, the support of key officers from multiple units and branches of the armed forces.

Finally, I’m still not sure whether any of the Twitter accounts claiming to be the CNSP’s account are genuine. But one is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Features of IBK’s Managerial Style

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

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

Specific Decisions IBK and His Team Made

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

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

Initial Conclusion About IBK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meet Mali’s New Military Junta, the CNSP

For the time being and at least in the capital Bamako, the Malian state is in the hands of a new military junta – the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Committee for the Salvation of the People, CNSP). The name is very much in keeping with what other juntas around the world have called themselves; such bodies so often attempt to position themselves as acting or speaking on behalf of “the people,” “the nation,” “democracy,” or all of the above. Seizing power on August 18, the CNSP forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to read a statement very late that night in which he resigned and also dissolved the National Assembly. The CNSP came on state television early in the hours of August 19 to read a statement in which they promised elections will follow on a quick but unspecified timeline.

Who makes up the CNSP? Here is one Malian observer’s captioning of a still image from the junta’s televised statement:

To translate: from left to right, Colonel Modibo Koné, Colonel Assimi Goïta, Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué, Colonel Malick Diaw, and Colonel Sadio Camara. And press outlets are citing additional names: General Cheick Fanta Mady Dembélé (DW), and a few others that have appeared in outlets I don’t consider fully reliable. The BBC has micro-profiles of Diaw, Camara, and Dembélé. Note that in press coverage today and yesterday, various ranks have been attributed to different members of the CNSP.

RFI‘s Serge Daniel referred to this as a “senior officers’ coup.” I think that’s fair, but I think analysts need a vocabulary that captures a middle ground between “senior officers’ coup” and “junior officers’ coup.” The CNSP was not led by captains and majors – the leader of the 2012 coup in Mali was a captain, for example – but neither did this mutiny/coup come, it seems, out of the very top of the Malian military. Note, for example, that ousted President Keïta’s final cabinet included two generals who do not seem to have participated in the coup, and neither did the top service chiefs. The CNSP appears to come out of, essentially, the next few levels of the military hierarchy – divisional commanders, officers occupying deputy posts within the services (Wagué has been widely identified as the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force), etc.

Whether all of the CNSP’s members were involving in planning the mutiny/coup is an unresolved question; some of them could be latecomers, and undoubtedly there is a growing bandwagon effect for now. But the coup does appear to have generated support quite quickly from a fairly wide swath of officers at the colonel and even the general level. Do they speak for the Malian armed forces as a whole? Not necessarily, but there do not seem to be any immediate stirrings of an attempted counter-coup.

Unsurprisingly, the junta does not appear to include Tuareg and Arab officers – that is, officers from the far north. For context, the Tuareg, despite their prominence in a series of rebellions in Mali, make up only a small percentage of the overall Malian population, and there have long been fraught issues involving the integration of the Tuareg into the armed forces.

Some of the questions I posed yesterday about the coup are already being resolved. President Keïta has resigned, which constitutionally should automatically make the President of the National Assembly the interim President of Mali, and should trigger new elections with 21-40 days. The CNSP is not committing to any of that, however, and the National Assembly’s dissolution disrupts that constitutional line of succession anyways. The CNSP is, however, committing itself to upholding the peace agreement for the north (the 2015 Algiers Accord). The CNSP also committed to continued coordination with the various international security deployments in the country, including the United Nations’ Multidimensional Integration Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), France’s Operation Barkhane, the G5 Sahel, and Takuba Task Force. Furthermore, the CNSP said it would uphold the conclusions of the December 2019 National Inclusive Dialogue. Many questions, however, remain open, about the past, the present, and future.

Here is the CNSP’s televised statement:

An Apparent Military Coup in Mali: 10 Questions

Today was turbulent in Mali, with fast-moving narratives emerging and competing throughout the day. At around 17:00 Bamako time/13:00 Eastern time, however, AFP confirmed that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé had been arrested by the leaders of a mutiny. Things are so confused that, as of the time of writing, it’s still not clear to outsiders who is in charge of the mutiny/coup.

The apparent coup appears to have begun with a mutiny at a military base at Kati, just outside the capital Bamako (map).

The coup comes amid a summer of protests by the “June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces” (French acronym M5-RFP), a Bamako-centric coalition of opposition politicians, civil society actors, and the prominent Imam Mahmoud Dicko. The M5-RFP’s core demand has (had?) been for President Keïta to resign. This week, the M5-RFP had planned and begun to carry out a series of protest actions, to culminate in another mass protest on Friday. Today, images and videos circulated showing civilian protesters congregating in Bamako’s Place de l’Indépendance, the locale for previous M5-RFP protests. Further images and videos showed the protesters welcoming and supporting the mutineers:

Amid the dramatic events unfolding in Bamako, foreign powers – France, the United States, and the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – were attempting to forestall a coup and plead for calm. ECOWAS has been the formal mediator between the presidency and the M5-RFP.

Today’s apparent coup has already evoked numerous comparisons with the last two coups in Mali, which occurred in 1991 and 2012, respectively. To speak at a level of crude simplicity, the sequence of mass protests followed by a coup evokes parallels with 1991, while the sequence of a mutiny at Kati escalating into a coup in Bamako evokes parallels with 2012.

What happens next is, of course, anyone’s guess. But here are some questions I have:

  1. How far in advance was this apparent coup planned? Is it spontaneous, representing an improvised escalation of a (spontaneous) mutiny? Did it arise partly or wholly out of the dismissal of a major officer by the president? Or was it planned further in advance by elements within the armed forces who had been encouraged by the protests – and/or who were broadly losing confidence in President Keïta? From one perspective, the protests can be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of the presidency’s problems. After all, well before the protests began, Mali faced a multi-faceted security, institutional, economic, and political crisis.
  2. If the apparent coup was planned, who was informed in advance? Were M5-RFP leaders informed? Did the coup leaders convey their intentions to any international audiences?
  3. If there is any convergence – past, present, or future – between the mutineers/coup-makers and the M5-RFP, how long will that last?
  4. How long will the mutineers remain in (partial) control of the state? Is the era of long-lasting military juntas decisively over – that is, will pressure from ECOWAS, France, the United States, and others force a transition to a civilian caretaker regime within a relatively short time? The 2012 junta was in power for only a few weeks. Within the Sahel as a whole in recent years, coup-makers have typically ceded power to civilians within 18 months or less (Burkina Faso 2014, Niger 2010-2011, Mauritania 2008-2009, etc.) – although in Mauritania a general became a civilian and then effectively ceded power to himself.
  5. Will international actors attempt to restore IBK to power? Theoretically, his term is set to expire in 2023; he is the legal president of Mali unless he formally resigns. On the one hand, international actors have throughout the summer consistently implied that they would be loath to see IBK go. On the other hand, bringing him back could simply set up Mali for a repeat of this scenario within weeks or months.
  6. If the mutineers/junta last only a short time in power and IBK formally resigns, will constitutional procedures be followed – will the President of the National Assembly become interim president, followed by new elections? If so, how will the military deal with the fact that the current National Assembly President, Moussa Timbiné, is one of 31 parliamentary deputies whose legitimacy is contested?
  7. If (when) there is a new election, what future is there for Mali’s “political class,” which as a body always appears to come out on top, with familiar faces cycling through key posts. If the coup gives way to a new act for the same political class, that could be quite disheartening for all those in the streets now. But is there an alternative to the “political class”?
  8. What does the coup mean for the various components of the international security presence in Mali – the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping operation, France’s Operation Barkhane counterterrorism mission, the G5 Sahel Joint Force battalions, etc.? As Peter Tinti comments, “The coup in Mali, if confirmed, is a policy disaster for France, ECOWAS, the UN, EU, etc. All were counting on IBK muddling through the rest of his mandate (or stepping down via negotiations).” What are the coup-makers’ attitudes and intentions toward the international security presence? And perhaps even more importantly, how will the funders and architects of that presence evaluate the continued value and importance of these security deployments, training missions, and stabilization efforts?
  9. What reactions will the coup elicit within Mali but outside Bamako? The M5-RFP has elicited only weak demonstrations of active support beyond the capital. Key actors with stakes in the existing (old?) order will have reasons to be very unhappy with a coup in the capital. For example, the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) might conceivably declare independence for the Kidal Region, its home turf – but it appears much more likely that the CMA will be very nervous and unhappy about the prospect of disruptions to the Algiers Accord, a 2015 peace deal. The CMA has, along with IBK, been guilty of slow-rolling the accord’s implementation, but they are also highly invested in its continuation.
  10. What does all this portend for Mali’s future as a whole? What will be the human consequences of what appears like a new low for the country? The trajectory of the country could always change – but in the short term, it seems things will get even worse.

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.