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.

Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Threatening Letter from Malian Labor to Prime Minister Maiga

The National Union of Malian Workers (French acronym UNTM) is a formidable organization. Transitional Prime Minister Choguel Maiga (in office since June 2021) is a controversial figure at home and abroad, and has antagonized the UNTM among many others.

On May 6, the UNTM sent a threatening letter to Maiga. Taking as a point of departure Maiga’s April 21 address to the transitional legislature (CNT), the letter deals with a wide range of issues, including the right to strike, the negotiation of salaries, the functioning of various government boards, and a host of political issues. There are deep memories at stake here – the date 1991 comes up twice in the letter, referring to the popular revolution and coup that brought down longtime military ruler Moussa Traore. There is, it seems, bad blood between Maiga and the UNTM over the 1991 revolution – Maiga was a pro-Traore youth leader in the 1980s.

In any case, the UNTM says, in the letter, “Trade-unionism can enter the national political game. All the conventions and resolutions sanctions it. So watch out!” The UNTM stresses its support for head of state Assimi Goita, but warns, “The red line is the attempt at the proliferation of negationism of the democratic revolution of March 26, 1991 and its results, without which today would not be.” I take this as not just a reference to the past but also as a condemnation of the transitional government’s authoritarianism, a portion of which seems to emanate from Maiga personally.

The full letter can be found here, along with some brief but useful commentary by Malian writer Mamadou Togola here.

Mali: Some Glimpses Behind the Scenes in Bamako (?)

A few press reports over the last month or so offer a look at some alleged, very grim events.

Cyril Bensimon, “Au Mali, « la mort programmée » de Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga” (Le Monde, 11 April). The upshot: the death of former Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga on March 21, after seven months in detention, raises a lot of questions. Maïga’s imprisonment was part of a larger crackdown by Malian transitional authorities on prominent politicians and critics, and Maïga would have been a front-runner in any eventual presidential election in Mali. Maïga’s family is essentially accusing Mali’s authorities of allowing Maïga to die by refusing him basic medical care until the end.

Benjamin Roger and Fatoumata Diallo, “Moussa Diawara, le « mauvais génie » de Bamako” (Jeune Afrique, May 2). Roger and Diallo chart the rise of Diawara from National Guardsman to Director-General of State Security. The article goes through multiple convoluted incidents, including a lavish 2019 birthday party that caused scandal; Diawara’s alleged ties to northern narcotraffickers; Diawara’s possible betrayal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita during the August 2020 coup; his role as adviser to transitional President Bah Ndaw (in power September 2020-May 2021); and, finally, his present whereabouts in a “five-star jail” at the Gendarmerie School.

Jason Burke and Emmanuel Akinwotu, “Russian mercenaries linked to civilian massacres in Mali” (The Guardian, May 4). What is new here is not the substance of the allegations but the nature of the evidence – leaked Malian army documents.

Internal Malian army documents seen by the Guardian reveal the presence of Wagner members – referred to as “Russian instructors” – on “mixed missions” with Malian soldiers and gendarmes during operations in which many civilians have been killed.

[…]

Another internal memo described a clash on 23 April between militants and “a joint patrol of FAMA and Russian instructors” between the villages of Mondoro and Boni. “Provisional losses” amounted to “two dead – one FAMA and one Russian – and 10 wounded – six FAMA and four Russians”, said the memo, sent some hours after the incident. Details of “enemy losses” were “unavailable for the moment”.

As has becoming clearer in the past few weeks, the Russians are taking some casualties themselves.

These three pieces all reinforce the picture of a really grim scene in Bamako – intrigue, mistrust, authoritarianism, and a regime that is attempting to project power beyond the capital with the help of Wagner, but which (if these snippets of reports are any indication) doesn’t necessarily have that much visibility on what is going on in many parts of the country. If Maïga was effectively allowed to die, moreover, it makes me wonder what consequences the junta will reap for changing the “rules of the game” in Bamako – in Malian politics as in many other countries’ politics, the key players seem to expect they will always be allowed a chance to make a comeback. Take that chance away and intra-elite relations could get very tense indeed.

Four Recent Pieces on Russia in Africa/The Sahel

A lot of analysts and journalists are writing “Russia in Africa” pieces these days, and the quality – and the politics – of those pieces varies considerably. Here are four:

Jalel Harchaoui and John Lechner, “How Russia’s War in Ukraine Affects Its Meddling in Africa” (Lawfare, May 1). This is a good and straight-shooting piece that avoids hyperbole and sensationalism while still taking very seriously Russia’s (negative) role in several of Africa’s conflict zones. The piece also convincingly calls out Washington as talking tough but doing little to really push back on Russian influence – and then, refreshingly, calls not for tough actions but for judicious and continued engagement with African governments. An excerpt:

Punishing poor African governments, like those of CAR or Mali, for their Russian connections by reducing U.S. and European aid will not alter their behavior or protect civilians. It will only amplify Russian influence and erase U.S. leverage, while bringing further harm to populations already in the grips of a severe food crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States should avoid this type of overreaction given that security deterioration in those territories, along with the growth of actors more toxic than the Russians, might well force the United States to come back asking for cooperation from the same local authorities in the medium-term future.

Mucahid Durmaz and Murtala Abdullahi, “‘White hands’: The Rise of Private Armies in African Conflicts” (Al Jazeera, April 28). As the title indicates, this piece is not merely about Russians or the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, but it is useful for thinking about Russia in Africa. It is not “whataboutism,” in my view, to consider that other mercenaries from the “global north” and beyond – including French, British, Israeli, and South Africa – also operate in Africa and get into their own scandals involving corruption, abuses, child soldiers, usurpation of state functions, etc. On one level, the “Russia in Africa” story is just that; on another level, it’s a story about the hollowing-out of African states and the opportunities that opens for multiple private-sector plays to cash in.

Carley Petesch and Gerald Imray, “Russian Mercenaries Are Putin’s ‘Coercive Tool’ in Africa” (Associated Press, April 23). This piece represents the now-standard narrative; worth a read, but more as a reflection of the dominant view in Washington and Paris than as adding much new to conversation. On Twitter, Durmaz (co-author of the previous piece) called the AP piece “full of lazy, unimaginative, uncritical, sensationalist and biased reporting on African countries’ complex ties with rest of the world.” Harsh but not unwarranted.

Danielle Paquette, “He’s Pro-Russian, Anti-Zelensky and Rallying for Putin in West Africa” (Washington Post, April 21). I actually found this piece the worst of anything I’ve read on the topic recently. The article is a profile of a 30-year-old Burkinabè man whom the journalist condescendingly presents as an absolute dupe, someone completely brainwashed by Russian disinformation; basically, the guy showed the journalist a few sites he likes, and it becomes a story about how Russia is winning in Africa. It’s not that journalists need to be political scientists (heck, I’m not even a proper political scientist), but to extrapolate so much from a sample size of one (!!) is ridiculous, as is the idea that Russian propaganda is the most significant variable at play in shaping how this man thinks. After all, it turns out “he indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford.” That’s not much. And what is the effect of the propaganda on his political action? He ultimately attends a pro-Russia demonstration where “only a couple dozen men had gathered.” The piece also glosses over France’s failures in the Sahel, implicitly poo-pooing the kind of frustration this man feels; I’m not saying he’s right to be pro-Putin, but in the hands of some Western journalists and policymakers, the “Russia is taking over Africa” narrative easily becomes a means of grossly oversimplifying how the situation in the Sahel got so bad.

Two Important Pieces on Dialogue with Sahelian Jihadists

The issue of whether and how to dialogue with jihadists in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a central issue in the region’s politics now. Here are two important pieces on the subject:

At The New Humanitarian, Sam Mednick interviews Burkina Faso’s Minister for Social Cohesion and National Reconciliation, Yéro Boly. A key portion:

The New Humanitarian: How is the current dialogue in Djibo progressing?

Boly: If [you] go to Djibo this morning, [you] will see that the situation is beginning to change…The chief of Djibo was in Ouagadougou [and] the jihadists asked to see him. He left with a 22-person delegation. The chief of Djibo was the head of the delegation of those who went… and Jafar [Dicko] was the chief of the jihadists. So, it was at a high level. It went well, with a good atmosphere. But [both sides] told a lot of truths. It was tense.

[Community leaders] asked us to help them get to Djibo, for those who were in Ouagadougou. The army dropped them in Djibo by helicopter. It’s the first time that the people from Djibo asked us for help. Since Djibo is inaccessible and there are leaders who were in Ouagadougou who had fled, [they wanted] help. 

One thing to note is the multiple and shifting meanings that the word “dialogue” takes on, even in the mouth of a single speaker, such as Boly. The interview really gets at that – is dialogue about rehabilitating individual fighters? community-level agreements? high-level deals? All of the above? Five years into the conversation about dialogue in the Sahel (counting from Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, which made a dialogue a formal recommendation), the parameters of what dialogue does mean and could mean are still very much up for grabs.

A second important piece is Luciano Pollichieni‘s “Rétablir le cycle : précédents historiques et avenir potentiel des négociations de paix au Mali,” a contribution to the Bulletin FrancoPaix. Pollichieni places the question of dialogue into the wider historical “cyclical tradition of uprisings and negotiations” in northern Mali, with a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of past negotiations. To me, the most interesting portion of the article had to do with arguments for negotiating with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); even pro-dialogue commentators usually assume (including me) that when we’re talking about dialogue, we’re talking about the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM; French acronym GSIM), which is under al-Qaida’s banner. Pollichieni makes a strong case for negotiating with ISGS (p. 5):

Enfin, il est important de noter que la branche locale de l’État islamique, l’État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS), est également présente au Mali, et, considérant ses capacités militaires et le fait que ses combattants sont des membres des communautés maliennes participant à l’insurrection, elle devrait être incluse dans les négociations. L’EIGS est particulièrement actif dans la région des trois frontières, particulièrement au Niger. Par conséquent, l’influence politique dont jouissent les autorités maliennes à l’égard de ses dirigeants est limitée par rapport à celle du gouvernement nigérien qui a récemment entamé des négociations avec les djihadistes. Ensuite, par rapport à d’autres acteurs armés de la région, l’EIGS est plus fragmenté : l’assassinat de son chef Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi a engendré une crise de leadership qui, de facto, affecte son programme politique. Au-delà de l’appel idéologique à une interprétation draconienne de l’islam, le type de résultats qui pourrait émerger de ces négociations potentielles n’est pas clairement défini. Cependant, l’EIGS et le GSIM sont en compétition, entraînant parfois des conflits ouverts. Ainsi, négocier avec l’EIGS pourrait nuire à un accord avec le GSIM. Malgré tout, la branche du califat reste une partie importante de l’équation à résoudre pour stabiliser définitivement le pays.

To summarize: ISGS should be included in negotiations in Mali because it represents a significant number of people and has significant military capabilities; Niger may be better placed to negotiate with ISGS, as Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum has at least gingerly tried to do; ISGS is ultra-hardline but also currently fragmented; and negotiating with ISGS could help bring about an accord with JNIM/GSIM, given the competition between those two groups. I’m persuaded.

Burkina Faso/Mali: The Politics of a Visit from One Junta to Another

Burkina Faso and Mali are both under the control of military juntas – Burkina Faso since January 2022 and Mali since August 2020. Both juntas are under pressure to transition back to civilian rule, especially Mali’s. Since January, Mali has been under sweeping sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is attempting to compel a rapid transition after the Malian junta missed the initially agreed-upon eighteen-month window. Burkina Faso’s relations with ECOWAS are better, for the moment, because the Burkinabè junta is newer; but the junta there recently missed ECOWAS’ April 25 deadline for setting a rapid transition timetable (ECOWAS does not accept the Burkinabè junta’s 36-month plan).

From the moment of the coup in another West African country, Guinea, in September 2021 and especially since the coup in Burkina Faso in January, there has been a certain solidarity between West Africa’s three overt juntas (that solidarity does not extend in the same way to Chad, I would say, where the dynamics are quite different – although still a junta! Nor does it fully or necessarily extend to Mauritania which is arguably still under quasi-military rule). When sanctions hit Mali in January, Guinea’s military leader Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya made a point to declare that those two countries’ land border would remain open, calling Mali a “brother country” and evoking “the pan-Africanist vision.” Moreover, as journalists’ profiles of these figures often emphasize, there are generational similarities (born in the 1980s) and professional similarities (colonels, often from elite units) among the new West African coup-makers.

In this context it is interesting to see a delegation that Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Damiba, sent to Bamako to meet the Malian junta on April 22. The delegation included three top officers who are in Damiba’s “inner circle”: Serge Thierry Kiendrebeogo, Damiba’s chief of staff; Yves-Didier Bamoun, national theater operations commander, and Daba Naon, head of national firefighters’ brigade. The delegation met senior members of the Malian junta, including Malian President Assimi Goita, Defense Minister Sadio Camara, and National Transition Council* President Malick Diaw, all three of them key members of the junta. Separately, the Burkinabè delegation met Chief of Army Staff Oumar Diarra and Director of Military Security Moussa Toumani Koné.

The delegation’s main purpose, according to the official readout, was to “reaffirm their will [i.e., the will of the Burkinabè authorities] to continue military and security cooperation with Mali and to reinforce it especially through the intensification of operations on the ground.” Notably, the Burkinabè presidency mirrored recent rhetoric from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) about FAMa’s “increase in power” (montée en puissance – see an example of that phrase’s usage by FAMa here). The official readout says, in part, “The ambition is to anticipate security problems that could cause a retreat of armed terrorist groups into Burkinabè territory, due to the increase in power of the Malian Defense and Security Forces in the struggle against terrorism, thus the interest to develop synergies for countering the forces of evil.” One could read a lot into these phrases. There is a cozying-up to the Malian junta, obviously, especially in the context of severe Malian-French tensions and the Malian junta’s keenness (desperation?) to prove itself militarily capable amid the partial French withdrawal from Malian territory. Yet there is also obviously a note of concern from the Burkina Faso side – there is no shortage of jihadist activity in Burkina Faso already, but it seems the Burkinabè authorities are indeed anticipating that the escalating brutality and outright massacres conducted by Malian forces and Russian mercenaries may cause some blowback for Burkina Faso. Then, finally, I suspect part of the politics of the visit involves Burkinabè authorities preparing for a future scenario where they, too, might be under full sanctions from ECOWAS, including the closure of land borders with all of their neighbors except, of course, Mali.

In another official readout, the Burkinabè delegation emphasized two other policy points. First is the idea that the transition back to civilian rule must go in the following order: “security – return of the displaced – elections.” That’s a message to ECOWAS, obviously. The second is the idea, highlighted by Damiba recently as well, that Burkina Faso’s security policy now rests on two main planks – counter-jihadist operations and a dialogue-based off-ramp. Here is the latest piece of reporting on the dialogue front by The New Humanitarian, which has been following that issue closely.

*This is the transitional legislative body in Mali.

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.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Essays on the Sahel – 4/22/22

Nina Wilén and Paul Williams, “What Are the International Military Options for the Sahel?” (Global Observatory, April 12):

If there is a potential middle way [between expanding the United Nations peacekeeping force MINUSMA versus drawing it down], it probably involves focusing on two potential tasks. First, MINUSMA could prioritize its civilian protection mandate while the UN Security Council seeks to reinvigorate the increasingly moribund Algiers Agreement, or tries to negotiate another peace accord in its place. This might involve doing something like the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) did in December 2013 when civil war broke out and South Sudanese government troops began massacring civilians. Here, UNMISS opened its bases and set up emergency “protection of civilians sites” which housed at one stage over 200,000 civilians at risk. However, conflict dynamics in Mali are different than South Sudan (2013-14) with MINUSMA facing greater risk of attack than UNMISS did. Moreover, such an approach might risk an increase in conflict between local nomads and farmers since the latter might be able to move to such sites more easily. The other route to reconfiguring MINUSMA would be to reduce its footprint and focus primarily on observation and monitoring tasks to document abuses perpetrated by the FAMA [Malian Armed Forces], jihadists, and other actors. This type of mission would not be easy to configure and force protection would be a major concern. Nor would it be welcomed by the junta. In sum, there are no obvious good options for MINUSMA.

Virginie Maudais and Souleymane Maïga, “The European Union Training Mission in Mali: An Assessment” (SIPRI, April)

Based on the interviews and desk research carried out in this study, the impact of EUTM Mali’s activities appears to be positive at the operational level. However, the mission faces several challenges in implementing its mandate and the FAMA is regularly accused of committing crimes with impunity. [p. 11]

Delina Goxho, “Protecting Civilians From Those Who Should Protect Them” (Egmont Institute, April 19):

In many regions in the Sahel, communities are doubtful of their state’s commitment to protect them and are instead veering towards the conviction that state-backed abuses represent a condoned form of systematic discrimination. Acknowledging the harm done to civilians is a first and necessary shift in changing perceptions in the region, potentially leading to a stop in the worsening of violence…Legal consequences and an obligation to reparations for those who commit abuses must also follow suit: this will require better accountability on the part of not just the armed forces and their military leaders, but also the political elites of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. These trends should prompt Sahelian militaries and political leaders, as well as foreign security providers, to rethink their involvement in the region. [p. 6]

Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, interviewed by Le Monde (April 16):

On voit bien que Paris marche sur des œufs. [Le président nigérien, Mohamed] Bazoum, de son côté, ne veut pas apparaître comme un vassal de la France. Il n’en est d’ailleurs pas un, mais la présence française peut en effet le mettre en difficulté. Pour le moment, le plus compliqué à gérer, pour lui, c’est sans doute son propre camp, parce qu’il doit composer avec la vieille garde de Mahamadou Issoufou [au pouvoir de 2011 à 2021]. Je pense vraiment qu’il veut lutter contre la corruption en actes et non en mots et qu’il a une réelle volonté d’améliorer la gestion de l’Etat. Mais sa marge de manœuvre est réduite, même si à Niamey, qui lui était très hostile, il a gagné une certaine popularité en rompant avec les habitudes de son prédécesseur, dont les déplacements paralysaient régulièrement la ville, ce qui insupportait les habitants.

OECD, “Natural Resource Governance and Fragility in the Sahel” (April):

Weak minerals governance is a source of economic fragility. In the Sahel, low access to banking and financial services closely relates to illegal minerals trade. Gold derives its value not only from its selling price, but also because it can replace currency. In comparison with cash, it is easier to transport, and easier to exchange against other currencies. For this reason, traders may prefer to use gold in order to build up savings, transfer wealth in accounts abroad, purchase goods and services, and finance trade operations. Significant amounts of Sahel gold are smuggled to Dubai, a leading international gold trading centre (Marks, Kavanagh and Ratcliffe, 2021). The gap between reported gold imports to Dubai and reported combined gold exports from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger amounted to 1.6 billion USD in 2018, and 3.7 billion USD in 2019 as per UN data, suggesting intense illicit trade (UN Trade Statistics, 2022).

The growing use of gold as currency and means to store value creates a parallel economy, which is selfreinforcing. For example, low access to finance implies small miners rely on credit from traders to fund tools and products. The development of a parallel economy and financial system increases risks of money laundering and tax evasion. It also constrains the accumulation of savings in local banks, and therefore credit provision and private sector investment. [p. 26]