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Mali’s transition: High expectations and little time

/Yarga Idrissa
Recent protests in Mali/Yarga Idrissa

On 17–18 August 2020, a military coup—the fourth since the independence of the country—led to the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), two years after his re-election. Led by high-ranking military officers, the coup concluded the persistent contestation of the regime that culminated in the country’s June 2020 protests

This WritePeace blog explains the diverse set of factors that led to the military coup and discusses the current challenges of the upcoming transition. It highlights the urgent needs to put Malian people’s needs and priorities at the top of the transition’s agenda. 

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita: An old president for a young population

After his electoral victory in August 2013, IBK generated hope and put the return of sovereignty and state authority as his top priorities. The 75-year-old had experience as Prime Minister, Head of the National Assembly and a solid reputation as a strong leader. Indeed, IBK was considered as the best candidate to tackle the immense challenges that followed Mali’s 2011–12 crisis. 

Politically offensive and well connected to other heads of state—in both Africa and Europe—IBK had an ambitious agenda. He organized the ‘Decentralization Conference’, the ‘National Conference for the Development of the Northern Regions’ in October and November 2013, respectively and  also initiated the inter-Malian dialogue in July 2014.

However, the difficulties for his administration started with Prime Minister Moussa Mara’s visit to Kidal in May 2014. The visit to Kidal erupted in violent clashes between armed groups and the Malian Army who were unable to protect the government delegation. From this point onwards Kidal became a symbol of the Malian State’s withdrawal and passivity towards the crisis in Mali’s north. Prior to this, IBK was forced to accept international mediation in the inter-Malian peace process, held in Algiers. The finalization of this agreement in Bamako (June 2015) was supposed to stabilize the country and position IBK as a strong ally in the fight against terrorism. 

Several factors tarnished IBK’s reputation. For instance, IBK was (in)directly involved in several corruption scandals such as the purchasing of a new presidential aeroplane and questionable military contracts. These scandals led to the temporary suspension of IMF funding for Mali. Moreover, the growing influence of IBK’s entourage, the lack of progress—or even interest—in the implementation of the peace agreement and the degradation of the security situation in central Mali since 2015 further contributed to weakening his position. At the same time, IBK lacked any credible political opponents. His main political rival and opposition leader, Soumaïla Cissé was effectively neutralized after being given an official ministerial rank including benefits and a dedicated budget line. IBK managed to brand himself as the best candidate and was re-elected in 2018. 

The legislative election: The final straw

Initially slated for 2018, Mali’s legislative elections were eventually held in April 2020. This was despite coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the fact that Soumaïla Cissé, the opposition leader, was kidnapped by armed groups while campaigning. IBK’s party won 51 out of 147 seats. There was immediate opposition to these results with charges that they were fabricated, and that Mali’s Constitutional Court was complicit. Moreover, a close ally of IBK was elected as the new Head of the National Assembly. Combined, these factors fuelled civil and religious organizations to strongly oppose the results.

By the end of May 2020, protesters started to gather every Friday in Independence Square, Bamako. The protesters formed a coalition named the 5 June Movement–Rally of the Patriotic Forces (M5–RPF) and succeeded in mobilizing the population, demanding IBK’s resignation and denouncing the government corruption. Structured around Mahmoud Dicko—the conservative former president of the High Islamic Council of Mali—M5–RPF is a heteroclite coalition of former political leaders such as Choguel Kokalla Maiga, Oumar Mariko and Mountaga Tall. It also consists of civil society organizations such as the Coalition of Movements and Associations Supporting Imam Dicko  (CMAS), the Platform against Corruption and Unemployment (Clément Dembélé) and Mali Koura Hope (Cheick Oumar Sissoko). Intransigent, IBK accepted to dissolve the constitutional court, however, he refused to satisfy M5–RPF’s main demands: to cancel the legislative elections and remove himself from office. 

Isolated and weakened by the missteps of his relatives, particularly his son Karim whom the demonstrators vilified, IBK still believed that the ‘real’ Mali—and the country’s military elite—supported him. The violent repression of protesters on 10 July resulted in 14 dead and more than 300 wounded and accelerated the demise of the regime. Conversely, from the garrison town of Kati, some 15 kilometres away from Bamako, several military units marched to Bamako. On 18 August 2020, with no shots fired, the coup leaders arrested the Prime Minister and the Head of State. In a televised speech, IBK announced that he would immediately resign from office and dissolve the government and the National Assembly.

Endemic poverty and growing insecurity: The long failure of the state

The current situation in central Mali cannot be analyzed as an inevitable continuation of the conflict that erupted in northern Mali in 2011–12. Rather, both situations are rooted in the unequal and insufficient presence of the state and the failure of the state to deliver services in peripheral regions. However, in central Mali, armed and radicalized groups are also fuelling old and local inter-community tensions that led to civilians being massacred based on their ethnicity. Insecurity has now expanded to the bordering countries of Burkina Faso and Niger (e.g. in the Liptako–Gourma region). Several groups (the Group to Support Islam and Muslims/GSIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara/ISGS) are spreading to Mali’s central and southern regions (including Kayes) and control some localities in the Mopti region. 

In addition to these pre-existing and structural factors, the security situation throughout the country significantly deteriorated under IBK’s presidency: Kidal remains under the control of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), gold mines have fallen out of state control and Soumaïla Cissé is still held by kidnappers with the government unable to receive proof of life. In 2020, the unilateral decision to open a dialogue with non-signatory armed groups also created new tensions with the Malian Army and foreign partners. The massive presence of foreign soldiers (Operation Barkhane, the G5 Sahel joint force and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) also contributed to weakening IBK’s nationalist posture. Throughout Mali, populations have rejected the international military presence and continue to support national forces despite claims that they have committed human rights violations.

This mix of old and more conjectural economic and security factors explain both IBK’s demise and the growing fatigue from the international community towards the regime. 

The fall of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita: Timid international reactions 

From the perspective of the international community, the coup confirmed the limited leverage that foreign partners and international organizations have on the country. Despite massive military and economic investments, no international actors strongly stood for IBK and are struggling to establish a strategy to move forward. 

During the past month, neighbouring countries and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), failed to facilitate a dialogue between the M5–RPF and IBK. Since the coup, ECOWAS has been negotiating directly with the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) on the transition’s modalities. ECOWAS has so far expressed divergent views between the Heads of State that seem to be based on their own national/electoral interests and/or (old) friendships. This significantly undermines the organization’s ability to mediate, and consequently, the transition’s duration remains unaddressed. 

Former colonial power and major military actor, France, did not indicate any interest or will to play a more active role in the current mediation whereas its military role is one paramount point of tension with anti-IBK movements. Given the difficult experience of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement negotiations, its failure to protect civilians and the lack of acceptance from Malian people, the United Nations—also present in the country—are not in a favourable position to weigh in on a possible dialogue on Mali’s post-transition period. 

The transition: Possible scenarios

Mali’s August 2020 military coup is not a repetition of the 2012 coup. Rather, it is more similar to the March 1991 coup when top-ranking Malian Army Officers executed the coup with the support of the public. The military regime handed over the power to civilian authorities after a one-year transition endorsed by a ‘National Conference’. In 2020, the coup leaders were also strongly supported by Malians and immediately reached out to all opposition and civil society groups, populations and, more importantly, to the signatory and non-signatory groups of the 2015 peace agreement. 

Niger’s 2010 experience may also be a useful illustration of what could happen now in Mali. In Niger, the military seized power to pave the way to a 9-month civil-military transition, led by prominent civilian personalities that resulted in a revision of Niger’s key legislative texts, including the constitution, and the establishment of a new republic, under difficult financial conditions. 

However, this is all highly uncertain and the transition could also lead to a less optimistic scenario that Mali and other countries in the region have experienced. A pretorianization of the military regime, i.e. a long-term capture of the state apparatus by the junta, is still conceivable and could open a new and more dramatic political era in Mali. 

The transition: Main questions and challenges

Even in the case of a peaceful, short-term, democratic transition, several questions will have to be addressed. 

In terms of IBK’s ‘succession’—and contrary to 1991—no natural option seems able to emerge. The M5–RPF movement seems to be too irregular to impose itself as a credible alternative. Moreover, there is no structured opposition and no clearly identified younger and realistic political leaders to form a government. The recent tensions between the junta and the M5–RPF and the warning of Mahmoud Dicko are an illustrative example of these conflicting interests. Discussions on the format of the transition are now open with all interested actors. 

In addition to the succession issue, the nature and priorities of the post-transition regime will also have to be discussed. The adoption of a new constitution could be considered but it would require an in-depth debate on both the nature of Mali’s presidential regime and the decentralized model that has been at the heart of all peace agreements and a recurrent political demand from all rebellions since 1960. The future of the ineffective 2015 peace agreement should certainly be part of the dialogue as it no longer reflects the realities of today. The political, economic, religious and social diversity of the Malian people has also to be taken into consideration. Marginalized, Malian youth are a ticking time bomb that have to be addressed through long-term solutions, development programmes and a massive investment in education.

The CNSP has a huge task ahead and very little time. The process is constrained by ECOWAS’s sanctions while demands and expectations are high. Clearly the transition will not be able to solve all of Mali’s problems at the same time. While the path of Mali’s transition is still highly uncertain, it is crucial that frustration, anger or revenge do not capture the people’s hopes.


Dr Virginie Baudais is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Sahel and West Africa Programme.
Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.