Saving Momentum for Change in Mali’s Transition

Successive coups in August 2020 and May 2021 have thrown Mali into turmoil as violence persists in rural areas. While their track record so far has been disappointing, the transitional authorities can still materialise the call for change and hold transparent general elections in 2022.

Principal Findings

What’s new? After two coups d’état in the past nine months, Mali is suffering chronic instability as violence persists in rural areas. After President Keïta’s removal, neither Malian actors nor international partners have grasped the opportunity created by the transitional period to put the country back on track.

Why does it matter? The second coup on 24 May 2021 brought back military control of the country and marked the beginning of a period that has raised more fears than hopes. The new coalition government appears fragile and unfit to carry out the necessary reforms.

What should be done? Malian leaders must rescue what they can of the transition by reforming the electoral system to give citizens genuine alternatives at the ballot box. The current uncertainty should not deter foreign partners from developing long-term strategies to help the Malian state rebuild itself.

Executive Summary

Nearly a decade after the 2012 putsch, Mali – a country plagued by rural insurgencies – has undergone two coups d’état in less than a year. In the first coup, on 18 August 2020, a group of army officers removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. During the first nine months of a transition period that should last eighteen, tensions between civilians and the army combined with a fragile political social and political base have paralysed government. A second coup on 24 May 2021 strengthened the military’s hand but ushered in a new period of uncertainty. Despite their extensive presence, international partners, who continue to prioritise counter-terrorism over governance reforms, have shown the limits of what they can do. Politicians still have time to make the most of this interim period: they should initiate electoral reforms, organise elections to conclude the transition, rally the political class and civil society behind change, and carry out national consultations to identify and overcome obstacles.

In the aftermath of the 18 August 2020 coup, officers from the junta that removed Keïta, the Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), skilfully manoeuvred to occupy key positions within the new transition government. In parallel, they weakened their rivals, particularly the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), the main civilian grouping that opposed Keïta. These machinations have undermined the transition’s first government, which lacks a social and political base solid enough to push through the promised reforms on its own. Despite drawing up an ambitious roadmap in September 2020, Moctar Ouane’s government has proven unable to make significant reforms since then. As the insurgencies continued, the transitional government quickly broke down, paralysed by power struggles with the CNSP, which remains active behind the scenes despite being officially dissolved.

The May 2021 cabinet reshuffle brought to the surface tensions that obstructed governance and set the stage for a second coup led by ex-CNSP officers. For months, Ouane’s government worked to free itself from the army’s meddling and to broaden its base through consultations with representatives from civil society and political actors. By excluding several ministers who were members of the ex-CNSP or had close links to the group, the reshuffle backfired on the leading civilian government authorities when army officers arrested them.

A few days later, Colonel Assimi Goïta, leader of the ex-CNSP and vice president of the original transitional government, was sworn in as president of the new interim authority. The army officers from the former CNSP who plotted the “coup within a coup” could not take full control of a civilian government and so brought in M5-RFP spokesman Choguel Maïga to form a new cabinet. This new alliance between civilians and military officers remains fragile; the M5-RFP is divided and has lost its moral figurehead, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, former leader of the High Islamic Council of Mali, who has adopted a lower profile. The alliance with the military officers also seems anomalous given that Maïga protested the militarisation of power following the August 2020 coup. The June 2021 government composition leaves no doubt that the coup’s leaders are the ones truly in power, since they control the executive and will give the civilian authorities little room for manoeuvre. Nine years after President Touré’s overthrow and one year since Keïta’s fall, it seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one.

After the May 2021 coup, Mali’s main partners have attempted to closely monitor the transition, mainly to prevent the country’s total collapse, but their influence has remained limited. Despite succeeding in stopping the army from usurping power completely, they continued to prioritise the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement and to push for a short, eighteen-month transition period. Even with thousands of foreign soldiers on the ground and Mali’s dependence on international donors, the country’s outside partners have been unable to help the civilian authorities lay the foundations for positive change in governance. Many actually doubted that transitional authorities would have enough time or legitimacy to undertake extensive reforms.

Bamako’s highly volatile political situation, combined with insecurity in rural areas, makes most observers pessimistic about the outlook for the coming weeks and months. Tensions within the security forces have so far been kept in check, but they still represent a real risk to the country’s stability. Senior government officials’ attempts to find a new political equilibrium seem precarious.

It remains possible to keep the transition on track. Foreign partners have a role to play, but Malian politicians and civil society representatives will have to take primary responsibility for extricating Mali from this predicament and the reliance on foreign powers that has led the country into it. During the May 2021 events, Malians mobilised little, appearing weary of the infighting in the capital. Mali’s new authorities need to complete the transition period with transparent and fair elections. Above all, citizens should be free to elect candidates offering genuine solutions to the crisis. Malian actors and international partners should plan for the long term to restore the health of democratic governance.

To prevent further setbacks for the transition, Mali’s political and social forces and international partners should:

  • Persist in efforts initiated by the former interim president to rally support from civil society representatives and political actors behind the transition priorities. Malians need to reach a broad consensus over necessary reforms to ensure smooth progress;

  • Continue applying pressure on the interim authorities, particularly on President Goïta, who have promised to reduce state spending and to manage public funds more effectively, including in the defence and security sectors, which have been embroiled in scandals in recent years;

  • Create the right conditions for a consensual adoption of a new electoral law and a new parties charter – two of the roadmap’s objectives that are still achievable – in order to clean up the electoral process, notably by reducing the territorial administration’s control over the organisation of elections and by preventing the proliferation of political parties without a genuine program of government;

  • Within the framework of the more ambitious reforms included in the roadmap (particularly the constitutional amendments), encourage the transitional government to carry out national public consultations to identify obstacles and to give democratically elected authorities the responsibility for organising a referendum on a new draft constitution;

  • Remain vigilant in opposing violence against political adversaries, to ensure that the coup’s leaders are not tempted to take that route;

  • Finally, international partners should worry less about concluding the transition within the agreed-upon timeframe and concentrate more on ensuring continued interest in efforts to refound the state, an ambition born after Keïta fell. They should plan their actions for the long term and try to identify the Malian forces best able to advocate for change. Mali’s international partners should avoid imposing an ideal model of the state and instead give more support to local initiatives within the present administration to produce more effective services that meet the country’s needs.

Bamako/Dakar/Brussels, 21 September 2021