Mali, a Coup within a Coup

Military officers have arrested the heads of Mali’s transitional state and government, installed following the August 2020 coup. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Jean-Hervé Jezequel details the possible fallout of this second putsch in a country already weakened by conflict with jihadists.

What do we know about this coup in Mali, the second in nine months?

On 24 May, the interim president Bah N’Daw, his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, and several other Malian officials were arrested and taken to the Kati military camp near the capital Bamako. The arrest came shortly after the appointment of a new government, the composition of which had been bitterly negotiated for more than a week, but which no longer included Colonels Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné, respectively the ministers of defence and security. These two national guard officers are also leading members of the former National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), the group behind the 18 August 2020 coup d'état. The CNSP officially dissolved in January 2021.

The day after the arrests, Colonel Assimi Goïta, ex-head of the CNSP and current vice president, issued a statement on national television announcing that he was “removing the prerogatives pf the president and his prime minister”. He accused them of incompetence and above all of forming a new government without consulting him – which is unlikely given the length of the negotiations – thus violating the transitional charter. This text, adopted in September 2020, gives Goïta certain authority in defence and security matters but no power to suspend the president or prime minister. As such, the ex-CNSP officers’ takeover is an attempt at a coup d’état to regain control of a transition that was slipping from their grasp.

In the days before the putsch, relations had become strained between the ex-CNSP figures, on one hand, and N’Daw, himself a retired military officer, and Ouane, on the other. The latter intended to set up a more inclusive government to build greater unity behind the transition amid social tensions including a general strike called by the country’s main trade union. N’Daw and Ouane also took the opportunity to try to curb the ex-CNSP’s strong influence over transitional institutions. According to several sources consulted by Crisis Group, this influence considerably limited the head of government’s room for manoeuvre.

It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one.

The tensions between the civilian transitional authorities and the ex-CNSP men are strangely reminiscent of another putsch ousting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra in December 2012, a few months after a group of lower-ranking officers mounted a coup d’état against President Amadou Touré. The ex-CNSP officers, whom Western officials described as “enlightened” a few months ago, are now behaving no better than the non-commissioned officers who took power in 2012. It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one.

What risks does Mali face?

The CNSP’s removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020 led to very little violence. The regime was exhausted, and large parts of the population greeted Keïta’s departure with relief after weeks of mass demonstrations. This time around, the officers have seized power with far less popular support. There are rumours of tensions in the army, where this “coup within a coup” lacks unanimous support. So far, the barracks have remained quiet, but fratricidal fighting among security forces, as occurred after the March 2012 coup, cannot be ruled out. For the time being, no civil society association has taken to the streets to defend the suspended authorities, though several such groups, political parties and other public figures have spoken out to demand their release. Conversely, few Malian organisations have expressed support for the officers' actions. Many, such as the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathisers of the influential Imam Mahmoud Dicko, are reserving judgment or conducting intense negotiations with the ex-CNSP military officers, no doubt in the hope of gaining positions of influence in a future government.

Indeed, if the forced resignations of N’Daw and Ouane on 26 May are confirmed, the ex-CNSP figures will seek to consolidate their coup by appointing a new transitional prime minister and president. They may find a head of government within the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a diverse coalition of parties and associations that played a key role in overthrowing President Keïta but was later shunted aside by the CNSP when it created the transitional institutions. The ex-CNSP men are counting on such an alliance to convince outside powers to let them pursue the transition themselves. In an attempt to appease international actors, after N’Daw’s arrest Colonel Goïta announced his intention to complete the transition in accordance with the timetable negotiated with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in September 2020.

Regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system.

The coming days will therefore be decisive, and political deadlock remains possible. But regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system. This aspect is perhaps the most worrying: after having undergone all these crises, Mali still does not know which political forces are capable of bringing about the change that the country needs.

How has the international community reacted?

International condemnation has been firm and unanimous so far. The main partners in Mali’s transition – ECOWAS, the African Union, the UN mission in Mali, France, the European Union and the United States – have rejected the attempted coup. The ex-CNSP officers were probably expecting this reaction but risked the takeover anyway, perhaps believing that the same international actors who recently allowed a junta to seize power in Chad after President Idriss Déby’s death will also end up accepting them, as they did last August.

Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged.

An ECOWAS mission has arrived in Bamako to meet with the various protagonists and attempt to resolve the crisis. But Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged. As in August 2020, ECOWAS could suspend Mali from its institutions and impose economic sanctions that weigh heavily on Malian decision-makers’ minds. But these measures also hurt the Malian population and risk aggravating internal tensions, potentially leading the population to resent the external intervention. In 2020, sanctions made it possible to extract important compromises from the CNSP officers, but without drawing them away from the real seat of power. International actors could also impose sanctions targeted at the coup leaders. Such measures, however, are unlikely to make a short-term impact and could even lead the Malian authorities to suspend collaboration with the country’s partners if the sanctioned figures remain in power. Many donors were already dreading a suspension of various programs following the August 2020 coup d’état.

International actors should continue to reject the ex-CNSP’s power grab and press for a return to civilian rule free of the officers’ influence. But their words can carry weight only if they stand united. In August 2020, some of Mali's partners were too quick to send the officers signals that they could retain a decisive say in national affairs.

International partners now face two main options, neither of which is without risk. One option is to stand firm and demand the reinstatement of President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane, whose resignations were clearly coerced. That stance would lead to confrontation with the ex-CNSP and a political stalemate whose outcome would be uncertain. It would also, however, give the outside powers a better chance of breaking the officers’ stranglehold on power in Mali.

The other option is to condemn the arrests and call for an immediate shift back to civilian-led transition, but without demanding that the president and prime minister return to office. This course would open the door to negotiations with the junta to reinstate civilian authorities. As in August, however, the ex-CNSP could exploit the talks to establish the semblance of civilian authority while retaining real power. In its 26 May press statement, the UN Security Council nevertheless appears to be advocating this second option. If Mali's other partners, notably ECOWAS, also support this option, then this time around they should attach conditions to negotiations with the ex-CNSP that curb its political influence so that it can no longer hold the civilian authorities hostage. In any case, the effectiveness of international pressure will depend on the strength of its connection with the domestic movement rejecting the coup, slow as that movement has been to gain momentum.

Will the political instability affect the conflict with jihadists?

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies.

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies. To people living in conflict-affected areas, the return of a state mired in infighting in Bamako looks increasingly unlikely. Jihadists and other armed groups are thus better able to present themselves as de facto alternative authorities. Furthermore, there is a distinct possibility that this new crisis will undermine the already fragile confidence in the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement, whose main provisions on security and decentralisation have yet to be fulfilled. A few months back, the transitional authorities were praised for developing better relations than their predecessors with the armed groups that signed the agreement, in particular those of the Coordination of Azawad Movements. But the current crisis in Bamako may convince some of these same signatories that their best option is to spurn a weak state unable to honour its commitments. These tensions may heighten further as the M5-RFP leadership, whom the ex-CNSP could call upon to form the next government, includes figures known for their hostility to the 2015 agreement.

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