How to ensure Mali’s coup leads to a true democratic transition

The coup creates an opportunity to address the crucial, intertwined issues of reform and consultation – issues that have been neglected by the authorities at key points in Mali’s recent history.

Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

The coup that ousted Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) on 18 August took place so quickly and smoothly that, in some ways, the international community is still struggling to catch up. That morning, shots rang out at a military base at Kati and armed men arrested senior cabinet members and military officials. Just a few hours after the coup began, IBK and his prime minister, Boubou Cissé, were taken into military custody amid cheering crowds. Late in the evening, IBK announced his resignation live on state TV. The coup was publicly led by a group of senior officers who swiftly took on the name of the National Committee for the Salvation of the Public (CNSP in French).

The international community was quick to condemn the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reacted with particular aggression, suspending Mali from its institutions, imposing sanctions on the country, and demanding the return of “constitutional order” and the reinstallation of IBK. This last request was obviously a non-starter – a fact that became clear to an ECOWAS delegation led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan only after a meeting with IBK, who confirmed that he had no desire to return to his post. The new junta has since released IBK to his private residence for a kind of house arrest, though he was subsequently admitted to a private clinic following reports that he had health problems.

In the time it took for ECOWAS to catch up, however, the junta had already moved to cement its position. For now, it is focused on reassuring Mali’s foreign partners (especially France) and highlighting its opposition to the corruption and poor governance that had eroded Mali’s political system and helped fuel months of opposition protests.

It is important not just to talk about the return of the state in Mali, but to also focus on what kind of state should return.

Now that the international community appears to have realised that the CNSP will not be removed overnight and that a transition to civilian rule – rather than a move toward swift elections – is the most favourable path, it is essential to ensure the transition takes place following broad consultations with Malian political parties, communal and civil society representatives, and influential religious leaders. And it is equally crucial to take time to make genuine headway in improving governance and political representation in Mali. As I argued in an ECFR paper published last month, it is important not just to talk about the return of the state in Mali, but to also focus on what kind of state should return – whether it be in the troubled areas of northern and central Mali or in the capital, Bamako.

Since taking power, the CNSP has moved quickly to signal that it is competently maintaining the functions of the state. The junta held its first public meeting – just a day after the coup – with the officials who manage the country’s ministries. It soon followed this with meetings with educational unions, political actors such as influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, and the leaders and members of the opposition, Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP), as well as the signatory armed groups that form part of Mali’s peace process. The junta has also appointed new military leaders in key posts, as well as civilian advisers, and has sought in multiple ways to create a legal basis for its rule and to ensure that the country’s ministries continue to function.

Special forces colonel Assimi Goita, the president of the CNSP and now a de facto head of state, recently emphasised the urgency of the tasks ahead of them, as well as the fragility of public support for the junta, in remarks to journalists. Still, the CNSP held firm in talks with ECOWAS mediators. Whereas the mediation team initially pushed for quick elections, the junta argued that there was a need to engage in significant reforms of the state before elections could take place, necessitating a lengthy transition process. In an extraordinary virtual summit held on 28 August, ECOWAS leaders insisted on the need for a short transition in which Mali would hold elections to form a new government within 12 months.

The international community’s views on Mali have rapidly shifted over the course of the mediation process. The US government announced that it would suspend military cooperation with Mali even as it hesitated to label the takeover as a coup, thereby avoiding a legally mandated halt in certain military programmes – a halt that could last for years. The European Union, meanwhile, also paused the two Common Security and Defence Policy missions in Mali, even as High Representative Josep Borrell made clear that the move was temporary. France, whose Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane is extensively involved in Mali, initially condemned the coup, before calling for a quick political transition and announcing that it would continue its military operations in the country. And, despite their concern about the junta remaining in power, European officials reiterated following a meeting last week that military missions in the region would continue, and that the CSDP missions may resume their activities soon.

Just two days after the coup, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian stated that France’s two main priorities in Mali were “the interests of the Malian people and the fight against terrorism”. He also encouraged Malians to engage in a broad dialogue to help resolve their country’s crisis. The following day, President Emmanuel Macron called for the release of IBK and a quick transition to civilian rule (rather than IBK’s reinstatement). And, in the space of around a week, ECOWAS went from demanding IBK’s return to not only accepting the junta’s presence but supporting a transitional period of at least a year.

These shifts reflect both the strong negotiating position of the CNSP and recognition that elections without important reforms have hurt Mali in the past. Mali’s problems are not limited to IBK but his errors, as well as those of the international community, have taken a heavy toll on the country. And, as Gilles Yabi has argued, quick elections – like those in 2013 – would only recycle the same political actors who have played a role in Mali’s many crises, instead of allowing time for the creation of new solutions and the implementation of difficult reforms.

What comes next, however, remains unclear to all those involved.

Even supporters of the coup call for a transitional process that is accompanied by significant reform. Some M5-RFP leaders, for instance, largely approved of the takeover and offered to help “accompany” the transition, as a way to both shape the process and to underline its own long-standing role in opposing Mali’s previous government and organising against it. Through its rhetoric, the party attempted to place the coup within the history of its broader struggle. And it perhaps intends to subtly remind Mali’s new military rulers that, despite widespread anger and frustration with corruption and poor governance under IBK, they must still contend with popular opinion, which could swiftly revert to anger at those in charge.

These crucial, intertwined issues of reform and consultation have been neglected by the authorities at key points in Mali’s recent history. As negotiations continue and Malians come up with ideas about what the transition should look like, they have taken to Twitter to post their thoughts about the process under the hashtag #MaTransition. And they have a long list of potential areas for reform. Changes to electoral laws and an effort to clean up electoral lists will be essential in any future vote. And, in the face of mounting abuses by the security forces and killings by armed groups, it is essential for the government to provide justice to their victims.

Such justice is all the more important for showing that Mali’s military – and, eventually, civilian – leaders are willing to break with past practices in which the security forces have shown little regard for citizens’ safety, either behaving lawlessly or farming out security to local elites and militias with their own agendas. And, above all, Mali needs to amend its 1992 Constitution, one of the major unfulfilled promises of the Algiers Accords.

Although Mali’s state needs a more fundamental transformation than the removal of its president, the reform of state institutions must come out of a genuinely inclusive process that gives the diverse components of Malian society a real say, and a real stake, in the country’s political institutions and processes. Without these things, any military government or transitional process is doomed to failure.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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