Mali: a coup for the better or the worst?

The coup

Last Tuesday, 18th August, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and his prime minister, Boubou Cisse, as well as other government officials, were detained by mutinying soldiers. In an ironic twist, the mutiny began outside the capital of Bamako in the same national guard barracks in which the coup of 2012 was started, the same coup which then ushered in Keita’s rule. It is hypothesized that the mutiny and subsequent kidnapping of the president was initially a result of a pay dispute between the government and soldiers of the national guard. The international community responded immediately with a wave of condemnation. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, tweeted on Wednesday that the coup could destabilize regional security and stability in the Sahel.

The situation in Mali

The situation in Mali prior to the coup was far from stable with months of public protest, which turned violent, and criticism pointed at Keita. Following the coup of 2012, Keita has held the presidency and has recently come under intense criticism as Mali plunged into an economic slump. After the electionsin March this year, the Constitutional court changed 31 constituencies in order to maintain Keita’s parliamentary majority. Moreover, critics of Keita have accused him and his supporters of cronyism, pointing to the increased power and influence and power of his son. This has resulted in public support and jubilant crowds in Bamako’s streets following the coup, as well as armed groups in northern Mali, including nationalist Arab groups, reaching out to the junta asking it to preserve the Algiers peace made in 2014. Assimi Goita, the leader of the junta, in an attempt to reassure the international community has agreed to preserve these peace talks, an essential component of stability in the region.

Soon after the apparently forced resignation of Keita late Tuesday evening, the leader of military forces, Goita, stated they have no political ambitions and seek a civilian political transition. The international community remains wary, despite the beginning of talks between the military and civilian representatives from the opposition party, with the US, UN, China and the EU all unwilling to accept the legitimacy of a military government and stressing the importance of a democratic transition. A task some fear will be hard to achieve, especially when attempted in the midst of a pandemic.

The stakes for the EU are high. Mali is the home of aFrench-led G5 mission and the most expensive peacekeeping operation to date. The objective of these operations is to eradicate extremist Islamist insurgent cells in the region which flooded the country during the instability following the 2012 coup. The EU fears that the current political instability may usher in another period of unrest and subsequent growth of these groups. For this reason, the defense ministers of Germany, Britain and France have declared that despite the current situation their troops deployments to the region will remain constant and operations will continue as they did before. The French defense minister states that the Sahel region remained a security challenge and a threat for all of Europe.

What next?

Mali remains a lynchpin in EU foreign politics as it represents an organized and coordinated effort by the union to stem the influence of extremist jihadi forces as well as the flow of migrants to northern Africa. However, these objectives should not overshadow the need for stability and peace for the Malian people who have now suffered almost a decade of corrupt politics, violence and climate change related disasters.

The EU and international actors must obviously be wary of the true motives of Goita and his junta and demand a democratic transition and subsequent erection of a legitimately elected government in Bamako. However, they have to also listen to the Malian people, the same people these missions aim to protect and understand their frustration and disgust with what was Keita’s corrupt and crony government. The results of this coup, whether it has a detrimental effect on stability in the region or is conducive to it, is yet to be seen. Hence, more so now than ever, the French mission should be ever vigilant, preparing for the worst, and secure those zones most at risk of falling back into the hands or under an increased influence of extremist forces. Concomitantly, politicians in Brussels and EU capitals should exercise the EU’s immense soft power incentivizing a democratic transition. Brussels needs to support the African Union's efforts to establish a peaceful and democratic transition in Mali. However, the fate of Mali is ultimately in the hands now of a military junta and the international community can only coax them in the right direction and hold them accountable for the promises they have made to the Malian people.