Suffering in the Sahel: Post-Coup Mali in Search for Path Back to Democracy

Written by | Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

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. 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.

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. 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.

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 some three weeks ago 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. Importantly, 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. Moreover, 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.

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.

‘How to Ensure Mali’s Coup Leads to a True Democratic Transition’ – Commentary by Andrew Lebovich – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
The Commentary can be downloaded here

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