The Crisis in Mali
On August 18th, 2020 Malian military officials detained the country’s democratically elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse at gun point. Not long after being detained, President Keita announced his resignation and dissolved parliament. The coup in Mali – the second one since 2012 – is especially troubling because it comes against a backdrop of a political crisis, a global pandemic, and a poor security situation in the West African state.
In the morning hours of Tuesday August 18th, the coup began at a military base just nine miles from the capital city of Bamako. Later that day, soldiers, tanks, and armored vehicles moved through Bamako and detained the president, prime minister, and several other senior government officials.
The political crisis has been months in the making. It began after President Keita won re-election in August 2018 despite opposition groups declaring the election was marred with irregularities. The crisis continued in March 2019 when the government pushed ahead with legislative elections – despite the outbreak of COVID-19 – and drew even more scrutiny when the Constitutional Court overturned more than 30 of the results. Following the court’s rulings, Keita’s party gained ten more seats in parliament, making it the largest bloc. On top of the electoral issues of March 2020, that same month also saw unidentified gunmen abduct the main opposition leader – Soumailia Cisse – who has not resurfaced since.
The electoral turmoil also comes at a time when allegations of corruption and power consolidation by government officials are rampant. These allegations are further fueled by images of the president’s son partying on a yacht. These allegations and images further alienate the Malian people as the economy is crumbling under the pressures of the deteriorating security situation and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an effort to voice their displeasure with the political and economic conditions in Mali, citizens began taking to the streets. A timeline of events is as follows:
- June 5: Protestors take to the streets in the capital city of Bamako demanding the president resign. The anti-Keita movement has since been labeled the June 5 Movement in honor of the protests starting date.
- June 19: Protests continue in Bamako.
- June 20: ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) calls for a re-run of some contested elections.
- July 5: President Keita meets with leaders of the June 5 protest movement.
- July 11 & 12: Security forces fire into crowds of protesters, reportedly killing 11.
- July 23: West African leaders attempt to mediate the standoff between protesters and President Keita.
- August 18: President Keita and Prime Minister Cisse are arrested by mutinying soldiers.
- August 19: President Keita resigns, dissolves parliament.
- August 24: Coup leaders and ECOWAS representatives fail to reach an agreement on how the country should return to civilian rule.
- August 26: EU freezes missions training Malian army and police.
- August 27: Former president Keita released from detention.
- August 28: ECOWAS demands coup leaders transfer power to a civilian led government and elections be held within a year.
- August 29: Coup leaders delay first meeting over the transfer of power due to “organizational reasons.”
- September 7: West African leaders warn military junta that they must designate a transitional president and a prime minister, both civilians, by September 15th or face further sanctions.
- September 9: Military junta leaders meet with political parties and civil society groups in an effort to designate civilian heads of state.
- September 10: Experts appointed by Mali’s new military rulers propose a two-year transitional government led by a president chosen by the army
Implications of Mali’s Coup d’état
Despite promising elections and claiming virtuous reasons for the coup, the military overthrowing a democratically elected president carries serious repercussions.
First, the coup in Mali brings international condemnation and a membership suspension from the African Union. Similarly, ECOWAS has suspended Mali, shut down borders, and halted financial flows to the state. However, more importantly, the coup could similarly suspend some forms of bilateral aid. For example, the U.S. government is barred from giving assistance to governments that come to power via a coup d’état due to language that has appeared in annual State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs appropriations legislation since 1986. Similarly, the EU announced it would suspend police and military training in the state.
The cutting off of foreign aid, especially military aid, to Mali could be devastating due to the already poor security situation. One reason for the poor security situation is the political chaos brought on by the previous coup in 2012. The 2012 coup, which also overthrew a democratically elected government, began when soldiers mutinied over displeasure with how the government was handling a rebellion by the Tuareg ethnic group. The chaos of the early 2010s opened the door for established jihadist groups – like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – to step in and support the Tuareg’s, but also allowed new groups, like Ansar al-Din, to form.
Since then, the terrorist presence in Mali has grown to be one of the worst in the world:
- According to the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, Mali was the 13th most effected country by terrorism.
- Mali saw the highest jump of any state in the top 20 – up nine spots from the 2018 Global Terrorism Index.
- Mali saw the third highest increase in deaths from terrorism from 2017-2018, only behind Afghanistan and Nigeria.
- Mali is the 4th most effected Sub-Saharan African state by terrorism, behind only Nigeria, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
An already strong jihadist presence in Mali will likely only get worse with the political uncertainty and instability a new coup brings. Conditions in Mali create a fertile base for jihadi groups to recruit from:
- Mali has a population of almost 20 million,
- Mali’s median age is 16 years old,
- Mali is among the 25 poorest states in the world,
- Mali has a youth unemployment rate almost twice the rate of the overall unemployment rate.
- Mali is an extremely ethnically diverse state, which can lead to communal violence and allow for terrorist organizations to exploit existing conflicts.
- Mali is vulnerable to climate change, which can create instability that benefits extremist groups.
When combined with extreme political uncertainty and no obvious mediator or third party to help usher in new elections, the conditions that make jihadi organizations so appealing to some are likely to get worse. If conditions in Mali get worse, West Africa could see the consequences spillover into Mali’s neighbors, such as Niger and Burkina Faso, which would further destabilize West Africa.