Why? Because since at least 2012, the country has been roiled by ongoing political crisis. Military officers and political leaders are elbowing each other for political control and access to the spoils of power.
What do we know about the latest political upheaval?
On May 24, military personnel arrested Mali’s transitional President Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and took them to Kati, a garrison town about 9 miles north of Bamako, the capital. N’Daw and Ouane had just announced a new cabinet, in which four of the 25 proposed ministers were military officers. However, the new cabinet did not include the previous defense minister Sadio Camara or security minister Modibo Kone, both of whom had been members of the 2020 coup’s junta. Nor was Col. Assima Goïta, vice president and leader of the 2020 coup, consulted about the new government’s makeup; Goïta claimed that this violated the terms of the transition charter.
Balancing civilians and military in government can be difficult. N’Daw is a retired military officer and former defense minister. When the junta appointed him, many were concerned by the fact that he was not a civilian leader. Opposition political parties and international actors pressured N’Daw to establish a civilian-led government. When he reshuffled the cabinet, attempting to sideline the junta, he would have known it would anger Goïta and others. For that reason, it is surprising that he failed to consult Goïta and his allies, who inevitably saw this as a betrayal. Goïta responded by seizing power again, dismissing the president and prime minister, and eliminating the facade of a civilian-led government.
Is this different from earlier coups d’état?
Mali’s earlier coups had clearly been connected to popular movements and widespread dissatisfaction with politicians in power. That’s not true in this week’s events. French President Emmanuel Macron called this a “coup within a coup.” Goïta’s actions reveal that the junta never truly relinquished power to civilians.
Let’s look at Mali’s previous coups for comparison. After Amadou Toumani Touré overthrew dictator Moussa Traoré in 1992 during a popular revolution against authoritarian rule, his supporters called him a “soldier of democracy.” He handed power to a transitional government; in 1992 Alpha Oumar Konaré was elected president, a position he held for two terms. Touré was then elected president in 2002 and again in 2007. But in March 2012, just weeks before presidential elections scheduled for April, Capt. Amadou Sanogo overthrew Touré, claiming that the military needed to remove the politicians from power to stop the rapid advance of violent extremist groups.
Many Malians felt that Touré had derailed democracy with corruption and a lack of transparency, and supported the coup. Mali’s neighbors opposed it strongly, and immediately issued sanctions that led Sanogo to relinquish power to the president of the National Assembly, Dioncounda Traoré, who became Mali’s interim president. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta took office in September 2013 following hastily organized elections in July and August 2013.
In August 2020, the military again stepped in after protests calling for Keïta’s resignation. M5-RFP, a coalition of civil society, religious and opposition leaders, led weeks of protests against Keïta, blaming him for corruption, nepotism and worsening extremist attacks in Northern and Central Mali. Emboldened by popular protests, Goïta and fellow military leaders ousted the president and soldiers were met by cheering crowds in Bamako. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)imposed sanctions — but soon lifted them as Goïta installed a transitional government.
But this month, the Malian National Trade Union (UNTM) held a five-day-long general strike, demanding higher salaries and benefits from the government. On May 24, 2021, before the president’s arrest, the UNTM announced it would prolong the general strike for another five days — and threatened to continue indefinitely until the government met its demands. Goïta claimed that the strike was evidence of N’Daw’s failed leadership and that it would lead to economic asphyxiation of the country and ongoing instability. When Goïta seized power, the UNTM publicly condemned his actions and called off the strike, saying it had no legitimate authority to negotiate.
Those who launched coups in 2012 and 2020 argued that they were “corrective coups” that were carrying out the will of the people and would put the country on track after popular protests. But most Malians will see N’Daw’s removal differently. While previous coups were supported by popular protests, there appears to be little popular support for the junta’s derailing of a civilian-led government.
Who opposes the arrests?
Many centers of power in Malian civil society, including human rights organizations and the UNTM, the primary labor union, have spoken out against the military power grab. The political opposition is divided. M5-RFP is demanding that the junta give it a more dominant role in the transition government. ECOWAS promptly dispatched Goodluck Jonathon to Mali to negotiate a resolution. The United States halted all security assistance.
What does this mean for foreign security forces?
This political crisis reveals an absurd situation. Because of ongoing efforts to protect civilians from violent extremist organizations with ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, nearly 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers are stationed in Mali. France is leading two military missions in the Sahel, with another 6,000 European soldiers. These foreign militaries and peacekeepers are ostensibly there to increase stability and security in central and northern Mali. In the meantime, no one is effectively governing the country.
Mali has intertwined security, political, humanitarian and economic crises that undermine the well-being of Malian citizens. Junta leaders’ removal of the president and prime minister shows they are not truly interested in establishing a civilian-led government. That bodes poorly for the stability of the country and the well-being of the nation’s nearly 20 million citizens.
Susanna D. Wing (@SusannaWing) is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and author of the award-winning book, “Constructing Democracy in Transitioning Societies in Africa: Constitutionalism and Deliberation in Mali” (Palgrave, 2008).