Mali’s history has experienced social unrest, military coups (1968, 1991, 2012 and 2020) and tuareg rebellions (1962-1964, 1990-1995, 2007-2009 and 2012), so it is not surprising to see that the incipient democracy (1991-2012) was destroyed during the last years. Therefore, it seems mandatory to analyze which were the causes of the current crisis, which has been described as a “multidimensional crisis” but also as a “convergence of multiple crisis in different dimensions”. So, in this context, it is interesting to review some of the main reasons of today’s situation and, in order to do this, the internal (Mali’s actors) and external factors (integration blocs, international organisations and great powers) of the current conflict will be analysed in this article.
The country’s current situation is a consequence of bad governance and this puts on the table the urgent need of reviewing the democratic institutionality of the Malian state. If 1992’s Constitution was a good step towards a new era -the end of the Cold War and Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship- today it is mandatory to adopt new measures and adapt the Constitution to the new times, it is, the current issues that affect the Malian population and the democratic institutionality of the country. Nevertheless, the most important thing is that good governance is imposed as the only acceptable way of leading a country. During the last 15 years, Mali has suffered a permanent deterioration of the State’s capacity to govern well, degradating the Malian population´s quality of life but also damaging the democratic roots that emerged in the 90’s.
Therefore, all of the above mentioned caused the failure of the State and not only in one aspect. It is a conflict about security, social inequalities, education, health, decentralization, governance and the fight against corruption. At the same time, there has to be a new paradigm in politics. The ‘idolic’ way is not the recomendable path and it is time to build a robust and trustful State that has solid roots and can work without depending on one leader, a specific political party or even a political conglomeration.
The best examples of how badly Mali has been governed are the two military coups (2012 and 2020), the tuareg rebellion (2012) and the disrupt of terrorist groups (2013-nowadays). Those elements merged to generate a deep security (and humanitarian) crisis, which added a new item in the formula, it is, intercommunitary violence.
One of the big mistakes of IBK was his incapacity to establish solid ties with the opposition and the militaries. In the midst of coronavirus pandemic, maybe the correct decision was to postpone the legislative elections. However, he insisted in organizing them and, the worst error, the process was not fair and 31 seats of the National Assembly were contested. After that, he did not have the capacity to dialogue with the opposition or to simply announce partial elections for the 31 parlamentaries that won with a suspected unfair or corrupt process. The same can be said about 2018’s presidential elections, as violence and a low turnout (nearly 35% of the voters) were the main protagonists of the second tour.
When the turmoil and protests progressed and finally transformed into deadly riots, once again IBK did not respond in a good way. The Malian forces dispersed rioters -it has to be said that some of them were destroying public goods or even state buildings- but the response was too violent and at least 11 protesters died. According to the opposition, there were 23 deaths. After that, and being cornered by the M5-RFP movement, he decided to dialogue and to offer some concessions (but not too many). Unluckily, it was too late and the discontent was even bigger than before. Now, the people wanted IBK’s resignation too and that was the main obstacle in this process. Finally, even if IBK accepted to change the members of the Constitutional Court, once again he made a mistake and named three members proposed by the National Assembly’s President, something that was rejected by the M5-RFP. It was a chain of huge errors, including the conflict, which started long before the legislative elections, with the powerful imam Mahmoud Dicko. In regard with the militaries, some of them complained about the indifference of the government and the president himself about issues like the salaries, the equipment, the working conditions and the deaths of soldiers that were killed during operations against terrorist groups. So, it is not a big surprise to see mutinied soldiers against him.
Nepotism and corruption also deserve a paragraph, as they are two main sins of IBK. For instance, a 40 million dollar plane purchase in the middle of a crisis, the appointment of his son as the head of a Defense Commission of the National Assembly and the buy of 15-euros military socks are some examples of his non-transparent actions, something that irritated the Malian population in general but also international donors or partners such as the FMI.
Concerning the military intervention, some researchers have concluded that the coup could be motivated by the weak support of the Malian state towards the Armed Forces of the country. This is a very interesting point, as lots of Malian soldiers have died in attacks -some of them even in the military camps- perpetuated by terrorist groups. In this regard, the Malian Armed Forces have been demanding an improvement of their equipment, but also of their salaries and work conditions. A deeper analysis should also take into account the fact that a UN’s report established that important military or security officials had tried to boycott the Algiers Agreement of 2015. In this point, two main names are highlighted and they are the general Keba Sangaré and Moussa Diawara, chief of the State Security General Direction. Among other accusations, they have, seemingly, made alliances with particular groups of leaders of the armed groups that signed the Algiers Agreement but also have taken bad decisions in issues like the launch of the combined force composed, in equal parts, by the Malian Armed Forces, ex-rebel formations and pro-government armed groups. So, it is not strange to see that the military junta declared that their aim is not to change everything but to “clean” the conduction of the Malian Armed Forces. However, there should be a complete and transparent investigation about human rights’ violations and violence against civilians perpetuated by Malian Armed Forces. It is necessary, in order to have a stronger transition and a solid “new State”, to clarify what happened, who were the responsibles of civilian massacres and who will pay (with jail) for those crimes.
A final comment is yet to be made and it is about the role of the protesters. Even if they were fighting for logical and fair demands and that they suffered with violent response from the government forces, the M5-RFP movement has to analyse its role or its influence in the violence that exploded during June and July. Destruction of public and private property, lootings and even attacks against the National Assembly building should never be part of legitimate and fair demonstrations. The same applies for those groups that did not want to establish an open dialogue with the government. It seems that Mahmoud Dicko tried to calm down the mood but he was not able to do that.
External powers’ errors
Regional and international diplomacy have not been able to find a solution to the crisis, so it is evident that multilateralism has failed. Hence, it is urgent to improve and strengthen the existance of integration blocs, as today they are not in conditions to offer a trustful and good mediation. For example, it is not a logical thing to have great expectations about Ecowas, as it has a dual problem. The first one is that in the past it has not been able to find solutions to crisis that have affected member countries of the Ecowas. The second is that among Ecowas’ members there are governments that are facing social unrest due to bad governance, corruption and, maybe the most important, the big mistake of staying or willing to stay in power even if it means to pass over the Constitution or the democratic institutionality. Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara (both seeking third mandates) and current examples, which can be added to Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé (dictatorship).
Concerning the participation of the United Nations and world powers such as the European Union, United States, Russia or France, they have demonstrated that their influence and participation has not been the ideal one, especially in the security issue. In this latter point, there are important initiatives but they have failed. Minusma has 13.289 military personnel in Mali, Barkhane force has 5.100 militaries and there are also military forces of Tchad and the G5 Sahel. It should be added the relevant support of the EUTM and EUCAP Sahel Mali. Despite this military presence, terrorist group attacks, intercommunitary violence and violence against civilians still remain, sadly, as a normal issue. Thus, it will be important to see what will happen with the coordination of the military missions. In relation to this, a new military force was announced, the Takuba, and after the military coup it is a logical thing to analyse what is going to happen with this initiative. Until now, the speaker of the coup plotters has declared that Minusma, G5 Sahel Barkhane and Takuba will continue to be their partners. Time will tell if this statement is part of the official continuity they have announced (in this issue) or if it is just a pragmatic view, as the Malian state lacks the necessary resources to expel the international or regional military missions that currently are operating in the country.
France is surely one of the greatest losers after the coup. In this point, it is important to mention that foreign presence and particularly the french one are not well received by some part of Mali’s population. Indeed, some protesters and supporters of the M5-RFP movement demonstrated their reject towards the international forces operating in malian territory. The fact that France ‘forgot’ IBK and told Ecowas that his return was “iresponsible and dangerous” is a proof of the french pragmatism in the middle of a crisis that has shown France’s failure in Mali. The military coup was not the goal of France but in the current context it was the lesser evil. So, France should analyse its approach to Mali’s situation, especially in the military and/or security issue. The difuse or even contradictory measures and actions taken by the french government have had a negative impact in the Malian population, generating mistrust towards military forces and French political figures.
Finally, external powers (European Union, France, Russia and Germany, among others), multilateral organisms (United Nations) and regional blocs (African Union, G5 Sahel and Ecowas, among others) must change their approach to local or internal conflicts. Clean and fair elections (maybe it is time to review the use of this concept) plus military presence and or security forces do not assure that demoracy will work and, even more important, that human rights will be defended. The easy work should be replaced by a committed initiative in which cooperation, in different issues, is complemented with respect for democracy, human rights and good governance. This has been a big mistake of external powers, which have participated with a short-term and exclusively military view. Therefore, it is vital to clarify what will be understood while talking about “counterterrorism”, “security issues” or “defense of democracy”. Until now, it seems that foreign actors do not coordinate well between them but also that they do not share the vision of what should be done or avoided while participating (or perturbing) internal issues.
Conclusions and recommendations
Mali’s current situation can be defined as a convergence of different crisis in diverse fields (political, humanitarian, economic, security, social unrest, etc.). Mali’s political crisis needs a true solution and this one can only be achieved through deep structural and social changes. In this context, a national unity or civilian led transitional government could help, as well as new legistlative elections, but the current crisis needs deeper reforms. It is about changing the way in which politics is seen by the political parties and military elites. It is about building a well defined and powerful State. It is about good governance and erradicating corruption. It is about creating a participative democracy but not just copied from the European or Westerner models. It has to take into account the country’s specificities. So, a bigger effort will be needed as until now all the presented proposals have failed and, therefore, it will be very tough to find a legitimate and consensuated way towards democracy.
Clientelism and nepotism maybe were accepted in past decades but now the people are not keen to accept those bad practices. So, it is important that African politicians understand that they have to establish dialogue with opposition parties, the civil society and groups that used to be kept aside of the political arena. In this sense, the transitional government has to include, in first place, trusted leaders. Also, young voices, women and representatives of the Algiers Agreement as opposition and official political parties. These latter ones should avoid presenting too old candidates for future elections and need to work with younger generations that understand the needs of the youth.
It is a bit odd or contradictory to see military men taking the power in their hands. It is well known that the Armed Forces, not only of Mali but of other Sahelian countries also, have made permanent abuses against civilians. Even more, some of them have been categorized as human rights violations. Therefore, it is necessary to think about how good it could be to give the power to those people and if they are trustworthy. A strongly based transition should not be led by armed forces that have attacked civilian population and that is why it is so important that the military junta has no relation with the cases of human rights violations and violence against civilians.
Other states of the region (West Africa and/or the Sahel) should be aware of the current situation in Mali, in order to prevent a “domino effect”. For instance, the Ecowas has sent a message to Ivory Coast, suggesting a dialogue to resolve the political crisis that is taking place after Alassane Ouattara declared that he will be candidate for a third term as president. In the same region, Guinea’s Alpha Condé is looking forward to a third period, while Togo is facing a dictatorship. Besides, Guinea-Bissau faced a political crisis in 2019 and other countries are trying to recover or to establish a desired democratic structure. It is the case of Niger (military coup in 2010), Burkina Faso (in 2014 ended Blaise Compaoré’s era), Gambia (Yahyah Jammeh was ousted in 2016) and Sierra Leona (its current president lead a military coup in 1996). In this issue, it must be remembered that terrorist groups take advantage of the chaos generated due to political instability, social unrest and inter-community violence. So, it is very important to reinforce the State, in order to control the territory, organize a democratic institutionality and to make political, economic and social reforms.
A change in the counterterrorism strategy seems to be mandatory. Until now, the main element of the international missions or forces was to implement military or security tactics but they forgot that for achieving their goal it is necessary to have a solid, strong and stable State. So, from now on, the analysis of the context should be wider and with a multidimensional vision, it is, the process includes different variables and they have to be studied one by one but also as a system of connected elements. In brief, the fight against terrorism is useless without supporting a reconstruction of the Malian state and, particularly, the democratic institutionalization of the country. And this latter issue can not be validated by the single fact of having a “democraticaly elected president” and/or “transparent and normal legislative elections”.
It is important to highlight that a military coup or the fall of IBK are not the solution for a problem that has deep roots. Mali is facing a conflict of mutual mistrust between politics and the civil society, but also confronts long-time problems like corruption, state fragility, insecurity, labour precarity and lack of economic resources to generate a good descentralization, among others. This will not end today, nor tomorrow. Therefore, Mali needs a serious and long-term process that takes into account the urgent needs of the people and the State structure. Also, it is time to review the 1992’s Constitution, as the years have passed and it is evident that big changes have to take place. Some may talk about a total refoundation, while others will defend modifications of the current model or system. Far beyond of this conceptual discussion, deep reforms need to be created and launched. Thus, the civilian rule must be restored as soon as posible, in order that the new process can be seen as legitime and built by a democratic platform and not by a military junta. In relation with this, it is mandatory that the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) appoints a civilian leader as head of the transition government. If they fail in doing so, it could be interpretated as a will of staying in power.
It will be interesting to see the development of the relation between the M5-RFP and the military junta. Different members of the movement have celebrated the military coup -some of them even denying that it was a coup- and the M5-RFP declared, on August 19, that they wanted to work with the militaries in a “republican transition”. In this regard, the question is if they will still be open to collaborate with the junta, even if the latter one has announced that they want a three-year transition with a military chief in power, while the M5-RFP wants a transitional government of no longer than two years. Even more, what will happen if the junta does not clean the Malian Armed Forces and is not capable to investigate the violence made by military forces against civilians? Or what will happen if the junta is not capable of doing a credible investigation about the deaths during the riots that took place in June and July? Finally, the role of the military junta (CNSP) has to be supervised by the Ecowas, the African Union, the political parties and the M5-RFP movement. It is not time to draw conclusions but some facts may allow to take some distance about their defense of democracy. The desire of a 3-year transition, their changes about the leader of the transitional government (first they said it was going to be a civilian or military but later they declared that they wanted a military), the publication of the “Fundamental Chart” (the article 41 may be seen as a violation of the 1992’s Constitution) and a preliminary mistake of leaving the M5-R FP out of a meeting organized to establish the transition’s roadmap should be taken into account.
Concerning new elections and an eventual review of the Constitution, some concepts or initiatives must be established with a clear meaning. Is it correct to talk with terrorists and, if yes, who will be the legitimate speaker? Is it good to talk with all the parties involved? Which type of amnesty should be implemented with former trafficants, terrorists, armed groups, coup leaders or rioters? Which will be the sanctions against corrupt politicians? Those are some of the questions that should be answered before planning new elections or political systems. In relation to this issues, the “Alliance Sahel” should be reinforced and be opened to African “players” and some international key actors that can help with economic resources but also with a more analytical approach who takes into account the reality of the country. The Coalition for the Sahel and the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (P3S) should algo gain more protagonism but it should be understood that too many initiatives may tangle the transitional process, as the previous experience in different type of conflicts has demonstrated that it is very difficult to reach agreements when there are too many actors involved (Examples: Libya and Somalia). In the current situation, th G5 Sahel, the Ecowas, the African Union and the internal players should be the leaders of the process but always counting with the support of the United Nations, European Union and world powers -such as France, Germany, Russia and United States, among others- that want to cooperate.
About the islamists, they should be included in the national dialogue as they can be key players, especially in the talks with terrorist groups. It is true that each country or region has its own particularities but maybe it would be useful to follow the example of countries like Morocco and Tunisia, which allow islamists to participate in politics and even to have political parties that have won elections and, therefore, arrived to power.
Concerning the mediation of external powers, Ecowas members have to be pragmatic and assume that IBK cannot return to the presidency. A military coup is never a solution but in such a difficult context, the recommendation is to establish relations with the M5-RFP movement and with the CNSP. Admitting the military junta as the main power may be seen as a support for anti-democratic processes but it is even more important to avoid further chaos. Now, it is time to act with tact and realism. The militaries want a transition of three years with a military in command. That should not be accepted but the agreement has to be achieved as a result of a peaceful process that includes a sincere dialogue between the CNSP, the M5-RFP movement and, surely, the politicians. It cannot be forgotten that the officialism is still powerful in the current National Assembly, so they also should be part of the solution. However, in a first moment, it is necessary that Ecowas and the military junta reach a middle-point that can give a consensuated base to the process. Military coups are very harmful for democracies but third mandates and bad governance too. Even if it can sound as a repeated cliché, this crisis may allow Mali, on the one hand, to start a new political process and, on the other one, it can be the starting point of a renewed diplomacy of regional blocs in Africa. There are lots of questions in the air, so the limit between wishful thinking, beautiful declarations and concrete actions or solutions has to be defined. It also has to be found a correct way to aggregate the different actors in one single path towards peaceful and democratic resolution of political, social and economic conflicts.
About the future of the military junta, it is important to clarify that even in the first days after the coup there was a total rejection, within the upcoming weeks the situation changed. Pragmatism has been a key element and it has allowed the CNSP to remain in power and even reinforce it. The visit of Algeria’s Foreign minister, the meetings with EU delegations, the continuity of the military missions and even a trip to Burkina Faso and Niger are useful examples to conclude that the junta has been accepted as a legal counterpart. Even more, the M5-RFP also has been keen to talk with the militaries and Mahmoud Dicko has recognised the junta as the current government. Nevertheless, as he recently told, there will not be a “white sheet” for them. Far beyond from the debate about the rejection or acceptation of the coup -it is, if there is a partial/total acceptance or reject of the coup-, the concrete fact is that the military junta will govern for some more time and will not be a transitional power of some weeks or months. About this latter issue, it is a typical trend in Africa and particularly in the Sahel, region in which the ousted presidents or dictators do not come back to power and coup leaders keep the control of the country. Time will tell if the current military junta will finally be a transitional government or, as it has happened on another countries -like Mauritania, in 2008, for instance- they will seek to come into power.
Related with the situation described in the above paragraph, Burkina Faso and Niger will have presidential elections in November and December, respectively, and the development and final results of this processes may increase or decrease the risk of democratic failure in the Sahel. So, Mali’s conflict has to be solved in a fair and peaceful way but what happens there has to be taken into account by the politicians and political parties who seek an arrival to power in Burkina Faso and Niger. Democracy is a must in the Sahel, as political, social en economic instability could amplify the current humanitarian crisis that currently affect millions of people in the mentioned countries but also neighbouring ones. As a final comment, the military junta, the M5-RFP and the political parties have to understand that the short-term solutions cannot wait. Basically, because an important part of the Malian population confronts difficult situations and will deal with further risks. In fact, a recent rapport of the United Nations has warned that 6.8 million people need human assistance. This number is very worrying as in January it was 4.3, it is, a 55% jump. Even worse, 121.300 people will fase floodings risk, especially in Gao, Kayes and Mopti regions, which will concentrate 44% of the total number of persons that will be affected by floods. The described situation will join other difficulties that already exist like the effects of climate change, Covid-19 pandemia and migratory issues.