A cabinet reshuffle exposes the military’s stranglehold and shatters the facade of a civilian-led process.
Nine months after the 18 August 2020 coup that removed former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, history repeated itself in Mali, throwing the country back into political chaos.
On 24 May, a group of military officers arrested transition President Bah N'Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane in Bamako. They both resigned the next day, after vice-president and leader of the August junta Assimi Goïta announced he had 'placed them out of their prerogatives.' He accused them of violating the transition charter by excluding him from negotiations around a government reshuffle.
Goïta's move itself oversteps the transition charter, which doesn't grant the vice-president the power to dismiss the country's civilian leaders. It reveals the absolute power of the August 2020 junta, which has run the country despite the façade of a civilian transition.
The 24 May takeover is really a continuation of the militarised state leadership since the August coup. A tailor-made vice-presidency was created for the junta leader, and several of his companions were given top positions in key institutions. These included the National Transitional Council and the ministries of defence, security, reconciliation and territorial administration, which is responsible for organising elections.
The 24 May takeover is really a continuation of the militarised state leadership since the August coup
In November 2020, several governor positions were entrusted to carefully picked military officers, consolidating the junta's capacity to manage the political process from behind the scenes. Their move to officially dissolve the committee that overthrew Keïta helped present the international community with the appearances of a civilian transition.
N'Daw and Ouane's cabinet reshuffle threatened the military's influence. It removed two former junta members from the ministries of defence and security, replacing them with higher-graded officers with no direct affiliation to those responsible for the August coup. By proceeding without Goïta's approval, they tested their leeway against the junta, and the result confirms where the power lies.
The junta's reaction throws the country back into uncertainty. At a time when Mali faces widespread conflict and insecurity in its northern and central regions, the new coup destabilises an already fragile administration. In 2012, similar circumstances allowed violent extremist groups to make significant inroads, taking advantage of the general confusion in Bamako.
The latest coup also creates serious economic risks and compounds a tense social climate. Massive union actions that have been recurring since 2018, the impact of COVID-19 and sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after last year's coup have damaged Mali's economy. Further isolation from regional or global economies could take it beyond the tipping point.
The most substantial impact of the latest 'coup de force' is that it interrupts the transition process halfway through and revives the political crisis the country had been grappling with for a year.
The international response to the Chad coup sets a precedent that the Malian junta cannot have missed
In the 25 May communiqué, Mali's de facto military leadership announced that elections scheduled for early next year remained on track. However there are serious concerns about how realistic that is. The electoral calendar confirmed in April already seemed overambitious, with seven different polls scheduled over five months. Civil society organisations raised the alarm about the tight deadlines and the lack of consensus on the electoral framework.
Their concerns include establishing an electoral management body that can guarantee a reliable voters roll and mitigate the risk of the military running the polls through the territorial administration ministry, which they control. The military's renewed power grab has compounded all these challenges.
Any path towards elections and a return to constitutional order will require a good dose of realism, which means acknowledging that the military cannot be sidelined merely by international pressure. The system that allowed the military to stay in charge over the past months while maintaining civilian figurehead leaders shows this.
Besides, the international community can't take the moral high ground. Just a month ago, most actors who would have condemned power grabs by Mali's military indulged the same in Chad. Principle-based condemnations now have less credibility, and a precedent has been set that the Malian junta cannot have missed.
Malian political and social actors must rise again and provide a counterweight to the junta
ECOWAS' 30 May decision on Mali seems to acknowledge this and tries to balance pragmatism and principles. Despite the political and symbolic decision to suspend Mali's membership, the West African bloc made no mention of sanctions this time around. It also 'called for a new civilian Prime Minister to be nominated immediately', but didn't question Goïta's self-promotion as the new transition president, especially after Mali's Constitutional Court confirmed it.
The position taken by ECOWAS might set the tone for others in the international community. Lessons from the previous coup show that a durable solution must be negotiated among Malian actors. International allies must be prepared to accept terms they may dislike as long as there's consensus among national stakeholders.
For their part, Malian political and social actors must reclaim their seat at the table. Keïta's removal in August 2020 and the death of opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé in December left the main political parties dazed.
The new coup highlights the need for these actors - and the broader political class - to rise again and provide a counterweight to the junta's ambitions. The opposition coalition, M5-RFP, has started its rebirth, leading to speculation that it may play a leading role in the next government. But it shouldn't be alone. Many voices are needed if the transition is to lead to credible elections.
A reset of the national political dialogue should be used to correct the course of a transition falling short of many Malians' expectations. But this will only succeed if it involves continued consultation rather than another one-off event as happened in the past. Less emphasis should be placed on who heads the transition and more on the benchmarks and results.
Finally, a course correction will require matching the transition's timelines with its agreed ambitions. With just 10 months to go, there isn't enough time to accomplish everything laid out in the roadmap. Either the aims of the transition must be modified or its timelines extended. There are no easy answers, but neither should there be taboos.
Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria
This article was produced with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.