On 16 July the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) began mediation to end the burgeoning political and economic crisis in Mali. The intervention, which will be led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, comes after a week of violent protests in Mali’s capital Bamako in which at least 11 people were killed and 124 injured. However, the are concerns that the move is too little too late as protesters are unlikely to accept anything less than President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s resignation and will consider the ECOWAS proposed government of national unity as insufficient.
The current crisis in Mali has multiple sources, some stemming back at least as far as the 2012 coup d’état, which have culminated in widespread anger with the current regime and Keita in particular. The recent protests were instigated by the country’s two-round legislative elections in March and April 2020. It initially appeared that the ruling party, the Rally for Mali (RPM/Rassemblement pour le Mali) had narrowly lost control of the National Assembly. However, in a controversial ruling, the Constitutional court sided with the RPM, ensuring that it and, by extension Keita, retained control of the legislature. This catalysed months of opposition-led protests demanding Keita’s resignation and a rerun of the legislative elections. Opposition supporters also directed protests at the alleged kidnapping of Keita’s most significant political rival Somaila Cisse by Islamist militants while campaigning in the country’s northern areas days before the first round of elections in March – his supporters suspected that the government was responsible. These protests built up into a major demonstration in Bamako on 5 June 2020 and the creation of the Movement of 5 June–Rally of Patriotic Forces, which called for weekly Friday protests in Bamako and for Keita to resign. It was also, importantly, also supported by one of the country’s most prominent imams and growing political forces, Mahmoud Dikko.
In the following weeks, tensions continued to increase between demonstrators and the state, leading to mass demonstrations on 10 July that saw protesters occupy key government buildings including parliament and the national broadcaster. Security forces used tear gas and live rounds to disperse protesters – heavy-handed tactics that rapidly escalated the situation and led to over two days of violent unrest in Bamako in which at least 11 people were killed and 124 injured.
Although it spurred the protests, the controversial election was not the only cause of the unrest. Public anger and dissatisfaction have many roots, with Malians especially angry about government’s continued failure to address the country’s security crisis in the northern and central areas. This has been ongoing since the twin 2012 security crises of the April coup d’état and the June capturing of swathes of the interior by Islamist groups and ethnic Taureg militants.
Large sections of the country’s interior are currently controlled by Islamist militant groups the most significant of which is Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), which proven capable of attacking targets throughout the country, including Bamako. Keita has been President since 2013 and has overseen the failed response to Mali’s deteriorating security crisis earning him the moniker “the Do-Nothing King”. He is also seen as too close and subservient to foreign security forces in the country, particularly the French. These foreign forces are also seen by many as a cause of the insecurity rather than an ally.
The frustration with government’s failure to address the security crisis has been compounded by perceived widespread corruption in the Keita administration. This is exemplified by Keita’s son, Karim Keita, who is known to live a life of excess while ostensibly drawing a parliamentarian’s salary. The younger Keita resigned in early July as one of the first attempts by the regime to pacify the protesters.
Keita currently has no intention of resigning as President but he is clearly concerned by the escalating unrest. Following the deadly clashes which began on 10 July, he announced that he would disband the Constitutional Court and potentially even hold new elections for the disputed legislative seats. Keita’s Prime Minister Boubou Cisse, on 11 July, stated that the government was willing to form an “inclusive government”. These concessions have been rejected by opposition leaders and come too late – while they might have been considered earlier, after the deadly clashes on 10 and 11 July it seems that anything less than Keita’s resignation is unacceptable.
Accordingly, it is unlikely that the ECOWAS-led mediation will have much success. Keita is unlikely to agree to resign and opposition leaders appear aware that their supporters are not willing to accept him remaining. In addition, the Movement of 5 June is not a coherent organisation but a large and unwieldy opposition front. The movement’s current leaders do not have enough authority to enforce a compromise.
ECOWAS’s best hope for success is that the opposition leaders continue to be able to convince the demonstrators to hold peaceful protests, such as the one planned for 17 July. The leaders have convinced demonstrators to convert the protest into a mass memorial service while the mediation begins. Should this continue, enough momentum may drain away from the protests to allow the mediation to succeed. However, any further violence, particularly if instigated by state security forces, risks derailing the mediation process.
Alternatively, should the situation deteriorate further, Keita may elect to deploy the military to disband the protests. This would dramatically escalate the situation leading to greater fatalities and instability. It would further destabilise the country and enable the militants in the northern and central regions to seize greater control. The risk of losing further ground to JNIM or even risking the rapid deterioration of the state is unpalatable to the armed forces. As such, there is a possibility that the military could depose Keita if the situation prolongs or deteriorates. This, in turn, could inject further uncertainty and even fuel further unrest unless the coup leaders promise urgent elections. Such a move would also complicate matters for ECOWAS as it might be compelled to intervene militarily as it has done elsewhere in the past. However, given the size and complexity of Mali, ECOWAS is unlikely to pursue this option.
In the short-term, the political and security situation remains fluid and volatile. Demonstrations are expected to continue in Bamako on at least a weekly basis. As the crisis continues in Mali the country’s authorities are unable to fully address the state’s other challenges including the insurgency in the North and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.