The ongoing political crisis in Mali escalated dramatically on 18 August 2020 when troops at the Kati military base outside Bamako mutinied and staged a military coup, detaining senior government figures and forcing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign. The situation remains fluid, but at present, the country appears to be controlled by a recently formed junta called the National Committee for the Salvation of the People which is led by a senior officer named Colonel Major Ismael Wague. The junta has promised “a civilian political transition” and that general elections will take place at a yet to be determined time.
Thus far the coup leaders appear to enjoy general public support for removing Keita. Mali, particularly Bamako, has experienced a wave of protests in recent months calling for Keita’s removal. The mass demonstrations were instigated by a controversial Constitutional Court ruling which ensured that Keita’s political party, the Rally for Mali (RPM/Rassemblement pour le Mali), retained control of the legislature despite initial indicators that the RPM had, in fact, narrowly lost the March/April elections.
After the ruling the political and security situation in Mali deteriorated and government’s heavy-handed approach to addressing the initial protests fuelled rather quelled the growing opposition to Keita. The opposition front grew to include both political opposition leaders and popular religious figures. In an effort to calm the crisis, Keita’s government offered to form an “inclusive government” and asked mediators from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to facilitate talks. However, these overtures were rejected as “too little, too late” by protesters who demanded Keita’s resignation.
As the protests gathered momentum the possibility of a coup became increasingly likely ‒ Mali has a history of military interference during times of political instability and there was growing frustration within the military itself towards Keita. The President has largely failed to oversee an effective strategy towards addressing the Islamist insurgency in the country’s northern regions. Islamist groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have managed to secure large swathes of Malian territory and inflicted frequent losses on the Malian army. Keita has also facilitated an increased French military presence in the country which has proven unpopular among both elements of the military and the general public.
However, despite public enthusiasm for Keita’s removal, the coup is unlikely to bring increased stability or greater democracy to Mali. Historically, military power grabs in the country have caused the destabilisation of the political and security environment. This is exemplified by the April 2012 military coup which directly led to the destabilising of the country and the security forces which, in turn, resulted, in Taureg militants being able to seize large swathes of northern and central Mali in June that year. Mali is yet to fully recover from the 2012 political and security crisis. Notably, both the 2012 and current military coups began with a mutiny at the Kati base. It should also be stressed that given that such mutiny-coups also reflect the seizure of control of the military itself by more junior officers from the generals. This naturally results in a chaotic reordering of the security service itself, hence, the instability which helped the Taureg militants to seize territory.
However, there are some significant differences between this coup and the 2012 takeover. Firstly, the coup itself is better organised, enjoys wider support from both civilian and military populations, and is led by more senior officers than in 2012. This could translate into a smoother transfer of power.
It remains to be seen whether the junta will follow through on its promise to organise elections and ensure the “civilian political transition”. However, the military will be under pressure from both the public ‒ which is demanding greater democratic reforms, transparency, and corruption to be addressed ‒ and ECOWAS. The regional bloc has already announced a closure of all borders to Mali and suspended the country from its decision-making bodies. ECOWAS leaders have also threatened sanctions against the junta leaders and Mali itself. However, the bloc is highly unlikely to pursue military intervention as it did in The Gambia in 2016. This is because Mali is an inherently more complicated and costly state to invade and operate in with better-armed security forces as well as an insurgency which is a threat to the wider region. Plus, the current popular support for the military’s action in removing Keita which would further complicate an ECOWAS intervention as any attempt to reinstall Keita or his allies would instigate further civil unrest.
The situation remains volatile and has the capacity to deteriorate rapidly. It is likely that groups such as JNIM will seek to exploit the uncertainty and capture territory and conduct large attacks on towns and security force outposts. The situation remains most unstable within Bamako where the possibility of violent clashes between security forces and civilian protesters is high, especially if the junta fails to implement the transition of power or even if the military tries to ban demonstrators from gathering in the city.