In the aftermath of the 18 August coup (see Alert 133 for detailed report) that overthrew former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and installed a military government, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has sustained consistent pressure for a return to civilian rule. First, it imposed sanctions (including border closures and trade bans) and called for elections within 12 months. More recently, after an extraordinary summit in Niger’s capital, Niamey, ECOWAS commission chief Jean-Claude Kassi Brou on 7 September insisted that Mali be led by a civilian president and prime minister for a 12-month period, specifying that such persons be appointed no later than 15 September.
Contrarily, the military government comprising soldiers calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) has proposed a years-long, military-led transition back to civilian rule.
This means there is some distance between the position of the two sides and not much time in which to negotiate the concessions required to bridge it. While a solution is not impossible, it is not clear how flexible the relatively unknown military leaders will be and whether they will accede to ECOWAS’s fairly tough conditions, which could include continued sanctions in order to sustain its leverage while monitoring consultations between the military government and various Malian factions. This was clarified by Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou who affirmed that the gradual lifting of sanctions would depend on the implementation of measures allowing a return to civilian rule.
With eight heads of state present at the latest summit it is clear that the 15-state ECOWAS is serious about ending the latest instability in Mali and holding the coup leaders to their initial promises of elections within a “reasonable time”. There are signs of intent on the military side too, as per talks with opposition groups and the public over the weekend of 5-6 September. All sides will be aware of growing concerns among Mali’s neighbours about a fresh round of troubles in the war-ravaged nation.
The CNSP leadership, however, is not giving that much away about what it has in mind. Self-declared leader Assimi Goita has been described as a “poster boy” for the Malian army’s training structures and “adept at challenges” but his vison of the Mali that the CNSP plans is murky. His public comments have been limited to calls for unity and he only takes part in “strategic” meetings, likely largely to secure popular support, and tends to avoid speaking to cameras. At his side is Colonel Malick Diaw, First Vice-President of the CNSP, and very much on the front line of negotiations between the junta and ECOWAS. On 27 August he met with first Niger’s President Issoufou and then Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré to urge them to support his call to lift sanctions on Mali.
Diaw is thought to be playing a pivotal and discreet role in ECOWAS talks, while both the junta and ECOWAS will be taking care to accommodate the opposition June 5 Movement (Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques du Mali ‒ M5-RFP) which will not take kindly to being sidelined from the transition. At the same time the CNSP leaders will need to continually attend to not so latent tensions within their own ranks, with feelings running high in the Malian Armed Forces (Fama) where discontent is peaking about limited resources to cope with jihadists in the centre and the north, and issues related to pay.
With hopes high that the CNSP’s public consultations that started this last weekend will play a critical role in informing a roadmap for a transition, regional and international players are justified in concerns that more political turmoil will further destabilise Mali and undermine a joint fight against armed groups in the wider Sahel region. The next few weeks, the agility of the ECOWAS 15 September deadline, and the flexibility of all stakeholders, will be crucial.