While the coup-ridden country is experiencing the suspension of elections, traditional allies are losing diplomatic influence with the rulers in Bamako.
Mali has seen five coups since gaining independence from France in 1960, with the latest putsch taking place on May 24, 2021, just nine months after the previous military revolt on August 18, 2020. Now, after promising to organize elections for this month (February 2022), the leader of the military junta behind the two coups, Colonel Assimi Goita, has proposed that his forces hold power until 2025.
The coup in August 2020 was an opportunistic move from the military junta. Frustration over economic strife, alleged corruption and Mali’s ongoing security situation had been percolating for a while. But protests during this period were originally sparked by a decision of the Constitutional Court in April 2020 to overturn the results of parliamentary elections; a move that saw candidates from then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s party kept in government unlawfully. After weeks of demonstrations led by the M5-RFP (Le Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques) – a discordant alliance of social, political and civil society organisations – calling for the resignation of President Keita, Colonel Goita saw an opportunity to seize power whilst keeping favour with the people. The removal of President Keita was widely condemned by the international community, and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) suspended Mali from its institutions, shut down borders and put restrictions on financial flows into the country. Further, within days of pulling off the putsch, the colonel received pressure from the regional bloc to put a civilian-led transitional government in place.
On September 7, 2020, an ECOWAS summit took place in Niamey, Niger’s capital, out of which came a statement demanding that a civilian transitional president and prime minister must be appointed in Mali no later than September 15. Despite this specification, it was not until September 21 that Mali’s former Defence Minister Bah N’Daw was named president of the country’s new transitional government. Colonel Goita was appointed vice president. Shortly after, President N’Daw selected Malian Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane to be prime minister, easing tensions with ECOWAS and inviting them to lift their sanctions. Which they did on October 6, 2020.
Occurring within a remarkably short timeframe, the coup in May 2021 saw the removal of newly appointed transitional president Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. A phenomenon that French president Emmanuel Macron called a “coup within a coup”. The restrictions that were evidently wielded over the transitional government’s political decision-making freedoms in the lead up to this latest coup, provide strong evidence that Colonel Goita is indeed aiming to monopolise power. On April 15, 2021, the interim government declared that presidential and legislative elections would take place in February 2022. However, in May of 2021, the M5-RFP opposition movement demanded the dissolution of the transition government amidst growing dissatisfaction at the military’s leading role and inability to bring reform. Following this, Prime Minister Ouane resigned, though only temporarily as he was then reappointed to lead the process of a reshuffle in government personnel. The aim of which was to form a new ‘broad-based’ cabinet in the hope of dousing the ongoing criticisms of the opposition and the public.
Though the military kept the strategic positions that it held during the previous administration, the transitional government saw fit in the reshuffle to replace two coup leaders: ex-Defence Minister Sadio Camara and ex-Security Minister Colonel Modibo Kone. Just hours after this announcement, both President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane were detained by soldiers. The next day, May 25 2021, Colonel Goita said on public television that N’Daw and Ouane had been removed from office for attempting to “sabotage” the transition, which would “proceed as normal, and the scheduled elections will be held in 2022”.
Colonel Goita’s decisions over the past two years have muddied Mali’s relationships with some of the country’s long-standing supporters; France, Denmark, the US and others, and led other countries such as Russia and China to reinforce their influence. France first provided military aid to Mali in 2013, under Operation Serval, a successful mission that saw the country’s northern regions retaken from Islamist groups. Then, in August 2014, Operation Barkhane was formed as a cooperative effort between France, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to defend the Sahel region from further jihadist militias. Following on from these efforts, on 27 March 2020, several European countries expressed support for the creation of a task force, to be integrated with Operation Barkhane, that would take on terrorist groups in the Liptako region. This military collective was given the name ‘Takuba Task Force’.
But since Colonel Goita’s coup in August 2020, Paris and Bamako have suffered embittered relations. Uneasiness led to outrage when the colonel announced last month that the planned February 2022 elections would not be held, and instead proposed that the junta remain in power until 2025. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the military junta “illegitimate” and said their decision was “irresponsible”. He also made a series of comments published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper accusing the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group – an organisation of private military contractors whose presence in Mali has been confirmed by the US army and other western powers – of exploiting Mali’s resources in exchange for protecting the military administration. But Mali has said its dealings with Russia are part of a bilateral agreement, and Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said France was not worried about democracy, but rather their own interests. Following the French foreign minister’s comments, the Malian government expelled the French ambassador from the country.
Not only did Mali’s relations with France suffer as a result of the colonel’s announcement, but once again ECOWAS imposed restrictions against the country. This time in the form of a trade embargo, which was hastily supported by France, the US and the EU. This sparked fury in the military government who claimed the sanctions were illegal, and began to organise mass protests. Anti-French sentiment, in particular, has swelled within Mali, with many of the protesters denouncing the French and praising the Russians. Further, last month Denmark sent 105 soldiers to Mali to help bolster the Takuba Task Force, after a clear invitation to do so. However, just six days later, the Malian government ordered Denmark to immediately withdraw its unit. Perhaps further evidence of a growing anti-European milieu. The French government has announced that it will re-evaluate its military position in Mali, stating that the fight against terrorism must continue, even if under different circumstances.
If Colonel Goita’s junta were to remain in power until 2025, the trajectory of EU-Mali relations may not be smooth, especially with the increasing presence of Russia’s Wagner Group in the country. France has already stated that its mission in the Sahel region is incompatible with the intervention of the Russian paramilitary group. Shifting allegiances and broken promises are changing Mali, and it seems that democracy is losing the battle.
Matthew Norman is a freelance journalist and essayist who covers African politics.