Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of two military coups, is sworn in as interim president during his inauguration ceremony in Bamako, Mali, 7 June 2021. REUTERS/Amadou Keita
Report / Africa 20+ minutes

Saving Momentum for Change in Mali’s Transition

Successive coups in August 2020 and May 2021 have thrown Mali into turmoil as violence persists in rural areas. While their track record so far has been disappointing, the transitional authorities can still materialise the call for change and hold transparent general elections in 2022.

What’s new? After two coups d’état in the past nine months, Mali is suffering chronic instability as violence persists in rural areas. Following the president’s removal, neither Malian actors nor international partners have grasped the opportunity created by the transitional period to put the country back on track.

Why does it matter? The second coup on 24 May 2021 strengthened the military’s hold on power and raised more fears than hopes. The new coalition government appears fragile and unfit to carry out the necessary reforms.

What should be done? Malian leaders must rescue what they can of the transition by reforming the electoral system to give citizens genuine alternatives at the ballot box. The current uncertainty should not deter foreign partners from developing long-term strategies to help the Malian state rebuild itself.

Executive Summary

Nearly a decade after the 2012 putsch, Mali – a country plagued by rural insurgencies – has undergone two coups d’état in less than a year. In the first coup, on 18 August 2020, a group of army officers removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. During the first nine months of a transition that was to have lasted eighteen, tensions between civilians and the army, combined with a fragile social and political base, paralysed government. A second coup on 24 May 2021 strengthened the military’s hand but ushered in a new period of uncertainty. International partners continue to put counter-terrorism above governance reforms. They have reached the limits of what they can do. Politicians still have time to make the most of the interim period: they should initiate electoral reforms, organise elections, rally the political class and civil society behind change, and carry out national consultations to identify and overcome obstacles.

In the aftermath of the 2020 coup, officers from the junta that removed Keïta, the Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), skilfully manoeuvred to occupy key positions in the transitional government. In parallel, they weakened their rivals, particularly the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), the main civilian grouping that opposed Keïta. These machinations undermined the transitional government, which lacked a social and political base solid enough to push through the promised reforms on its own. Despite drawing up an ambitious roadmap in September 2020, Moctar Ouane’s government could not undertake significant reforms. As the insurgencies continued, the transitional government quickly proved unable to make major decisions, paralysed by struggles with the CNSP, which remained active behind the scenes despite having been officially dissolved.

The May 2021 cabinet reshuffle brought to the surface tensions that obstructed governance and set the stage for a second coup led by ex-CNSP officers. For months, Ouane’s government worked to free itself from the army’s meddling and to broaden its base through consultations with politicians and civil society representatives. By excluding several ministers who had been CNSP members or had close links to the group, the reshuffle backfired on the leading civilian government authorities when army officers arrested them.

A few days later, Colonel Assimi Goïta, leader of the ex-CNSP and vice president of the original transitional government, was sworn in as president of the new interim authority. The army officers from the former CNSP who plotted the “coup within a coup” could not take full control of a civilian government and so brought in M5-RFP spokesman Choguel Maïga to form a new cabinet. This new alliance between civilians and military officers remains fragile; the M5-RFP is divided and has lost its moral figurehead, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, former leader of the High Islamic Council of Mali, who has adopted a lower profile. The alliance with the military officers also seems anomalous given that Maïga protested the militarisation of power following the 2020 coup. The June 2021 government composition leaves no doubt that the coup’s leaders are the ones in power, since they control the executive. They will give civilian authorities little room for manoeuvre. Nine years after President Touré’s overthrow and one since Keïta’s fall, it seems that Mali is going back to square one.

After the 2021 coup, Mali’s main partners have attempted to closely monitor the transition, mainly to prevent the country’s collapse, but their influence has remained limited. Despite succeeding in stopping the army from usurping power completely, they continued to prioritise the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement and to push for a short, eighteen-month transition period. Even with thousands of foreign soldiers on the ground and millions of dollars in financial aid, the country’s outside partners have been unable to help the civilian authorities lay the foundations for positive change in governance. Many actually doubted that transitional authorities would have enough time or legitimacy to undertake extensive reforms.

Bamako’s highly volatile political situation ... makes most observers pessimistic about the outlook for the coming weeks and months.

Bamako’s highly volatile political situation, combined with insecurity in rural areas, makes most observers pessimistic about the outlook for the coming weeks and months. Tensions within the security forces have so far been kept in check, but they still represent a real risk to the country’s stability. Senior government officials’ attempts to find a new political equilibrium seem precarious.

It remains possible to keep the transition on track. Foreign partners have a role to play, but Malian politicians and civil society representatives will have to take primary responsibility for extricating Mali from this predicament and the reliance on foreign powers that led the country into it. During the May 2021 events, Malians mobilised little, appearing weary of infighting in the capital. Mali’s new authorities need to complete the transition period with transparent and fair elections. Above all, citizens should be free to elect candidates offering genuine solutions to the crisis. Malian actors and international partners should plan for the long term to restore the health of democratic governance.

To prevent further setbacks for the transition, Mali’s political and social forces and international partners should:

  • Persist in efforts initiated by the former interim president to rally support from civil society representatives and political actors behind the transition’s priorities. Malians need to reach a broad consensus over necessary reforms to ensure smooth progress.
  • Continue applying pressure on the interim authorities, particularly President Goïta, who have promised to reduce state spending and to manage public funds more effectively, including in the defence and security sectors, which have been embroiled in scandal in recent years.
  • Create the right conditions for a consensual adoption of a new electoral law and a new parties charter – two of the roadmap’s objectives that are still achievable – in order to clean up the electoral process, notably by reducing the territorial administration’s control over organisation of elections and by preventing the proliferation of political parties without a genuine program of government.
  • Within the framework of the more ambitious reforms included in the roadmap (particularly the constitutional amendments), encourage the transitional government to carry out national public consultations to identify obstacles and to give democratically elected authorities responsibility for organising a referendum on a new draft constitution.
  • Remain vigilant in monitoring possible violence against political adversaries, to ensure that the coup’s leaders are not tempted to take that route.

Finally, international partners should worry less about concluding the transition within the agreed-upon timeframe and concentrate more on ensuring continued interest in efforts to reform the state, an ambition that met with strong public interest after Keïta fell. They should plan for the long term and identify the Malian forces best able to advocate for change. Mali’s international partners should avoid imposing an ideal model of the state and instead give more support to initiatives from the present administration to produce more effective services that meet the country’s needs.

Bamako/Dakar/Brussels, 21 September 2021

I. Introduction

Eight years after the March 2012 putsch, the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta by a coup d’état on 18 August 2020 revived political tensions amid unrest and violence in rural areas.[fn]Mali, défaire le coup d’Etat sans revenir en arrière”, Crisis Group Statement, 21 August 2020; and Crisis Group Africa Report N°299, A Course Correction for the Sahel Stabilisation Strategy, 1 February 2021. On the 2012 coup d’état, see Crisis Group Africa Report No189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012.Hide Footnote  But this development also gave hope for change in a country seemingly paralysed by corruption and poor governance. When it came into power, the Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) – the junta led by young army officers that removed Keïta – promised to combat corruption and restore national unity. Nine months later, halfway through a transition period planned to last eighteen months, the new Malian authorities had made many promises but followed through on none.

On 24 and 25 May 2021, officers from the CNSP, officially dissolved that January, staged another coup, ejecting the civilians with whom they had been forced to share power since the preceding September.[fn]Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “Mali, a Coup within a Coup”, Crisis Group Commentary, 27 May 2021.Hide Footnote  Although they swiftly appointed a new civilian prime minister from the coalition that had led the charge against Keïta, Bamako’s new masters appear more interested in consolidating their control over the state than carrying out necessary reforms.

This report analyses the first year of Mali’s transition, focusing on the inability of the country’s leaders and main international partners to put it back on track. Taking into account these partners’ pessimism about Mali’s situation and the shifting foreign military presence in the country, the report identifies the main threats to a transition that has been derailed once before. It also makes recommendations for how to make the most of present circumstances. The analysis is based on dozens of interviews conducted in Mali between September 2020 and June 2021 during three research visits, as well as several online conversations over the course of 2021.

II. A Mislabelled Transition

The CNSP’s colonels justified their decision to overthrow Keïta in August 2020 by accusing him and his inner circle of being primarily responsible for Mali’s state of decay. They began by calling upon civil society and socio-political movements to join them in setting up a “civilian political transition” and preparing the ground for the country’s reconstruction. In reality, however, the CNSP’s officers wanted to shunt aside a previous generation of political leaders who had monopolised power. They negotiated with outside partners to secure key positions in the transitional government at the same time that they undermined potential rivals, particularly the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) coalition, the driving force behind the anti-Keïta protests between June and August 2020. The first months of the transition therefore produced a fragile and divided government, one that lacked a solid base and was incapable, despite its good intentions, of delivering the promised reforms.

A. Army Officers Pulling the Levers of Power

From the outset, the formation of transitional institutions generated significant tensions among the CNSP, which wanted to maintain control of government, the M5-RFP, which suspected the colonels of wanting to keep power permanently, and Mali’s international partners, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which pushed for a short transition period.

The CNSP kept a tight grip on the national consultations held in early September that led to the creation of the transitional bodies, the interim president and vice president, a prime minister in charge of a 25-member government, and the National Transition Council (CNT), which consists of 121 members from the defence and security forces, the M5-RFP, political groupings, parties and a wide range of civil society organisations. The CNSP introduced a committee of around twenty experts to persuade social and political actors to participate in this dialogue and to legitimise the transitional bodies in the eyes of outside partners.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former members of the committee of experts, Bamako, November 2020 and January 2021.Hide Footnote

Negotiations continued over the text of the transitional charter that would set up interim institutions to run the country until constitutional order was restored. The charter made symbolic concessions to M5-RFP after the text was approved on 12 September  2020 at a popular assembly controlled by the CNSP and signed by Colonel Assimi Goïta, then serving as the CNSP’s president.[fn]The charter’s preamble acknowledges the M5-RFP’s role in Keïta’s overthrow.Hide Footnote  But M5-RFP members protested in vain after reading the charter and discovering that most of their proposed amendments had been left out.[fn]The creation of a transitional monitoring body of 25 members, co-appointed by the CNSP and M5-RFP, was rejected. Crisis Group telephone interview, national consultation participant, March 2021.Hide Footnote  The text made more substantial concessions to Mali’s international partners by agreeing to a transition period of eighteen months instead of the three years first proposed by the CNSP.[fn]Negotiations with ECOWAS led to amendments to the charter, and the version adopted on 12 September 2020 differs in some aspects from the text announced by Bah N’Daw and published in the official gazette on 1 October. In particular, two passages were excised in the definitive version of Article 6: “The vice president substitutes the president in case of temporary or definitive impeachment” (sentence deleted); and: “The vice president is responsible for defence and security issues and the refoundation of the state” (underlined words deleted). “Horont-TV: CICB: Lecture de la charte de la transition”, video, YouTube, 13 September 2020; and Journal officiel de la République du Mali, 12 September 2020.Hide Footnote  ECOWAS was also ostensibly granted its wish for a civilian to be appointed leader of the transition. Nevertheless, the CNSP imposed its own choice, Bah N’Daw, a retired colonel-major and briefly Keïta’s defence minister in 2014.[fn]Apart from the fact that he was a former army officer, Bah N’Daw’s selection can be explained by his reputation for probity and, according to some sources, his (or one of his sons’) links to CNSP members. Crisis Group interview, Malian researcher, Bamako, November 2020. Hide Footnote  N’Daw was designated president of the transitional authority on 21 September by a board assembled by the CNSP.[fn]During the dialogue, the CNSP refused to specify the composition of this appointment board. Crisis Group interview, member of the transitional group of experts, Bamako, March 2021.Hide Footnote

The charter gave the CNSP enough room for manoeuvre to keep a strong grip on power while not taking over the government completely. Goïta was named vice president, a post no Malian government has had before, by CNSP officers who imposed the decision on the other participants. In theory, his mandate was limited to defence and security issues.[fn]Journal officiel de la République du Mali, op. cit.Hide Footnote  But in practice, he became a deputy president who made official trips and received ambassadors. A decree signed by President N’Daw on 9 November 2020 also gave Goïta the authority to appoint members of the CNT, the legislative body replacing the country’s national assembly, a prerogative without any clear connection to security matters.[fn]Assimi Goïta lost his authority as a signatory of official acts, a power given to him in the transition’s foundational act, a text adopted some days after the 18 August coup d’état. He was the one who signed the charter on 12 September, but it was Bah N’Daw who subsequently signed the official texts such as the decree to promulgate the charter. This signing authority is considered one of the prerogatives that reduced Bah N’Daw’s dependence on the CNSP and gave him some room for manoeuvre. Crisis Group interview, Malian jurist, Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote

On 27 September 2020, Moctar Ouane – a diplomat who had been foreign affairs minister under President Amadou Toumani Touré – was named prime minister. The government he formed on 5 October gave several important positions to the military. Four officers, three from the CNSP, occupied key ministerial roles, including the defence and national reconciliation portfolios.[fn]Colonel Sadio Camara, the CNSP’s second vice president, became minister of defence and army veterans; Modibo Koné, the CNSP’s third vice president, was appointed minister of security and civil protection; and Ismaël Wague, the CNSP’s spokesman, was named minister of national reconciliation. Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Abdoulaye Maïga, who worked for a period at the ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, was put in charge of the ministry of territorial administration.Hide Footnote  By contrast, the M5-RFP appeared sidelined.[fn]Some ministers reputedly have close relations to M5-RFP leaders or its moral figurehead, Imam Mahmoud Dicko. Mohamed Salia Touré – a member of the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathisers (CMAS) created by Imam Dicko’s son-in-law, Issa Kaou Djim – was appointed minister of employment and professional training. Mohamed Coulibaly, a former engineer and, for a time, a satirical journalist, is close to Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, leader of Espoir Mali Koura, a civil society movement set up in May 2020 and one of the M5-RFP’s three main components. Hamadoun Touré, the new minister of communication and the digital economy, was formerly a member of the M5-RFP.Hide Footnote  Its leaders protested the “repeated attempts at marginalisation” and joined the opposition’s complaints about feeling left out of the new government.[fn]Statement no. 9 CS/M5RFP on the formation of the transitional government, 6 October 2020. The M5-RFP’s leaders are particularly irked by the fact that on the eve of Moctar Ouane’s appointment, the CNSP apparently asked them to submit a list of candidates for prime minister, a position which they believed had been promised to them during the dialogue. Crisis Group interview, M5-RFP member, November 2020.Hide Footnote

The CNT’s composition also reflects the CNSP’s strong influence on the new institutions. The transitional charter defined the CNT as an inclusive assembly, but a decree signed by Bah N’Daw on 9 November stipulated that individual candidacies must be sent to Vice President Goïta for him to appoint its members.[fn]Assimi Goïta would also have received a list of candidates for the position of prime minister, fourteen of whom were from the M5-RFP. Although Moctar Ouane’s appointment was signed by President N’Daw, it was in fact the decision of Vice President Goïta and the CNSP. See “Bah N’Daw ou Assimi Goïta, qui dirige vraiment le Mali?”, Jeune Afrique, 9 March 2021. Crisis Group interview, M5-RFP member, Bamako, November 2020.   Hide Footnote  The CNSP reportedly assigned several people to approach candidates individually to assess their loyalty to the “young colonels” as much as to their own organisations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former member of the committee of experts, Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote  As a symbol of this influence, CNT members elected Colonel Malick Diaw, the CNSP’s first vice president, as president of their assembly by an overwhelming majority.

In parallel, CNSP officers and others closely associated with the group were appointed by decree to influential posts within the transitional government. In the first weeks after the coup d’état on 18 August, Assimi Goïta renewed the hierarchy of the country’s defence and security apparatus.[fn]General Oumar Diarra was appointed chief of staff of the army, Colonel Lassana Doumbia was designated director of national security and Colonel Jean Dao was put in charge of the National Guard, a part of the armed forces. See “Au Mali, la junte nomme de nouveaux hommes à des postes stratégiques”, Le Monde, 3 September 2020.Hide Footnote  A month after the government was formed, the council of ministers approved the appointment of seventeen (out of a total of nineteen) new governors, eleven of whom were military officers who were members of the CNSP or directly connected to it.[fn]Adam Sandor, “Elite Bargains and Political Deals in Mali’s Transition”, UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, February 2021.Hide Footnote  In short, many army officers were appointed to positions of responsibility usually held by civilians.[fn]Surgeon General Boubacar Dembelé was appointed head of the National Health Insurance Fund and Colonel Ousmane Dembelé was named director of Mali’s agricultural office. Two military doctors were appointed: one to run the National Institute of Public Health and the other to become director of Bamako’s main public hospital, causing resentment among some of its staff. Communiqué of the Council of Ministers, 5 May 2021.Hide Footnote

By awarding posts to military officers, the CNSP could reward its allies for their loyalty at the time of the coup d’état.

As one Malian political observer put it, “the CNSP members took over power, and now they also want to take over government”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Malian researcher, Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote  By awarding posts to military officers, the CNSP could reward its allies for their loyalty at the time of the coup d’état.[fn]See “Elite Bargains and Political Deals in Mali’s Transition”, op. cit. See also Boubacar Haïdara, “Militarisation du pouvoir et politisation des militaires au Mali”, Benbere, 4 February 2021.Hide Footnote  It consolidated its power base within an army that in the past has been beset by serious and violent divisions. The appointment of officers to key posts also helped the CNSP expand its influence within the state apparatus and become less dependent on civilians.

More broadly, the presence of senior officers (or other figures appointed through their intervention) in the two nerve centres of the Malian state – the Koulouba presidential palace and district of government buildings – gives them a large say over all important decisions taken there.[fn]The ministers of economy, finance and mining are also army officers whom the May 2021 cabinet reshuffle failed to sideline. Crisis Group interview, Malian researcher, Bamako, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Therefore the army officers, using their strong presence in the territorial administration ministry and governorates, positioned themselves to influence the organisation and hence the outcome of the elections that are to conclude the transition period.

The CNSP officers have shown undeniable political skill in retaining their influence over the transitional institutions while weakening the M5-RFP coalition.[fn]This skill can partly be explained by CNSP officers’ entourage, which consists of young civilian advisers, often themselves from military families or from Kati, the town where Mali’s main army base is located. Many observers also consider that the officers have benefited from the advice of experienced political leaders keen to curry favour with them and to marginalise their rivals from the M5-RFP. Crisis Group interviews, Malian political leader and member of the committee of experts, Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote  A decree on 18 January 2021 officially dissolved the CNSP, as demanded by ECOWAS in August 2020, but this measure should not be taken at face value: the dissolution only took place after a process that allowed CNSP members to position themselves in command of the Malian state. Although internal and external actors may have forced a degree of responsibility-sharing, the five main CSNP members who appeared on state television on the night of 18-19 August had a strong influence on every major decision taken by the transitional authorities.

By working to undermine their civilian rivals and to maintain their influence, the CNSP’s officers thwarted the development of a broad-based movement of political actors and civil society in support of the transition. This lack of a strong political base placed Moctar Ouane’s government in a fragile position.

B. A Rapidly Derailed Transition

The popular mobilisation that led to the ouster of President Keïta and his government carried with it a vast aspiration for change, which was only barely heard. The transitional authorities had proposed to follow up on these hopes of laying the foundations for a new Mali, the “Mali Koura” called for in the anti-Keïta protests of mid-2020. The roadmap for the transition, adopted at the same time as the charter, consisted of six ambitious components, subdivided into separate objectives.[fn]These six components are: strengthening security across the country; promoting good governance; reforming the education system; political and institutional reforms; adopting a social stability pact; and organising general elections. Transitional roadmap, unsigned, 12 September 2020.Hide Footnote  But the first transitional government failed to achieve this roadmap’s far-reaching aims. 

Senior officials have little motivation to translate these aspirations for a better management of government funds into concrete actions.

President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane were unable or unwilling to put the country’s finances in order. From the outset, N’Daw proclaimed an unstinting attack on the “scourge of corruption”, a promise also made by Keïta during the first year of his rule as president.[fn]He promised “the imprescriptibility of the crime of embezzlement of public funds”. “Advisory letter from the head of state, His Excellency Bah N’Daw, to the prime minister and to the transitional government”, 9 October 2020.Hide Footnote  In the transition’s nine months, no substantial progress was made (or even started) in this regard.[fn]In accordance with Article 10 of the transition charter, all members of the transitional institutions are obliged to declare their assets in writing to the president of the Supreme Court within 48 hours of taking office. At the time of publication, none had complied with this requirement. Similarly, the transitional authorities did not carry out any of the promised audits of the government institutions, particularly the departments of defence, national security and justice (component 2.5 of the Government Action Plan).Hide Footnote  The country does not lack the mechanisms to combat high-level corruption and the embezzlement of public funds.[fn]For example: the Support Unit for the Administration Control Structures, the General Comptroller of Public Services, ministerial audits, the Court of Auditors, the National Unit for Financial Data Processing, the Auditor General’s Office, the Central Office for Combating Illicit Enrichment, the Financial and Economics Unit, and finally the Specialised Judicial Unit. “Contre la corruption: Le gouvernement à la traîne”, Mali Actu, 1 March 2021.Hide Footnote  But senior officials have little motivation to translate these aspirations for a better management of government funds into concrete actions, because by doing so they would risk upsetting powerful political and economic interests.

The first transitional government also reopened discussions about reforming Mali’s political institutions, particularly the electoral law, the law on political parties and the thorny issue of revising the 1992 constitution. But again, few advances were made. After months of hesitation, President N’Daw and his prime minister realised that they lacked a political base strong enough for such a large-scale project as revising the country’s constitution. In April 2021, a new strategic steering committee comprising 50 members from political parties and civil society, as well as traditional and religious authorities, represented a positive step toward consultations designed to create such a base. But this process turned out to be painfully slow. The government’s timetable for submitting a new draft constitution to the CNT on 2 July 2021 and organising a national referendum on 31 October 2021 was also overly ambitious.[fn]The legal basis of a revised constitution during a transitional period can be challenged within a context marked by the lack of an elected president or national assembly, the only two institutions legally entitled to propose a revision of the Malian constitution. See Article 118, Constitution of the Republic of Mali, 12 January 1992.Hide Footnote

Under pressure from outside partners to keep the interim period within an eighteen-month period, the transitional authorities still hope to reform the electoral system within this short time frame. This system has sparked political disputes in recent years, notably the electoral crisis that led to the emergence of the M5-RFP. In 2019, the Inclusive National Dialogue (DNI) recommended the implementation of a “single and autonomous body in charge of organising elections”, a recommendation later taken forward by the M5-RFP.

The electoral issue caused several clashes between army officials and politicians, as well as mutual mistrust among the transition’s civil and military authorities. Little was achieved despite President N’Daw’s initiative to consult political and social actors in early 2021.[fn]Therefore, the attempts to register new young electors were poorly and hastily organised at the level of the government bodies in charge of drawing up the electoral roll. They produced very misleading results that were unlikely to increase the credibility of the voter registration lists. Crisis Group interview, member of an international institution following electoral issues, March 2021. Hide Footnote  In public, however, N’Daw still seemed serious about keeping to the commitments and respecting the schedule set out in the transitional charter. On 16 April 2021, the minister of territorial administration and decentralisation announced the electoral calendar: the referendum on the revised constitution was planned for 31 October 2021, to be followed by presidential and legislative elections, with the first round taking place on 27 February 2022. Even before the second coup on 24-25 May, many observers considered this timetable unrealistic. CNSP officers, many of whom pushed for a three-year transition, seem in less of a hurry to go to the ballot boxes and may be hoping that they will find a better way to consolidate their power in the meantime.

On security issues, by contrast, the transitional authorities have been bolder. In particular, they accelerated the adoption, on 18 December 2020, of an updated roadmap to implement the peace agreement signed in 2015 after a ministerial meeting of the Agreement Monitoring Committee – the body in charge of monitoring the agreement’s implementation – was held in Kidal on 11 February 2021. Colonel-Major Wagué, an ex-CNSP officer and minister for national reconciliation, represented the government at this meeting. The nomination in October of ministers from the two coalition groups that signed the peace agreements was in itself remarkable given preceding governments’ more fearful approach.

The transitional authorities proved incapable of substantially improving the security situation or reconsolidating a state presence in the regions affected by armed uprisings.

Even so, the transitional authorities proved incapable of substantially improving the security situation or reconsolidating a state presence in the regions affected by armed uprisings.[fn]In regard to the state’s return to violence-hit regions, the results remain unimpressive even after years of investment: in the north and central areas, barely 17 per cent of the territorial administrators were in their posts in early 2021, a figure that dropped to 10 per cent in the sub-prefectures, the closest level to the rural parts of the country where the state has yet to regain its grip. “La situation au Mali”, S2021/299, UN Secretary-General, 26 March 2021, p. 5.Hide Footnote  The agreement monitoring meeting in Kidal did not clear any significant deadlocks to speed up implementation of the 2015 peace agreement. In April 2021, the assassination in murky circumstances of Sidi Brahim Ould Sidat, president of the Coordination of Azawad Movements, the main rebel coalition, also threw the agreement’s implementation into disarray.

Moreover, even at the level of the security apparatus’ reform, significant progress remains pending, such as the rollout of a computerised human resources management system for defence and security forces, something outside partners have been requesting for years. Clashes in areas that had previously been spared armed violence, such as the Bougouni region to the south east of Bamako, have raised questions about ex-CNSP officers’ ability to contain the spread of jihadism.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Malian researcher, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Nine months after the coup d’état of August 2020, the transition seemed stuck in a rut while security in the country also remained fragile. The May cabinet reshuffle laid bare the tensions paralysing government, which also gave the ex-CNSP officers an opportunity for another brutal intervention on the political scene.

III. The Coup within the Coup

Ouane’s transitional government was put in check by rivalry between its civilian elements – essentially consisting of the team directly appointed by Ouane – and ex-CNSP officers. Distrust gradually built up between these two camps.

The young colonels suspected that President N’Daw and Moctar Ouane were seeking to sideline them. From the transition’s early days, they reproached the civilian leaders for failing to stand up to ECOWAS on several major issues stipulated in the charter adopted on 12 September but withdrawn from the version published in the official gazette after negotiations with the regional organisation. Vice President Assimi Goïta allegedly also complained that President N’Daw did not invite him regularly to attend the council of ministers’ meetings where decisions were taken on appointments for senior administrative posts.[fn]Prime Minister Ouane could use his authority to co-sign ministerial acts to block or delay appointments submitted by ministries controlled by those close to the ex-CNSP.Hide Footnote  For their part, government members close to Ouane grew annoyed that certain ministers, whom they suspected had been nominated not for their merit but for their proximity to the CNSP, showed little solidarity with the government and hindered its Government Action Plan with their inertia.[fn]From their perspective, the ministry of defence appeared to obstruct important issues where international partners were applying pressure, particularly on the payment of army salaries through banks and the start of a general audit. Crisis Group telephone interview, researcher, June 2021.Hide Footnote

A. From a Political Display of Force to a Military Coup d’Etat

Its hands increasingly tied, Ouane’s government tried to rid itself of military meddling in its plans and to consult with the country’s political and social forces to broaden its base. Though chosen by the military, President N’Daw had become an ally of convenience. Clearly disinclined to militarise political power, N’Daw was eager to keep the eighteen-month transition on track. Therefore, he supported efforts to break deadlocks in government and to respect the agreed-upon timetables, particularly the dates set for elections.

Faced with the difficulties encountered by the government, the transitional authorities agreed to go ahead with a cabinet reshuffle. In a bid for greater political openness, N’Daw brought back his prime minister who had just offered his resignation and asked him to reform a government on 14 May 2021. This decision sparked immediate tensions with ex-CNSP officers; some already had sour relationships with Ouane’s team and wanted to get rid of them.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Malian researcher, June 2021.Hide Footnote  This time, Ouane and N’Daw played their best cards and used a prerogative outside the army’s reach: the power to make official ministerial appointments and dismissals.

Moctar Ouane’s second government was named on 24 May. As expected, representatives of the main political parties entered the scene. Meanwhile, two of the three CNSP members, Colonel Sadio Camara (defence minister in Ouane’s first government) and Colonel Modibo Koné (national security minister) – both members of the National Guard – were replaced by two generals, one from the air force and the other from the infantry. The ministers of economy and mining, both reputedly very close to the ex-CNSP, were also removed from government.

The ex-CNSP’s officers reacted to President N’Daw’s political manoeuvre by staging a second coup d’état.[fn]Their virulent reaction can be partly explained by the memory of the plight of the coup plotters in 2012 (such as General Sanogo), who were quickly sidelined from the political scene and later arrested, thus becoming the main losers of the civilian authorities’ return to power in 2013.Hide Footnote  In the hours after the new government’s announcement, they arrested President N’Daw, his prime minister and other government figures including the new defence and national security ministers, the presidential office’s secretary general, the head of state security and his predecessor, who had been exiled after Keïta’s overthrow and was back in Bamako for personal reasons.

In a televised statement on 25 May, Vice President Goïta took responsibility for the arrests and announced that the president and his prime minister “had been relieved of their duties.”[fn]“ORTM news flash: Communiqué from vice president Assimi Goïta on the arrests of Bah N’Daw and Moctar Ouane”, video, YouTube, 25 May 2021.Hide Footnote  Their resignation – undoubtedly made under duress – was made public in the following hours. On 28 May, the Constitutional Court took note of the power vacuum and declared Goïta head of state and president of the transitional authority. The court ruling took no account of the circumstances surrounding the president’s resignation, further eroding the credibility of Malian institutions subjected to the military’s use of force.

A certain opacity surrounds these events and the forces involved. President Bah N’Daw received numerous warnings from Western foreign ministries and his West African counterparts. They alerted him that the young colonels in charge of the junta that toppled Keïta in August 2020 were unhappy about the impending reshuffle.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Many encouraged N’Daw to hold on to young officers who had until then showed little brutality.

Sources suggest that Bah N’Daw, confident in the support of part of the army, decided to forge ahead with the reshuffle regardless of the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Anticipating that the eviction of ex-CNSP ministers would cause frictions, Ouane proposed other government portfolios for ministers Koné and Camara, offering them transport and national security, respectively. They declined. Many sources also refer to how the reshuffle triggered infighting within the security forces and in particular within the ex-CNSP’s inner circle.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote  On 24 May, for some hours, unsubstantiated rumours circulated about an attempt by members of the National Guard to arrest Vice President Goïta.[fn]A senior National Guard officer was reportedly approached for the role of interior minister to replace Modibo Koné, but this plan failed at the last moment, adding to the sense that the National Guard was being kept out of government. In fact, members of the National Guard are associated with President N’Daw and provide him support, starting with his personal chief of staff, who was replaced shortly after the second coup. The defence and security bodies are fragmented into sub-groups of officers motivated by shared interests.Hide Footnote

B. Back to Square One

With the exception of small-scale, staged protests in support of the military uprising, the Malian public did not take to the streets following the events of 24 and 25 May. Social networks buzzed with talk of the coup, but no mass movement coalesced to support either the ousted civilian authorities or the young colonels. The public’s acquiescence benefits those who seize power by force. So far, however, these actors have refrained from using excessive force against civilians. Indeed, the two putsches of August 2020 and May 2021 claimed very few victims.

Nevertheless, the officers cannot rule the country on their own. International actors are demanding the return of a civilian head of government (see next section). Mali’s political establishment, while not calling for N’Daw and Ouane to be reinstated, is not prepared to leave power solely in the young colonels’ hands.

Sworn in as president on 7 June, Assimi Goïta had little choice but to appoint a civilian prime minister. His choice was Choguel Maïga, an old hand in Malian politics and member of the M5-RFP’s executive committee. The alliance seems fragile, almost anomalous: after the August 2020 coup, Maïga protested against the “militarisation” of the transitional government. But he and the young colonels have a common adversary: the generation of politicians who came to power after the 1991 coup and subsequently monopolised control of Mali for many years. It is difficult to know whether the shared animosity will be enough to keep the alliance from falling apart.

The ex-CNSP officers have now publicly demonstrated their control over the levers of political power. They probably hope to consolidate their presence even though they continue to refer to ending the eighteen-month transition in late February 2022. The civilian prime minister has limited room for manoeuvre. The transition’s civilian component is mainly a fig leaf to protect the military from sanctions and conceal their direct control of government affairs. The M5-RFP does not seem to be united in support of the new prime minister, and the movement’s former moral leader, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, though he has not entirely lost influence, is no longer the central political figure he was in June-August 2020.[fn]After concluding two terms as leader of the High Islamic Council of Mali, Dicko allowed the CMAS – led by his son-in-law, Issa Kaou Djim – to take shape around him. The CMAS was a linchpin of the M5-RFP when Dicko emerged as the leading moral figure supporting protests against Keïta from June to August 2020. Some days after the coup d’état on 18 August, however, and shortly after receiving a visit from the CNSP, Dicko stated publicly that Keïta’s removal marked the end of his mission and that he was returning to his mosque. Dicko has since seen the defection of members of his inner circle who are allies of the CNSP. For example, the imam officially repudiated Issa Kaou Djim, who became the CNT’s fourth vice president, for overtly supporting Colonel Assimi Goïta and encouraging him to run as candidate in 2022. See “Issa Kaou Djim: de l’imam Dicko à Assimi Goïta, portrait d’un ‘affranchi’”, Jeune Afrique, 16 April 2021.Hide Footnote

Choguel Maïga’s newly formed cabinet reveals the military’s influence on the executive branch. Despite including some M5-RFP members, it mainly reinstates in positions of authority ex-CNSP members and allies, who had been sidelined by Ouane’s second government.[fn]The three ministers (defence, economy, mines) were reinstated. Only Modibo Koné, former interior minister, was not returned to his position. Instead he was approached for the position of head of state security, undoubtedly an equally strategic role for the stability of the junta in power.Hide Footnote  On 30 July 2021, the prime minister submitted a new Government Action Plan to the CNT, in which he denounced the lack of legitimacy ahead of his appointment. Developed around four main axes instead of the six provided by the previous government, this plan still seems highly ambitious for the seven months remaining before the presidential election, though Maïga is determined to respect the timetable.[fn]The four components are: “1. Strengthening security across the country; 2. Political and institutional reforms; 3. Organising general elections; 4. Promoting good governance and the adoption of a stability pact”. Quoted in Yama Diallo, “Présentation du PAG: Choguel Maïga prudent mais ambitieux”, Malikilé, 2 August 2021. See also the debates between the prime minister and members of the CNT that followed the presentation. “CNT: débat sur le PAG du Premier ministre”, video, YouTube, 2 August 2021.Hide Footnote  Despite reassuring intentions, the new government’s action plan appears unrealistic in such a limited timeframe, adding to the sense of stalemate in the transition. 

During a meeting with diplomats on 9 September 2021, the prime minister emphasised “the immediate need to organise national consultations on reforming the state in order to agree on a broad national consensus, accompanied by a precise and detailed timetable as an initial step toward holding general elections as soon as possible”.[fn]“Discours du Docteur Choguel Kokalla Maïga, Premier ministre, chef du Gouvernement, à l’occasion de la Réunion d’échange avec le corps diplomatique”, 9 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Despite the delay in organising these forums, which should have taken place between July and August 2021 according to the government’s timeframe, this statement serves as a justification for the de facto postponement of general elections.[fn]Transitional government’s action plan, July 2021. “Mali: pour le Premier Ministre de la transition, les élections ne sont pas une priorité”, RFI, 10 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Following this declaration, some political actors have expressed their refusal to participate in these consultations and demanded that elections be held in February 2022.[fn]Press release from the forum of political parties and groupings for a successful transition in Mali, 13 September 2021.Hide Footnote  The delay in holding elections is a divisive issue for both the political class and civil society. It will be a major challenge for the end of 2021, though at the time of publication, neither side seemed willing or able to mobilise enough popular support to back its cause.

IV. The Declining Ambitions of Regional and International Partners

A. International Partners and the August 2020 Coup

When President Keïta was overthrown, the main partners engaged in Mali displayed a certain ambivalence toward the transitional authorities and CNSP officers in particular. On the one hand, most of them condemned the overthrow of Keïta from the outset. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these actors pushed for a return to constitutional order following a transition that everyone hoped would be short.[fn]On 18 August, the international community (ECOWAS, the UN, the African Union, the European Union, France and the United States) unanimously condemned the Malian military's power grab, calling for the constitutional order to be restored, and for the president, prime minister and other arrested political figures to be released. See Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “Mali: défaire le coup d’Etat sans revenir en arrière”, Crisis Group Commentary, 21 August 2021.Hide Footnote  On the other hand, partner organisations and states such as France tried to be pragmatic. Without expressing it publicly, they believed that the military represented a potential alternative to a corrupt political class.[fn]Crisis Group interview, French official, Paris, August 2020.Hide Footnote  They hoped the new configuration would bring about change in what they considered to be priority issues, such as security.

ECOWAS initially took a firm stance toward the military officers and the transition.[fn]Following the 18 August coup, ECOWAS suspended Mali from all of its decision-making bodies and called on its member states to close their borders and cease all economic flows and transactions with Mali. The AU Peace and Security Council also suspended Mali until a constitutional order was restored. Not all ECOWAS member states adopted an equally firm position, however. Countries like Togo, Guinea-Bissau and, to a lesser extent, Burkina Faso have instead tried to re-establish ties with the new authorities and the CNSP in particular. Crisis Group telephone interviews, West African diplomat, October 2020 and May 2021.Hide Footnote  Starting in August 2020, the sanctions it imposed had a real impact on negotiations with the CNSP, which conceded several points. The organisation secured the appointment of a civilian as transitional president and a commitment that the transition would last no more than eighteen months, whereas the CNSP sought to extend it over three years. Nonetheless, the CNSP was also able to manipulate the situation and preserve a central influence over the transition. To counterbalance the military’s influence, ECOWAS could have relied more heavily on internal actors such as the M5-RFP, but relations with the latter had deteriorated too much since July.[fn]The M5-RFP considered that ECOWAS acted as a sort of West African presidents’ club that mainly sought to protect the Keïta regime. See Choguel Maïga, “Déclaration no. 003 du CS/M5-RFP sur le communiqué de la mission de médiation de la Cedeao”, 20 July 2020.Hide Footnote

In October, once the transitional charter was adopted and the interim civilian authorities appointed, ECOWAS lifted its sanctions.[fn]“Mali: la Cedeao lève les sanctions imposées depuis le coup d’État du 18 août”, RFI, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote  A Monitoring and Support Group for the Transition in Mali (GST) was set up, chaired by the African Union, ECOWAS and the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The group aims to place Malian authorities under scrutiny and hold them to their commitments. It continues to prioritise the acceleration of the Algiers peace agreement’s implementation and the return of constitutional order following an eighteen-month transition. Yet the GST does little to guide transitional authorities toward a virtuous change in governance in Mali, for example through better control of public finances.

Other mainly European partners saw the transition as an opportunity to break with the inertia of the Keïta era and adopted a more open attitude toward the new authorities.[fn]Partners including France condemned the coup, but French officials quickly made it clear – albeit informally rather than publicly – that French authorities viewed the CNSP as educated officers and very different from the 2012 coup plotters. Crisis Group interviews, French officials, Paris, August 2020; and Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote  While partnering with previous governments had proven to be difficult, the interim authorities, in particular the military elements of the CNSP, were initially considered proactive actors, particularly on issues that Mali’s partners viewed as a priority, such as maintaining security and implementing the peace agreement. 

France, for example, has largely assessed the transition’s progress in terms of the criteria it considered important, better cooperation on security issues being foremost among them.[fn]When asked to assess the first months of the transition, a French diplomatic representative reflected positively on the progress made, largely on security-related issues: faster deployment of military forces for joint operations; a joint visit on the ground in the Malian Gourma by Vice President Goïta, the Barkhane Force Commander and the French Ambassador; greater acceptance of soldiers from the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) within the Malian army staff; better communication on cooperation with international forces; and recovery of military bases in Sévaré. However, regarding matters of governance and deployment of the state, the same source admitted that only a few timid “murmurs” resounded concerning the return of officials to the north, and that, in any case, the new authorities have undertaken no decisive action. Crisis Group interview, French diplomats, Bamako, January 2021.  Hide Footnote  At the N’Djamena summit in February 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I must say that these transitional authorities have given more guarantees in the space of a few months than the previous authorities did in three years. This realignment with the new Malian transitional authorities […] offers a window of opportunity for military, civilian and political breakthroughs”.[fn]Statement by Emmanuel Macron, President of France, on the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, 16 February 2021.Hide Footnote  French authorities congratulated the transition’s leaders, even though the latter had made little progress on improving governance or fighting corruption.

Malian transition leaders would rather risk losing part of the aid – sometimes tens of millions of euros – than undertake certain reforms.

Partners including the European Union (EU) and the World Bank have pursued efforts to develop a “transactional” approach with Malian authorities, but even its advocates concur that so far it has not paid off.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European diplomat, Bamako, February 2021.Hide Footnote  This term corresponds to an old practice, by which financial support is conditioned on compliance with criteria intended to measure progress, notably in the field of governance. But Malian transition leaders would rather risk losing part of the aid – sometimes tens of millions of euros – than undertake certain reforms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomat and member of international financial institutions, Bamako, January 2021.Hide Footnote  Financial backers find it difficult to make sense of this attitude. In the eyes of the Malian authorities, the risk is moderate, since international partners generally end up disbursing the bulk of the aid to support a state whose collapse they fear will weaken regional stability and bear heavy consequences for the Malian population.[fn]This was the case in June 2014 when, following serious cases of embezzlement of public funds, the International Monetary Fund, followed by the World Bank, suspended its programs in Mali. They quickly restored them a few months later under pressure from other international partners, with no real change occurring in the country's financial governance. “Mali: après le FMI, la Banque mondiale repousse le versement de son aide”, Jeune Afrique, 26 June 2014.Hide Footnote

At the time of the August 2020 coup, the vast majority of partners seemed committed to lowering their ambitions regarding the transition and focused on helping organise elections within eighteen months.[fn]The 26 March 2021 report to the UN secretary-general on the situation in Mali clearly reflects the priority given to organising elections and the more ambiguous positions on the transition’s other projects: “The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, in coordination with other representatives of the international community in Mali, continued to call for a peaceful and inclusive transition process and to support initiatives aimed at holding free, fair and credible elections. He encouraged the authorities, political leaders and civil society actors to focus on achievable outcomes and reforms that should be prioritised during the transition period”. “La situation au Mali”, op. cit. p. 3.Hide Footnote  Many had accepted that the transitional authorities, dominated by the military, had neither the room for manoeuvre nor the legitimacy to undertake fundamental governance reforms. The May 2021 coup further damaged partner relations and dampened the hopes of those who sought a short transition.

B. International Partners and the May 2021 Coup

Compared to that of August 2020, the May 2021 coup resulted in more moderate sanctions from international partners and particularly ECOWAS.[fn]There are several reasons behind this. In August, during an electoral period, countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Guinea had more interest in strongly condemning a military coup. In addition, the standoff between ECOWAS and the junta consumed a lot of energy for ultimately few results in view of the events of May 2021. This may have discouraged ECOWAS countries from launching a new diplomatic standoff that might test member states’ solidarity. In fact, the economic sanctions that made it possible to put pressure on the CNSP in August-September were not respected by all ECOWAS states. Côte d’Ivoire notably complained at the time that certain countries had taken advantage of the situation to compete unfairly in trade. Hide Footnote  They were, of course, unanimous in condemning the events of 24-25 May. But they merely called for the appointment of a civilian prime minister and reiterated their demand that the transition should last no more than eighteen months from the date of the first coup in 2020, which appears to be an increasingly unlikely prospect.[fn]Three sensitive elections (in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Burkina Faso) were scheduled for the end of 2020. In August 2020, sitting ECOWAS presidents more firmly condemned the military intrusion into Mali’s political scene, an event that could inspire similar exploits during a busy electoral period. But by May 2021, these elections were already in the past and had largely been peaceful. In this new context, ECOWAS has been less firm toward the military officers, whom it had also come to know and frequent for almost a year. Crisis Group telephone interview, West African diplomat, June 2021. Hide Footnote  Since 27 May, the EU mission dedicated to training Mali’s armed forces announced that it was maintaining its activities despite the coup, making an unconvincing distinction between political events and their training of the defence forces as the latter overthrew civilian authorities for the second time in nine months. Partners including France and the United States suspended all or part of their military cooperation.[fn]The fact that France did not condemn the military power-grab in Chad after the death of President Déby in April 2021 may have influenced the ex-CNSP members’ decision to overthrow Bah N’Daw one month later. However, as France more firmly condemned the events of May 2021 in Bamako, it gave the impression of a double standard between Mali and Chad. For an analysis of the events in Chad, see “Chad: What Are the Risks after Idriss Déby’s Death?”, Crisis Group Commentary, 22 April 2021.Hide Footnote  On 2 July, however, France announced that it was resuming the cooperation.[fn]“Reprise de la coopération opérationnelle entre l’opération Barkhane et les Forces armées maliennes”, press release, French Ministry of Armed Forces, 2 July 2021.Hide Footnote  It was patently difficult to keep French soldiers in Mali without maintaining a relationship with local troops.

In terms of economic sanctions, few bold decisions have been made thus far.

In terms of economic sanctions, few bold decisions have been made thus far. On 4 June, the World Bank announced that, in accordance with its procedures, it was suspending disbursements for its programs in Mali while it conducted a review of the situation – as it had already done after the August 2020 coup – before resuming its activities.[fn]The World Bank let the Malian government know that it would resume its activities by a letter dated 7 September 2021. Letter from the World Bank’s Country Director for Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to the Minister of Economy and Finance, 7 September.Hide Footnote  The European Union had announced the disbursement of a new installment of budgetary aid whose status is now uncertain, although it is not yet officially suspended. 

Russia’s position sparked many reactions.[fn]Turkey’s role is also intriguing. The Turkish ambassador was among the very first to visit the new military authorities in August 2020. On Turkey’s role, see Hannah Armstrong, “Turkey in the Sahel”, Crisis Group Commentary, 27 July 2021.Hide Footnote  In late May, CNSP supporters organised small pro-Russian demonstrations calling on President Vladimir Putin to deploy troops and replace France. Such demonstrations are not new, but they strike a chord following Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of the downsizing of Barkhane operation. Russian diplomacy was then quick to set up a ministerial visit to Bamako in June. Negotiations are reportedly under way between the transitional government and the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company close to the Kremlin, to organise the arrival of military instructors whose missions could include protecting vulnerable sites and figures as well as training troops.[fn]“Deal allowing Russian mercenaries into Mali is close”, Reuters, 13 September 2021.Hide Footnote  If such a relationship were to come about, it would be a major shift in Mali’s alliances.[fn]Russia has also recently become involved in the Central African Republic, demonstrating an activism in sub-Saharan Africa that could presage a stronger engagement in Mali. See “Des mercenaires russes en Centrafrique”, Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2021.Hide Footnote  This announcement, made just as Malian authorities are seeking approval to extend the transition, may well be a way of forcing Western partners’ hand.

As for France, President Macron appears to have seized the second coup as an opportunity to justify the reconfiguration of the French military presence that had been planned for months. This event allowed France to blame the international failure to stabilise Mali partly on the country’s authorities, saying they are more concerned with competing for power than finding a solution to the security crisis.

In reality, international players have lessened the pressure they exerted in August-September 2020. They seem to have accepted Goïta and the CNSP’s stranglehold on power. While partners may thus be acknowledging that there is little they can do to force actors such as the CNSP from power, they are now raising many more questions about their necessary level of involvement in a country rocked by a security crisis of regional scope.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Western diplomat, European partner of Mali and member of international financial institutions, June 2021.Hide Footnote

As international pressure and sanctions have lessened over time, external partners have unwittingly sent the wrong signal to military authorities. Despite their declarations, Mali’s partners have little leverage to prevent the military from remaining in power in the long term if they attempt to do so. A few days after Bah N’Daw and Moctar Ouane’s arrest, a close adviser to Colonel Goïta already suggested in veiled terms that the May 2021 crisis would undoubtedly make it difficult to strictly respect the electoral calendar that had been set a few months earlier.[fn]“The deadline is very tight. There is much to be done. A new territorial division has been announced, as well as a constitutional referendum. There is the question of creating the Senate. So all these things will help us analyse whether or not it is possible to respect the deadline”. Interview with Youssouf Coulibaly, RFI, 28 May 2021.Hide Footnote

V. Taking Action in a Time of Doubt

Many of Mali’s foreign partners have privately expressed dismay in the face of a political and military elite that still appears unable to provide an effective response to the crisis facing the country. After the second coup, this elite seems increasingly entrenched in internal quarrels over the privileges that come with control of the central state.

International partners also bear some responsibility for the mistakes made in the transition so far. They continued providing aid for too long despite high levels of corruption. In recent years, they have always favoured security approaches that they believed would help stabilise the country, rather than investing in actions that could improve governance. 

In this context, many partners are tempted to provide a minimal service, namely to continue disbursing aid funds to avoid the Malian state’s complete collapse. Nevertheless, it is still possible to derive benefits from the transition period and, above all, to avoid swerving off course once again.

The transitional government should leave it to the democratically elected authorities to submit a new draft constitution to a referendum, and focus on launching national dialogues on this very constitution. The new Malian authorities should recognise that they have neither the capacity nor sufficient legitimacy to carry out such reforms. In this sense, the national reconstruction forums (Assises nationales sur la refondation de l’Etat) announced by the prime minister in July 2021 are a step in the right direction, provided that these meetings do not merely generate a list of empty promises. They should aim to identify the obstacles that have previously thwarted major reform initiatives and discuss ways of bypassing them.

As the prime minister has implied, these meetings will postpone the elections. Rather than oppose this, Mali’s politicians and partners should ask in return that the interim president make a solemn pledge to limit this postponement to a few months and refrain from standing for election, as required by the transitional charter. A former military officer could, however, stand for president, as long as his resignation dates back to six months before the launch of the presidential campaign, as per the 2016 electoral law.[fn]Article 146 of the electoral law of 17 October 2016: “Any member of the armed or security forces who wishes to stand for the office of President of the Republic must resign six months before the start of the campaign”.Hide Footnote

The transition period should not be limited to organising new elections; it can serve to lay the groundwork for a lasting change in governance.

The transition period should not be limited to organising new elections; it can serve to lay the groundwork for a lasting change in governance. From this perspective, the present authorities should pursue efforts undertaken by Bah N’Daw, the previous transitional president, to unite more political and civil society actors around the transition’s priorities. The choice of reforms to be carried out requires a broad consensus among Malian actors so as to avoid the roadblocks that could obstruct a smooth transition.

Among these priorities, two can still be achieved within the allotted time. First, Mali’s political and civil forces should take the transitional authorities, and in particular President Goïta, at their word. Goïta has promised to improve the management of public funds by reining in the state’s spending habits.[fn]“Mali: le président Assimi Goïta s’engage à réduire le train de vie de l’Etat”, Maliweb, 7 June 2021.Hide Footnote  While this promise has been made in vain many times in the past, the proliferation of anti-corruption organisations within civil society – such as Clément Dembélé’s Platform Against Corruption and Unemployment – is a dynamic that should be further encouraged. Bilateral partners, but also Malian political parties, should support these organisations and build on their work to offer citizens new proposals.

Secondly, while elections should theoretically be organised for late February 2022, adopting a new electoral law and revising the political parties charter could help clean up the electoral process. On the one hand, electoral reform, which notably involves setting up a single electoral management body, is a priority of the Government Action Plan. The independence of this single body must be guaranteed in order to reduce the Malian territorial administration’s excessive control of the organisation of elections.

On the other hand, a revision of the political parties charter, which the government is considering but has not yet committed to, could check the fragmentation of political groups in a country with over 200 official parties. To this end, the authorities should first demand a more rigorous application of Article 30 of the political parties charter, which lays out the obligations imposed on parties in exchange for public funding.[fn]Law No. 05-047 of 18 August 2005 constituting the political parties charter (consulted on the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa website).Hide Footnote  They could also revise this charter – for example, by granting substantial support to political groups that devote a real part of their activities to the training of citizens – and increase support to groups that include not only elected women (as provided for in Article 29) but also young elected members. 

In the coming months, Mali’s civil society, political actors and international partners must remind the transitional authorities that they do not have free rein to govern Mali on their own. External partners can maintain pressure on the authorities, notably by continuing to insist on respect of the rule of law with regard to opposition forces and of the electoral calendar (requiring a firm commitment from the interim president before agreeing to a postponement). Civil society and international partners should report cases of misconduct and use of violence against the political opposition, something the coup leaders have thus far refrained from doing. The action of external partners will remain limited, however, if Mali’s politicians and civilian forces do not mobilise themselves to regain at least some control over the governing body, notably by speaking out in public, just as organisations such as the Malian Human Rights Association are doing.

International partners should help curtail the army’s politicisation and keep an eye out for internal tensions within Malian security forces.

International partners should help curtail the army’s politicisation and keep an eye out for internal tensions within Malian security forces to help prevent them and try, if necessary, to defuse them through diplomatic pressure.[fn]These internal tensions within the security forces remain high. They reappeared again in September 2021 when dozens of police officers marched on the Bamako Central Detention Centre to force the release of Commissioner Oumar Samaké, head of Forsat, the police anti-terrorism unit, who was charged with murder for the bloody repression of M5-RFP demonstrations in July 2020. See “Mali : le commandant de la Forsat inculpé pour ‘meurtres’ mais libéré sous la pression des policiers”, Jeune Afrique, 4 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Until now, ex-CNSP members who were mid-ranking army officers have managed to win the loyalty of the security apparatus, partly by distributing positions of influence to other military actors. But not everyone has benefited from this, and some generals have lost the influence they had under Keïta. The August 2020 and May 2021 coups have alarmingly intensified the security forces’ politicisation. The examples of neighbouring Guinea and Burkina Faso show that coups often open the door to violent dissent within the security forces. The 20 July attempt upon the transitional president’s life, while still unexplained, is a worrying signal in this regard.[fn]“Mort suspecte de l’agresseur du président de la transition: des zones d’ombre à élucider”, Malikilé, 27 July 2021. Hide Footnote

Finally, while the vast majority of Mali’s political actors and foreign partners are focused on the transition’s short timeframe, they must not forget that the Malian political system requires far-reaching reforms which will take time to carry out. Mali’s transitional authorities must prepare the groundwork for the government that will emerge from the forthcoming elections. For their part, international partners cannot be the instigators of the change that Mali requires. They should invest more energy into better supporting the domestic forces likely to give momentum to that transformation, including – despite their reluctance – those that stem from political Islam.

VI. Conclusion

Mali suffers from structural problems of which insecurity, mainly affecting rural areas, is merely one of the most visible consequences. Following the 18 August 2020 coup, the transition intended to last for eighteen months could not possibly solve all of the country’s problems single-handedly. Nonetheless, many Malians and external partners no doubt hoped that it would lay the groundwork for real change. From this perspective, the new Malian authorities have up to now been a disappointment, and the transition is setting up to be another missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, all is not lost. The new Malian authorities can still strive to round off the transition with free and fair elections, which will allow citizens to select candidates offering real solutions to end the crisis. In addition, the fall of President Keïta coincided with strong public interest in efforts to rebuild the state. It is now up to Mali’s political and civilian forces to ensure that this momentum is not lost, but rather is sustained beyond the February 2022 elections, by following through with the programs on which they base their candidacy. For their part, Mali’s international partners, who are often disillusioned with the roadblocks in the Malian political system, cannot be the driving force behind state reform. They should better support those Malian actors who can respond to the popular call for a more virtuous state and resolve the country’s crisis.

Bamako/Dakar/Brussels, 21 September 2021

Appendix A: Map of Mali

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