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A boy runs in front of a mural that reads "Peace" in Timbuktu, on 24 July 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Report 226 / Africa

Mali: An Imposed Peace?

Fighting recently resumed in Mali, while a peace accord remains a façade. Both sides, with help from international mediators, need to re-open negotiations. They must go beyond prioritising security to include all belligerents and improve access to basic social services, jobs and justice.

Executive Summary

After eight months of negotiations between Malian parties, the government and some armed groups signed an agreement on 15 May 2015 in Bamako. Fighting has resumed, however, in the north and centre of Mali. Crucially, the Azawad Movements Coalition (CMA) has still not signed the agreement. It initialled the text on the eve of the ceremony but demands further discussion before fully accepting it. An agreement without the signature of the main coalition opposing the government is of little value and will likely make disarmament impossible. The mediation team should establish a framework that would allow for further talks and Malian parties should return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity. The UN Security Council and its UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), backed by France, must take a stronger stance against violations of the ceasefire.

All actors bear responsibility for the recent resumption of fighting. A significant part of the Malian political and military leadership still pursues the idea of seeking revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of rebels through military means. There is a real danger that elements within the government try to portray non-signatories to the Bamako deal as spoilers to be dealt with militarily – an option that would have disastrous consequences. The government has problematic ties with groups within the Platform coalition, northern opponents of the CMA that regained control of the town of Menaka on 27 April. Meanwhile, some of the CMA’s demands are unrealistic and it continues to ignore the profound diversity of the northern populations, not all of which support all aspects of the CMA’s agenda. International mediators have imposed their own security agenda and have been too quick to close the door to further talks. Despite weeks of pressure the CMA has refused to sign the peace agreement but the mediators were nonetheless adamant about holding the ceremony on 15 May. During the ceremony, tensions between the Malian president and the UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations revealed substantial divergences on the process that should follow the signing.

Although no agreement is perfect, the proposed document has clear shortcomings. It repeats mistakes of the past, encouraging, for example, models of decentralisation and clientelism that have failed to bring peace. Rather than trying to change a deeply flawed political system, it seeks only to strengthen the institutions within it. The Malian parties, who refused to engage in direct dialogue, inherit a document that is written mostly by international mediators and in part reflects the mediators’ own interests. It prioritises the restoration of order and stability rather than aiming to meet a desire for genuine change that runs deep among northern populations. The agreement makes scant mention of issues like the access to basic social services, jobs or justice – concerns at the heart of popular demands. Prioritising security overshadows the need to restore the state’s social function across the Malian territory.

While the signing of the agreement closes the framework of dialogue without being able to include all belligerent parties, renewed fighting over recent weeks threatens parts of the country. The attack on Menaka took place on 27 April following the CMA’s proposal to initial the agreement in exchange for a resumption of talks before signing. The renewed fighting indicates that months of negotiations did not resolve the lack of trust between the parties. Hardliners on both sides appear uninterested in signing an agreement that includes all actors and instead took advantage of the deadlock to relaunch offensives. Neither the presence of MINUSMA nor the threat of sanctions has been sufficient to deter ceasefire violations in late April.

The Platform’s groups, which represent genuine interests in the north, are in part being manipulated by hardliners within the Malian government, who use them as proxies to avoid the Malian army directly engaging in combat. The risks of the conflict spreading are all the more worrying given that other parts of central Mali have been the scene of unprecedented insecurity in recent months. With armed groups becoming increasingly community-based, the resumption of fighting can lead to their further fragmentation and additional civilian casualties. To prevent Mali entering a new cycle of violence despite the signing of the Bamako agreement, political discussion must prevail over diplomatic coercion or military force.

In this file photo taken on 18 September 2020 Colonel Assimi Goita (C), president of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People), arrives at the funeral of former Mali President General Moussa Traore in Bamako. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Mali, a Coup within a Coup

Des militaires ont arrêté les chefs de l’Etat et du gouvernement de transition maliens installés suite au coup d'Etat militaire d’août 2020. Dans ce Q&A, l’expert de Crisis Group Jean-Hervé Jezequel détaille les retombées possibles de ce second putsch dans un pays déjà fragilisé par le conflit avec les jihadistes.

What do we know about this coup in Mali, the second in nine months?

On 24 May, the interim president Bah N’Daw, his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, and several other Malian officials were arrested and taken to the Kati military camp near the capital Bamako. The arrest came shortly after the appointment of a new government, the composition of which had been bitterly negotiated for more than a week, but which no longer included Colonels Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné, respectively the ministers of defence and security. These two national guard officers are also leading members of the former National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), the group behind the 18 August 2020 coup d'état. The CNSP officially dissolved in January 2021.

The day after the arrests, Colonel Assimi Goïta, ex-head of the CNSP and current vice president, issued a statement on national television announcing that he was “removing the prerogatives of the president and his prime minister”. He accused them of incompetence and above all of forming a new government without consulting him – which is unlikely given the length of the negotiations – thus violating the transitional charter. This text, adopted in September 2020, gives Goïta certain authority in defence and security matters but no power to suspend the president or prime minister. As such, the ex-CNSP officers’ takeover is an attempt at a coup d’état to regain control of a transition that was slipping from their grasp.

In the days before the putsch, relations had become strained between the ex-CNSP figures, on one hand, and N’Daw, himself a retired military officer, and Ouane, on the other. The latter intended to set up a more inclusive government to build greater unity behind the transition amid social tensions including a general strike called by the country’s main trade union. N’Daw and Ouane also took the opportunity to try to curb the ex-CNSP’s strong influence over transitional institutions. According to several sources consulted by Crisis Group, this influence considerably limited the head of government’s room for manoeuvre.

It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one.

The tensions between the civilian transitional authorities and the ex-CNSP men are strangely reminiscent of another putsch ousting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra in December 2012, a few months after a group of lower-ranking officers mounted a coup d’état against President Amadou Touré. The ex-CNSP officers, whom Western officials described as “enlightened” a few months ago, are now behaving no better than the non-commissioned officers who took power in 2012. It sometimes seems that Mali is making a worrying return to square one. 

What risks does Mali face? 

The CNSP’s removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in August 2020 led to very little violence. The regime was exhausted, and large parts of the population greeted Keïta’s departure with relief after weeks of mass demonstrations. This time around, the officers have seized power with far less popular support. There are rumours of tensions in the army, where this “coup within a coup” lacks unanimous support. So far, the barracks have remained quiet, but fratricidal fighting among security forces, as occurred after the March 2012 coup, cannot be ruled out. For the time being, no civil society association has taken to the streets to defend the suspended authorities, though several such groups, political parties and other public figures have spoken out to demand their release. Conversely, few Malian organisations have expressed support for the officers' actions. Many, such as the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathisers of the influential Imam Mahmoud Dicko, are reserving judgment or conducting intense negotiations with the ex-CNSP military officers, no doubt in the hope of gaining positions of influence in a future government. 

Indeed, if the forced resignations of N’Daw and Ouane on 26 May are confirmed, the ex-CNSP figures will seek to consolidate their coup by appointing a new transitional prime minister and president. They may find a head of government within the 5 June Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a diverse coalition of parties and associations that played a key role in overthrowing President Keïta but was later shunted aside by the CNSP when it created the transitional institutions. The ex-CNSP men are counting on such an alliance to convince outside powers to let them pursue the transition themselves. In an attempt to appease international actors, after N’Daw’s arrest Colonel Goïta announced his intention to complete the transition in accordance with the timetable negotiated with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in September 2020.

Regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system.

The coming days will therefore be decisive, and political deadlock remains possible. But regardless of the outcome, the new crisis highlights the absence of a strong coalition supporting the actions of the transition, notably its declared ambition to reform the Malian political system. This aspect is perhaps the most worrying: after having undergone all these crises, Mali still does not know which political forces are capable of bringing about the change that the country needs.

How has the international community reacted?

International condemnation has been firm and unanimous so far. The main partners in Mali’s transition – ECOWAS, the African Union, the UN mission in Mali, France, the European Union and the United States – have rejected the attempted coup. The ex-CNSP officers were probably expecting this reaction but risked the takeover anyway, perhaps believing that the same international actors who recently allowed a junta to seize power in Chad after President Idriss Déby’s death will also end up accepting them, as they did last August. 

Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged.

An ECOWAS mission has arrived in Bamako to meet with the various protagonists and attempt to resolve the crisis. But Mali’s international partners know that the means of pressure at their disposal are double-edged. As in August 2020, ECOWAS could suspend Mali from its institutions and impose economic sanctions that weigh heavily on Malian decision-makers’ minds. But these measures also hurt the Malian population and risk aggravating internal tensions, potentially leading the population to resent the external intervention. In 2020, sanctions made it possible to extract important compromises from the CNSP officers, but without drawing them away from the real seat of power. International actors could also impose sanctions targeted at the coup leaders. Such measures, however, are unlikely to make a short-term impact and could even lead the Malian authorities to suspend collaboration with the country’s partners if the sanctioned figures remain in power. Many donors were already dreading a suspension of various programs following the August 2020 coup d’état. 

International actors should continue to reject the ex-CNSP’s power grab and press for a return to civilian rule free of the officers’ influence. But their words can carry weight only if they stand united. In August 2020, some of Mali's partners were too quick to send the officers signals that they could retain a decisive say in national affairs. 

International partners now face two main options, neither of which is without risk. One option is to stand firm and demand the reinstatement of President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane, whose resignations were clearly coerced. That stance would lead to confrontation with the ex-CNSP and a political stalemate whose outcome would be uncertain. It would also, however, give the outside powers a better chance of breaking the officers’ stranglehold on power in Mali. 

The other option is to condemn the arrests and call for an immediate shift back to civilian-led transition, but without demanding that the president and prime minister return to office. This course would open the door to negotiations with the junta to reinstate civilian authorities. As in August, however, the ex-CNSP could exploit the talks to establish the semblance of civilian authority while retaining real power. In its 26 May press statement, the UN Security Council nevertheless appears to be advocating this second option. If Mali's other partners, notably ECOWAS, also support this option, then this time around they should attach conditions to negotiations with the ex-CNSP that curb its political influence so that it can no longer hold the civilian authorities hostage. In any case, the effectiveness of international pressure will depend on the strength of its connection with the domestic movement rejecting the coup, slow as that movement has been to gain momentum.

Will the political instability affect the conflict with jihadists? 

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies.

The repeated political crises in Mali undermine the state’s credibility as it faces several insurgencies. To people living in conflict-affected areas, the return of a state mired in infighting in Bamako looks increasingly unlikely. Jihadists and other armed groups are thus better able to present themselves as de facto alternative authorities. Furthermore, there is a distinct possibility that this new crisis will undermine the already fragile confidence in the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement, whose main provisions on security and decentralisation have yet to be fulfilled. A few months back, the transitional authorities were praised for developing better relations than their predecessors with the armed groups that signed the agreement, in particular those of the Coordination of Azawad Movements. But the current crisis in Bamako may convince some of these same signatories that their best option is to spurn a weak state unable to honour its commitments. These tensions may heighten further as the M5-RFP leadership, whom the ex-CNSP could call upon to form the next government, includes figures known for their hostility to the 2015 agreement.