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Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali
Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali
Open Letter / Africa

Open Letter to the UN Security Council on Mali


The recent clashes between the army and rebels in the Kidal region show that Mali’s crisis is unresolved. The violence is directly linked to the lack of progress in talks between northern groups and the government that have stalled mostly because the main actors have been reluctant to engage in meaningful dialogue, despite their pledge in last June's Ouagadougou agreement. Multiple and confusing diplomatic initiatives have not helped. The UN mission (MINUSMA) has struggled to reconcile its mandate to facilitate talks with that of helping to restore state authority; some perceive it as pro-government and compromised. I urge the Security Council, with the support of its main partners in Mali, to establish a UN-led international mediation mechanism.

The negotiations that started a year ago with signing of the Ouagadougou agreement are in jeopardy. Crisis Group’s January report, Mali: Reform or Relapse, warned that deadlock would have major security consequences. The provisional ceasefire reached in May under auspices of the African Union's president, with the aid of the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, is fragile. Unless talks are revived promptly, new clashes will occur, undermining the substantial international efforts since MINUSMA’s deployment last July.

The Malian authorities and the northern-based movements have mostly used the dialogue to voice grievances, not resolve differences. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta's government considers the “northern question” a matter of national pride and has stalled to avoid serious concessions. The three main rebel groups – MNLA, HCUA and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad – are fragmented, unable to offer realistic or coherent claims.

Regional and other international actors share responsibility. They have been unable to reconcile diverse, often competing interests to promote a common vision of a solution. Initiatives have often been uncoordinated. Mediation needs new impetus to re-launch talks.

For months, MINUSMA has played a vital role in calming tensions between the army and the northern movements, but without political progress, this can only delay new violence. The mission has struggled to facilitate implementation of the Ouagadougou agreement, in part due to perceptions about its neutrality. Resolution 2100 (25 April 2013) calls for it to both “restore the authority and the sovereignty of the Malian State throughout its national territory” and “to facilitate progress towards an inclusive national dialogue”, which by its nature involves bringing in the very armed groups that challenge the state’s authority in the north.

Building the capacity of Malian institutions is of course important. But the mandate's tension raises competing expectations from the parties. Some members of the northern movements believe the mission backs the government, citing inter alia its provision of armoured vehicles to the defence ministry and that talks have been held almost solely in Bamako. They requested MINUSMA support for talks to be more balanced. The government believes the mission should focus primarily on helping the state recover its full sovereignty, as requested by the prime minister in his 29 April speech to the National Assembly.

The 30 May, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit asked the Burkina Faso and Nigeria presidents to renew mediation efforts, but these have been dormant for months and are unlikely to revive the talks. Mali accuses Burkina Faso of harbouring the MNLA’s political wing; ECOWAS is a key regional institution but does not include countries with influence in the north, such as Mauritania and Algeria. It is thus crucial to establish an international mediation mechanism that is coherent, backed by the region and other major powers and empowered to broker compromises. This new initiative should be UN-led.

The Security Council could consider two options. Neither will be easy, given politics in the region and beyond, but existing arrangements are proving insufficient.

  • The first would be to strengthen MINUSMA’s political mandate and have it mediate, not just facilitate. The Secretary-General's special representative would become a full-time mediator. This would allow the UN to use its good offices and, together with Mali’s partners, press parties to resolve deadlocks. To achieve this, the Council must resolve the tension in the mandate by shifting it away from state building. An emphasis on state building might be necessary again in the future – and the gap would need to be filled by others now -- but for the moment talks must be the priority.
  • The second would be to appoint an envoy of the Secretary-General, with African Union and ECOWAS agreement, independent of MINUSMA. The parties could express preferences from a list of names with high-level West Africa experience. The envoy would be an official mediator to whose team MINUSMA would give logistical help while continuing its state building role. This would require greater effort to build consensus, internally and regionally, but might be more likely to break the deadlock.

Whatever the preferred option, the mediator will need the support of Mali’s main partners. They should form a contact group whose membership should be relatively restricted, to ease coordination. It must include France and Algeria, who, working together, have enough influence to bring all the parties to the negotiating table. Algeria’s pivotal role in the region should be recognised, but it must exercise its influence within a multilateral framework.

The mediator, consulting with the main parties and the contact group, should quickly revive the Ouagadougou agreement's negotiation framework. The current stalemate is not the result of flaws in that agreement but of parties’ refusal to implement it and insufficient pressure on them from Mali’s regional and other partners. The monitoring and evaluation committee established by the agreement has not met since October. It should be resuscitated and, chaired by the mediator, convene monthly to allow international actors to coordinate their efforts. The parties should urgently agree on and commit to a detailed schedule of such sessions.

As the Council prepares to renew MINUSMA’s mandate, it should draw the right conclusions from the challenges the mission faces. In appointing a new UN-led mediation mechanism, whether within the mission or external to it, it has another opportunity to help Malians reach a sustainable solution; it should not assume such an opportunity will come again soon.


Louise Arbour 
President and CEO
International Crisis Group

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.