In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people paraded the streets of Bamako in Mali to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
The protesters were believed to have been mobilised by Mr. Mahmoud Dicko, an influential Muslim leader, under the auspices of the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces.
The latter is a coalition of leaders drawn from disparate civil society, social and political groups in the country.
On Friday, 24th July, 2020, leaders of Senegal, Nigeria, Niger, Ivory Coast and Ghana who were drawn from the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) bloc held talks with the Malian President, Mr. Keita and key figures of the opposition protest movement to broker a peace deal. However, the day-long meeting ended without a deal.
In a renewed effort to resolve the political turmoil, West African leaders, on Monday, 27th July, 2020 proposed the formation of a unity government; and presented a road-map towards realisation of the foregoing objective.
The ECOWAS plan, among others, called for investigations into the deaths of at least fourteen people following recent clashes between protesters and security forces in the capital, Bamako; re-run of thirty-one parliamentary elections; and recommended sanctions against feuding parties that would undermine the process.
The plan was expected to be implemented within ten days. Nonetheless, leadership of the opposition protest movement acknowledged the ECOWAS plan, but rejected its implementation.
The leaders argued the content of the ECOWAS plan did not reflect the true will of the Malian people. The stance of the opposition stalled progress in negotiations started by President Keita’s cabinet with concerned parties in the crisis; and President Keita’s resolve to introduce measures to reform the nation’s parliament and constitutional court.
Underlying causes of the recent crisis
In 2012, pockets of revolt were recorded in the northern part of Mali. These revolts degenerated into armed campaigns and spread to central Mali; and later to neighbouring countries including Burkina Faso and Niger.
Tremendous efforts by the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping forces, and the French and Malian armies to contain the violence have yielded minimal results.
Statistics released by the United Nations revealed the conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people while over four thousand have lost their lives in the three affected countries.
The growing state of anarchy has lent strong support to the formation of different armed and militia groups believed to be associated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Political unrests in Mali began to mount following the re-election of President Keita in 2018. The opposition parties cited massive voting irregularities in the 2018 presidential election which recorded low turn-outs.
The political tensions in Mali have thrown vast swaths of the country into a state of lawlessness. Some protesters bemoaned the contribution of foreign troops to the peace efforts, and called for the withdrawal of the French troops from the country.
The seven-year reign of President Keita, was believed to have been characterised by high levels of corruption, vacillating public services, prolonged inter-communal violence, rising jihadist attacks, increased poverty, and poor national economic performance. On 25th March this year, the seventy-year old foremost opposition leader and runner-up in the 2018 presidential elections, Mr. Soumaila Cisse together with six other members of his campaign team was abducted by unidentified gunmen during a political campaign in the Malian-troubled Region of Timbuktu, few days to the parliamentary elections on 29th March. Mr. Cisse who is the Leader of the Union for the Republic and Democracy Party has since not been released by his abductors. Analysts described Mr. Cisse’s kidnap as the first of a high-ranking politician of his standing in the eight-year old conflict in Mali. Security officials linked Mr. Cisse’s abduction to an al-Qaeda-led attack.
Results from some parliamentary elections held in March amidst COVID-19 restrictions were challenged at the law court; and on 30th April, 2020 the Malian Constitutional Court overturned the results for thirty-one seats, ten of which were in favour of candidates of the ruling party.
This rendered the ruling party the majority in parliament. Further, the first death from COVID-19 was reported few hours before the opening of parliamentary polls on 29th March while voters raised concerns about possible attacks by armed dissidents during the polls.
In April this year, the Malian Prime Minister and the rest of the President’s cabinet resigned.
Thus, the Constitutional Court’s ruling, general economic hardships, COVID-19 threats, and President Keita’s inability to stem the growing levels of jihadist attacks and inter-communal conflicts sparked public outrage in different parts of the country, demanding his resignation, dissolution of parliament, and accountability for the recent killings.
The opposition alliance was persistent in its demands throughout the talks with international mediators.
Resignation of President Keita
On Tuesday, 18th August, 2020, growing accusations of economic hardships and deteriorating security situation against President Keita by demonstrators influenced a section of the Malian Army stationed at Kati, a garrison town near Bamako, to stage a revolution.
This resulted in the detention of President Keita, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse who was reappointed on 11th June, 2020 and other government officials at gunpoint; and eventual resignation of the President.
Mr. Keita announced his resignation and dissolution of the government and parliament through a state broadcast around midnight on Tuesday. The President abdicated his post citing abhorrence of blood shed as his cardinal reason.
On Wednesday, 19th August, 2020 the National Committee for the Salvation of the People led by the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Malian Air Force, Colonel Major Ismail Wague, addressed the Malian people through a state broadcast. He outlined a number of measures including border closures and imposition of curfew from 9pm to 5am to allow for the organisation of general elections within a reasonable timeframe. Col. Major Wague believed the latter would pave way for the establishment of strong institutions to ensure effective management of the Malian economy; and to inspire confidence and engender harmonious relationship between the government and the governed. He noted the soldiers’ intention to stabilise and restore the country to its lost greatness rather than clinging on to power. This notwithstanding, the coup leaders seek to stay in power for a three-year transition period. However, ECOWAS has proposed an interim government headed by a retired military officer or civilian for a maximum of one year. Persistent calls by the African Union, European Union, ECOWAS leaders, and other international organisations on the coup leaders led to the release of President Keita on Thursday, 27th August, 2020.
Response of the International Community
France’s involvement in the counterterrorism efforts in Mali dates back to 2013 when a formal request was sent by the latter. The costs of Operation Barkhane, the (name of the) counterterrorism efforts in Mali, are estimated at US$1 billion annually. Since 2013, the number of troops deployed by France to Mali is estimated at five thousand (5,000); and has recorded forty-four (44) deaths. The recent military mutiny which resulted in the overthrow of President Keita has received widespread condemnation. Representatives of the United Nations, European Union, United States, France, ECOWAS, and the African Union have denounced the actions of the Malian Army, describing them as unlawful; and warned against any deliberate attempt to change power and democratically-elected government through unconstitutional means. Most foreign missions in Mali advised their citizens to stay indoors to avert any spill-over effects while the soldiers were urged to return to the barracks. ECOWAS described the mutiny in Mali as an attempted coup and has moved to suspend the country’s membership while borders of member states are closed to the country. The West African decision making body noted further sanctions would be imposed as the crisis escalates. In spite of the international condemnation, soldiers involved in the mutiny were hailed by Malian opposition protesters.
Economic, Peace and Security Impact
Mali is endowed with natural mineral resources such as gold, and has an estimated population of 18.5 million people with over 50% living in extreme poverty, and without access to jobs and education. It remains an agrarian economy with strong reliance on foreign remittances and assistance. Increasing desertification and commodity price swings in the global market intensify the country’s vulnerability to external and internal economic shocks. The quest for power has championed the formation of ideologically-motivated militia groups in the country; and failed mediation attempts by regional leaders. Indeed, unresolved crisis coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic could adversely impact key economic reforms initiated by the President Keita administration, including the Plan for Public Finance Management Reform from 2017 through 2021; and the National Strategic Framework for Economic Revitalisation and Sustainable Development from 2019 to 2023. These measures were aimed at redeeming the economy from its status as one of the world’s poorest countries.
It is believed the recent spate of socio-political unrests in Mali could undermine efforts at defeating Islamist extremists in the Sahel region; and exacerbate peace and security threats in the West African sub-region. Prolonged and unresolved civil unrest in Mali could impact negatively on effective governance and rule of law among the landlocked countries in the Sahel region. Statistics released by the United Nations showed the number of deaths has increased from 770 in 2016 to over 4,000 in 2020 while thousands of schools have been compelled to close down.
There is no gain saying the conflict has resulted in very challenging humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region. Neighbouring West African countries could be compelled to accommodate refugees should the crisis persist. This could exert undue strain on the limited social facilities such as hospitals, water, electricity, and schools available in neighbouring countries. Tackling issues related to refugees in addition to socio-economic challenges posed by the predatory COVID-19 pandemic may be quite herculean to many countries in the West African sub-region. This affirms the need for the Malian crisis to be treated as urgent and addressed quickly with special emphasis on human rights abuses by security forces and corruption.
Last week, the 57th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS was held in the Nigerien capital of Niamey. The session highlighted challenges in the sub-region, including the fight against COVID-19, use of single currency (ECO), the political turmoil in Mali, successful organisation of political elections; and milestones of the Union under the Chairmanship of President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger. Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo was elected the new ECOWAS Chair at the session; he took over from President Issoufou.
ECOWAS leaders at the session unanimously decried the fragile socio-political situation in Mali; and re-affirmed economic sanctions against the Military Junta. The ordinary session of ECOWAS leaders ended with an ultimatum to the military leadership to appoint civilian President and Prime Minister no later than 15th September, 2020. The appointed President is expected to lead the transition process which has 12-month deadline as opposed to the 18-month deadline sought to be implemented by the military junta. However, an extension of the deadline by the soldiers could result in self-repatriation of international institutions from Mali; and this could worsen the socio-economic challenges saddled with the country.
On Tuesday, 14th September, 2020, leaders drawn from countries in the West African sub-region held a Consultative Meeting in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the current political impasse in Mali; and how best it could be resolved. This was the maiden meeting under the Chairmanship of President Nana Akufo-Addo. It is hoped resolutions from the meeting would contribute immensely to collective international efforts aimed at finding lasting solutions to the crisis in Mali, which has already undermined peace and stability in neighbouring land-locked countries; and has the potential to escalate to the entire West African sub-region and beyond. Resolution of the Malian crisis would mitigate transitional crimes such as kidnapping, smuggling of migrants, and drug trafficking which have grown in leaps and bounds in the Sahel region.
The writer is a Chartered Economist/Business Consultant.