Is Mali’s Coup a Warning for the West?
Col. Assami Goïta in conjunction with Mali’s military carried out a coup on May 24, 2021, and arrested President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. On national television, Goïta stated as Ndaw and Ounae had failed to notify him or even consult him on the reshuffling of the cabinet, a coup was necessary. Furthermore, Ouane did not include Defense Minister Sadio Camara or Col. Modibo Kone, in the new cabinet, who were prominent figures of the coup. Goïta claimed these defiance acts were in clear violation of the transition charter which essentially allowed him and the military to forcefully remove the president and the prime minister from their positions.
This is the fifth coup since Mali gained its independence from France in 1960. The last coup occurred in August 2020 following months of popular demonstrations against Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government. France’s Emmanuel Macron described this episode as a “coup within a coup.” The coup highlights what happens when big donor countries and organizations invest disproportionately in a country’s security sector and ignore improving a country’s democratic governance.
The August 2020 coup was preceded by months of protest against Keita’s government, only escalating after clashes resulted in the death of four protestors. The protests, known as the June 5 Movement, or the M5, highlighted the government’s inefficiency, corruption, and inability to curb insurgency across northern Mali.
The military junta said it does not intend on running the government. Instead, they will provide transitional leadership until new elections can be held. The junta is mostly keen on organizing a structured national election and equipping Mali with strong institutions within a reasonable time frame. The June 5 Movement pressed the militia junta to adopt a roadmap for governance and an 18-month transition charter. The charter provides for several transitional bodies, including the position of president, vice president, and prime minister all appointed by the junta.
Soon after the bloodless coup, regional bodies, including ECOWAS, the African Union, along with the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and France condemned the coup. ECOWAS sanctioned the coup leaders and suspended Mali’s membership and demanded the release of Keita and other leaders. The AU demanded the return of democratic governance and the release of all senior leaders. France and the U.S. suspended operations in Mali.
Mali’s double coup highlights the risks of fulfilling the short-term security goals of big donors. Multiple research projects have concluded that strengthening military prowess without investing in democratic governance will increase the likelihood of coups, simultaneously snowballing the possibility of a civil war. This is especially true for a state like Mali. These coups in Mali are a clear demonstration of the inevitability when a country’s security sector is driven by the short-term goals of donor’s security interest than those of its interest. In Chad, France, and the United States’ overt focus on counterterrorism has distorted the country’s security strategy. Similarly in Burkina Faso, a focus on counterterrorism has prevented the government from approaching the issue of violent extremism more holistically, such as investing in education, and economic opportunities and has resulted in the loss of governmental control over large swathes of the country.
With limited attention given to peacebuilding efforts and addressing underlying grievances such as security sector abuse, and widespread cattle theft, citizens’ trust in the government has significantly eroded. RAND conducted a study on the history of best practices of counterinsurgency since 1945 and from this, they were able to highlight the majority of them were governance-related. Establishment of legitimate governance, political participation, less corruption, trust-building, and political participation.
The Sahel region has become a hotbed for violent insurgency and the UN, EU, G5 Sahel, and the AU need to take a step back and reconsider how to achieve governance and stability in the region and move beyond their limited goals of tackling jihadists and improving the capability of security forces. There is almost a knee-jerk reaction by the donor countries to support the new transitional military government as these actors fear insecurity and view military and security as complementary. This is a false narrative. The best measure against the jihadist insurgency is having a strong legitimate accountable government. These bodies should invest in building a democratic governance structure, and make security forces accountable.
With the coup in Mali and another one in Chad, the region is currently facing democratic backsliding. Nigeria and Burkina Faso have threatened to disenfranchise a large portion of the population and the presidents of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are currently seeking their third terms illegally. Even though studies have shown the imperative need for the U.S. and France to change their policy approaches, international partners continue to implement short-term security policies at the expense of long-term peace. By doing so, these actors get caught up in the vicious cycle of contributing to continued instability, undermining their security objectives, and committing themselves to provide further assistance to fragile states.
This double coup in Mali provides an excellent opportunity for France and the U.S. to shift their focus to implement a more long-term sustainable peace by focussing on governance and security sector accountability. Overt emphasis on security is not appropriate. One of the best strategies to fight terrorism and achieve stable security is to invest in education, governance, and better treatment of vulnerable groups and minorities. This change in approach would require rebalancing the set of priorities from military training to diplomacy, and from tactical security assistance to strengthening security governance.
Dishari Rakshit is currently working as a freelance geopolitical researcher. She previously worked as a research analyst for Janes Information Group and project manager for Swissnex India. Dishari holds a double Master's in International Relations from The Graduate Institute Geneva and Jadavpur University, India. She has worked as an intern for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Observer Research Foundation.