Mali: Coup Threatens Regional Cooperation in The Sahel

On the 18th of august 2020, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was deposed by the Malian army. His resignation, filmed and broadcasted on the same day, was the end of a mutiny that had started in the barracks of Kati, just 15 kilometers away from Bamako, the capital. The coup was met with buoyant celebration in the streets. Indeed, Mr Keïta was not popular in Mali: his inability to stop the terrorist activities that have plunged the country into chaos since 2012 has chipped away at his legitimacy little by little. He faced civil unrest led by a movement called “Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques” (M5-RFP). The Malian army created the “Comité national pour le salut du peuple”, or National Committee for the Salvation of the People. This committee has appointed Bah Ndaw and Assimi Goïta, both former military officers, as president and vice-president of the country respectively. The M5 – RFP civil movement has not been given any power or space in the new government.

In the face of these popular celebrations, the coup was met with anger and fear internationally. Members of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) swiftly condemned the coup and its perpetrators. France has stated the necessity for the military to give back power to civil authorities. Some dreamed of a return of Mr. KeÏta to power, but this proved quickly to be impossible. Member states of ECOWAS and the AU  now hope for a return to stability in a country fatally lacking it. Leaders of the military have stated that they will hold elections in 18 months, although this remains in doubt. This hostility of the international community reflects the fear that the political instability will spread to the surrounding countries. 

The region, usually called the Sahel, is difficult to define. One way to understand which countries are part of it and what threats they all have to face, is to look at the unilateral institutions involved. The G-5 Sahel includes Mauritania, Tchad, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Its aim is to specifically coordinate member states in their efforts to fight common threats,  first and foremost terrorism. With explicit support from France, the G-5 Sahel however faces competition, as some countries see it as an alternative to ECOWAS, an older organisation with many more member states. However, the drive for cooperation with a narrow focus on security shows that the Sahel region has priorities that differ to those of the greater west African region. 

This governmental turnover and political shift brings with it uncertainty and potential risks or positive developments. The Malian armed forces are seen as unorganized and undisciplined, and have not yet succeeded in containing the terrorist threat. The cadre of military officers now running the country are young and educated, and have pinned the military failures of the country on a political class unwilling to do what is necessary. They have been formed in an era of asymmetric warfare, and could potentially develop a more effective way to counteract these threats. The previous government’s disastrous results overall can lead to a positive outlook on any kind of change, at least concerning the military problems the country is facing. The region has seen increasing attacks by terrorist organizations, mostly in what is usually called the “zone of the three borders”, including parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, and of Niger. This points to a generalization of terrorist acts all across the Sahel region. Attacks this year have already killed more than 1800 people, almost as much as the entirety of 2019. 

However, this optimism is quickly dampened when looking at the area overall. The focus on the region of the three borders shows that to fight against Islamic terrorism, a broad regional strategy is required. This necessity, as we have seen, has led to the creation of the G5 Sahel, and military cooperation from its member countries. A solution does not seem to be possible unless it is carried out across more than just Mali. This is why the condemnation of the coup by the surrounding countries is an obstacle to this encouraging possibility. Without cooperation, and with the risk of more political instability in the area, it is possible that Mali’s coup will damage a unilateral strategy, and in effect divide a region that must unite to fight terrorism.

Internationally, uncertainty remains high among the allies that Mali can count on. France traditionally has been very involved in the area. Following the military coup of 2012, its operation “Serval” (which has now become “Barkhane”) was able to repel terrorist advances in Mali. However, the French cannot cooperate with the new government, its intervention may be at risk. Samuel Ramani, a doctoral candidate at Oxford, recently wrote that Russia may be taking an interest. It has established cordial relations with the new government, and signed a military cooperation agreement with Mali in 2019. Its policy of military help and armament sales with no questions asked may sway the ruling military class and bring the two countries closer. However, how much influence they will wield is still uncertain, and with Russia already involved in Libya, Syria, and now Armenia, it is doubtful that it will send many mercenaries or supplies.

The political transformation in Mali has been relatively uneventful for the time being. The heads of the country, faced with the threat of an embargo from ECOWAS members, have chosen a civilian Prime minister. This conciliatory move seems to have calmed regional tensions, and if stability is achieved cooperation should be able to continue. Although the French government has recently announced some successful military operations in the area, killing over 60 terrorists in early November, military intervention alone will not be able to eliminate the threat. The French Minister of Defense has met with Bah Ndaw, and has reaffirmed its commitment to fighting Islamic terrorism in the region, but whithout political reform leading to long term stability, and a well functioning state, it seems likely problems in the Sahel region will remain, to the dismay of the population and world leaders. 

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