Mali is at a crossroads. Chastised on the continent by the Ecowas and the African Union which on Thursday suspended its voting rights as a penalty for engineering two coups in under a year, the country is now also under pressure from its biggest benefactor, France.
When Malian Vice-President, Col Assimi Goita declared he was not in charge of the country last week, state affiliated Agence Maliene de Press declared the country had gone “back to square one.”
Col Goita, 38, a former special forces soldier who had led the first coup in August, forced transition President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane to resign, and detained them for two days, sparking an international outrage. Goita’s reason was that they had made Cabinet changes without consulting him, after he had engineered the resignation of the detained president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.
A day after the twin resignations and the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of Goita’s presidency, one of his first acts was to propose that the next prime minister come from the opposition M5 Movement. The M5, a coalition of civil society and political parties, spearheaded protests against Keita, which led to the first coup. But the group later felt sidelined.
Agitation from M5 members over the army’s junta continued grip on power forced Ouane to dissolve his Cabinet, thereby provoking the current crisis.
The junta has repeatedly assured of respecting the transition plan that was being led by Ndaw and Ouane, despite hinting at possible changes.
The regional bloc for West African states, Ecowas had earlier suspended Mali and threatened to restore sanctions that had forced the junta to share power with civilians as part of an 18-month transition plan to democracy.
The Ecowas summit this week was meant to take a position on this, in the words of Ecowas chairman and Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo. But besides suspending Mali’s membership, Ecowas only insisted that the junta respect the transition timetable and form an “inclusive” government with a civilian prime minister.
Crucially, it failed to impose sanctions. The last time sanctions were imposed, which forced the regime to backtrack, Mali’s borders with neighbours were shut, worsening an already difficult economic situation for the country’s over 20 million people.
According to the final communique, Mali’s suspension is supposed to last until 27 February, 2022, when power should have been handed over to a democratically elected government. It also bans the transition president, vice president and prime minister from contesting the presidency.
For Goita, the only issue with this outcome is the suspension of the country, which he nonetheless described as a “harmless political act."
“What I am asking of the Malian people is the sacred union around the Malian nation that we must safeguard at all costs," he told a press conference on his arrival at the Modibo Kéita International Airport from Accra.
The UN declared the resignation of Ndaw and Ouane as “forced.” For the junta, an international backlash has been an opposite reaction to the praise at home, however. A local court, for example, affirmed Goita’s rise to power.
But the situation in Mali is not just internal local politics. The country has been facing an Islamic insurgency in the Sahel since 2012 and has received financial and military help from the European Union and France.
Now, the European Union is threatening sanctions, backed by the UN, AU, France, US, and other countries following the deterioration of the state of national leadership and politics.
France, Mali’s former colonial master, has no patient for the junta. President Emmanuel Macron has threatened to withdraw its over 5,000 troops from the Sahel region over the coup.
Before Ecowas met in Accra this week, Macron appeared to have the bloc’s support. But officials told The EastAfrican, the bloc is wary about setting a “bad example” by allowing the junta to have its way.
When he is not meeting with foreign emissaries, Goita has been spending his time defending the military’s u-turn on the leadership arrangement to influential segments of Malian society – from the political class to religious and traditional leaders, trade unionists, women's and youth groups. The message has been consistent; that the only way out of the crisis is a unified nation.
“Either we accept joining hands to save our country, or we wage clandestine wars and we will all fail," Goita told a meeting with M5 representatives this week. The M5 has since nominated its choice for prime minister. And pro-junta rallies are becoming a common occurrence.
But the question remains: Can a junta-led administration be trusted to deliver on the key mandate of the transition team: Peaceful transfer of power by February 2022, the end of the 18-month transition from August last year?
By releasing Ndaw and Ouane, the junta fulfilled only one of two key demands of the international community. The second was the restoration of the transition process.
But the EU said it’s considering targeted measures against political and military leaders who obstruct the process. There are concerns though over what sanctions could mean for the counter insurgency against Islamists. The EU, through France, is the major force of support for the Malian military, which has proven time and again its inability to tackle the Islamists.
In fact, the Malian crisis now is directly linked to the insurgency, starting in 2012 when mutinous soldiers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré, over his perceived poor handling of the same insurgency and failure to provide it sufficient resources to fight off the insurgents.
And most of the top leadership of the junta are aware of this.
As a commander of the country’s Autonomous Special Forces Battalion, which is one of the first lines of defense against the extremists, Goita was based at the epicenter of the incessant jihadist attacks. He was reportedly redeployed to Bamako to counter the anti-government protests months before the first coup.
Update: Goita was sworn in as transitional president on Monday following his second coup in less than a year.
This story was first published in The EastAfrican print version on Saturday, June 5, 2021.