How to react to a Coup d’état – Lessons and Warnings from Mali’s recent coup

On 25 May 2021 Mali saw its second coup within less than a year. The developments in May presented an interruption in Mali’s transitional process that makes a successful transition less likely than ever. Mali is again at a crossroads.

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Photo by ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP via Getty Images

After the August 2020 coup, the transitional body CNSP (Comité national pour le salut du peuple) was met with a lot of goodwill and hope locally as well as by the international community. The coup had to a large extent been tolerated in Mali as well as internationally as a necessary evil to stabilise Mali. The military was involved in leading the transition and it was hoped that it would give up its power voluntarily when the time was ripe. But even though the transitional government started with high ambitions and had the support of the international donors, the early enthusiasm made way for a more sobering attitude. 

While the suspension of Mali from all the regional bodies are more extensive actions than those witnessed after the coup in August 2020, it still has to be seen as the bare minimum

After rising dissatisfaction with the transitional government and in light of a planned general strike by Mali’s biggest trade union federation UNTM (Union nationale de travailleurs de Mali), the government of then Prime Minister Moctar Ouane was dissolved in the early days of May this year. Ouane was afterwards reinstated to create a new ‘unity government’ with the stated goal of being more open and inclusive than the previous one. While the newly proposed government saw more participation from established political actors, with the same amount of military personal being placed in key positions, it did not even last one full day. 

Shortly after the new government was announced in the afternoon of 24 May, rumours spread throughout Mali’s capital Bamako that Ouane and the President of the transition Bah N’Daw had been arrested. They were being held in Kati, a city dominated by the military only a few kilometres outside of the capital. The orders were given by none other than the Vice-President, and former self-proclaimed leader of the coup in August 2020, Colonel Assimi Goïta. 

Later, a spokesperson for Goïta stepped in front of the cameras of state TV to announce that the President and Premier were relieved of their duties. According to Goïta, the fact that he as Vice-President had not been sufficiently consulted in the formation of a new government was a direct violation of Mali’s Transitional Charter, therefore he had to step in to protect ‘Malian democracy’. After the announcement spread across the country, it took only a few hours for N’Daw and Ouane to hand in their resignations in exchange for their personal freedom. 

In the days after the ‘coup’, the streets of Bamako saw no large-scale demonstrations from civil society, the trade union movement or political parties. The Movement M5-RFP (Movement de 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques), which had initiated the mass protests against former President Keita in 2020, quickly agreed to take on a leading role in the new government under Goïta. 

Within days the highest court in Mali (the Cour Constitutionelle) as well as the transitional parliament the Conseil National de Transition, CNT, confirmed Goïtas claim for the presidency. For the time being Mali’s political elite as well as the majority of civil society organisations have kept quiet. One opaque variable in the equation is the Malian military. It is not one homogenous block and Goïta’s actions likely caused dissent in the military, notably within the higher military ranks. 

The regional bodies, ECOWAS and African Union (AU), suspended Mali shortly after the coup. The AU is following its 2007 ‘Constitutive Act’ that states that in cases of unconstitutional change ‘it [the AU] shall suspend the State Party from the exercise of its right to participate in the activities of the Union […] The suspension shall take effect immediately.’ While the suspension of Mali from all the regional bodies are more extensive actions than those witnessed after the coup in August 2020, it still has to be seen as the bare minimum. The same can be said for the call for a civilian prime minister. After the events in August 2020, ECOWAS called for a civilian president of the transition. 

Other international partners of Mali also reacted to the most recent coup. French President Emmanuel Macron reflected on the possibility to pull out troops from the military Operation Barkhane and just a few days later the mission actually announced a halt on all joint operations of French and Malian forces. The World Bank, one of the main donors of Mali, has also put a stop to its operations for the time being. 

The reactions to this second coup within a year are much more far-reaching compared to the previous one, but the question stands, is it not too little and too late?  The suspension of Mali from AU and ECOWAS, which are simply following their guidelines, does not have any meaningful real-world implication. The French halt on part of Barkhane is a strong signal, but most likely comes more from pressure within France. The decision by the World Bank could be to put more pressure on the putschists in Bamako. But generally the overall reactions can be seen as an acceptance of Goïta in his new position which would set a precedent for dealing with future coups to come. 

One can only hope that Mali’s most recent coup is a wake-up call for everyone.

And it is exactly these future coups we should be worried about the most. In the last 9 months the Sahel saw 4 coups attempts, three of them successful (Mali, Chad and Mali again) and one unsuccessful (Niger). The overall reaction to these coups was more an aura of acceptance than standing strong against the unconstitutional changes. It is highly likely that they were in part inspired by each other and the reaction from international partners. If this assumption proves to be true, it could create dangerous precedents for things to come.

One can only hope that Mali’s most recent coup is a wake-up call for everyone. The immediate reactions may not seem too strong, but they point in the right direction. It is hoped that the signal is strong enough and that there will be no repetition of this conduct in the near future. 

Christian Klatt is the Resident Representative of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Mali.

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