Implications of Mali’s Latest Coup for Sahel and West Africa

On 24th May 2021, news broke of yet another coup d'état in Mali, the third in the last decade following the 2012 and 2020 military takeovers. The ‘palace’ coup sees Col Assimi Goïta, yet again, seizing power in Mali and detaining transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, after accusing them of failing in their duties and trying to sabotage Mali’s transition to democracy.

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

The military takeover was in response to the transitional government’s actions of reshuffling that left two soldiers who were instrumental in the August 2020 coup out of the government.The cabinet shake-up was occasioned by civil society pressure on the military-dominated transitional government to push through reforms and prepare the grounds for the return to democratic governance. The question of who truly is in charge of the transition has never been in doubt. The military, although appearing to have taken a back seat in the transition, has always been in charge of the process. The current coup d’état, coming just nine months into an 18-month transition period, has raised several questions on the assurance, sincerity and genuineness of the military to commit to a peaceful transitional process and to return the country speedily to democratic rule. Events that have characterized the present coup d’état in Mali have caused dismay among both domestic and international actors and even raised some eyebrows among the jihadi groups operating across the Sahel. Likewise, Mali’s neighbours in the Sahel and the ECOWAS sub-region are particularly worried that the latest revolt will threaten a commitment to hold the February 2022 presidential election, and undermine a regional fight against Islamist militants, some of whom are operating in northern and central parts of Mali.

The latest coup threatens the fight against terrorism, Jihadism and violent extremism in the Sahel, especially considering the fractured and weak political leadership in the region

Resolving the conundrum posed by this latest military intervention could prove rather stroppy for international and regional actors, especially, considering that the pillars for a peaceful transfer of power from the transitional government to a properly elected democratic government appears not to be in place nine months prior to the scheduled 2022 polls. Constitutional changes are yet to be agreed either by the transitional assembly or the general public. Although the mood on the streets of Bamako appear indifferent compared to what heralded the 2020 putsch, there is a groundswell hunger for change from civil society groups and this has been demonstrated in their condemnation of the latest overthrow. International response to the latest coup has not been charitable either. The ferocious condemnation and threats of sanctions by the EU and other bilateral and multilateral actors demonstrate the objection to the actions of the military. Already, the African Union and ECOWAS have brought the gauntlet on Mali by suspending it from their activities. These interests of the regional bodies in Mali cannot be overemphasized because of the unique positioning of the country in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism in the Sahel. The instability in Mali has become a regionally multidimensional crisis with noticeable rise in the number of security threats that have plagued the geopolitical and geostrategic surrounding of the country. 

It is for these reasons that the recent coup d’état holds serious security and political implications for the Malian state and the entire sub-region. Firstly, this latest coup threatens the commitment to the norms and principles that underpin the 2001 ECOWAS protocols on democracy and good governance which basically frowns on coup d’états. The disregard for the provisions of the protocol and the transitional roadmap abrogates the rule of law, resulting consequently in anarchy. The resultant effect of the latest action is that the democratic gains and the political compromises made over the last nine months will be truncated. 

Arguably, the feeble nature of the response from ECOWAS and its inability to severely punish and deal with the coup makers have created a dangerous precedent that has the propensity to encourage and embolden other would-be coup plotters to take a similar path. This will result in an overabundance of pariah states. Already, there are examples of similar attempts by military actors in Niger who attempted a coup that was eventually foiled. Considering that the security landscape in the West African sub-region is relatively fragile, if such actions of attempting to overthrow constitutionally-elected governments are not prevented, it is likely to open the floodgate for other disgruntled military operatives in the sub-region to follow suit and engage in similar acts in their respective countries. 

The military regime must take a back seat, reinstate and allow the civilian political leadership to take charge and control the transitional trajectory leading to the return to democratic rule

Secondly, the military coup, and the crisis in Bamako will have a significant impact on the security situation in the entire region of the Sahel. The greatest beneficiaries of this palace coup are the insurgents and Jihadi groups seeking to derail Mali and the entire sub-region. The latest coup threatens the fight against terrorism, Jihadism and violent extremism in the Sahel, especially considering the fractured and weak political leadership in the region. There is a possibility that terror groups with links to “al-Qaida” and “Islamic State” could take advantage of the current leadership vacuum to expand on their activities and actions in the sub-region. Already, the signs are on the wall with increased attacks in the central part of Mali and the northern part of Burkina Faso.  The latest attack coming just a few days in June 2021 claming at least 160 lives in the village of Solhan. Mali has been a key ally to the global fight against Jihadism in the Sahel. What this latest coup does is increase the fears that jihadis with strongholds in northern Mali could carry out extended attacks in and around Mali and further destabilize the entire sub-region. Mali cannot afford to lose the war against the jihadist groups. Doing so would have a calamitous effect on the security situation in the entire region.

As the political situation continues to deteriorates, the likelihood of replication across weaker states in the Sahel and the broader West African sub-region cannot be overlooked. The military regime must take a back seat, reinstate and allow the civilian political leadership to take charge and control the transitional trajectory leading to the return to democratic rule. ECOWAS and the AU must also act firmly beyond the usual rhetoric while Bamako burns.  

Dr Fiifi Edu-Afful is a Senior Research Fellow of the Peace Support Operation Programme at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra, Ghana.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.