Mali’s Latest Coup d’état – a Geopolitical and Security Dilemma

Photo by John Kalapo/Getty Images
Photo by John Kalapo/Getty Images

On the afternoon of 24 May 2021, the Malian Transitional President, Bah N'Daw, and his Prime Minister Moctar Ouane were arrested by elements of the Malian Armed Forces and taken to the Soundiata Keïta military camp in Kati. Wild rumours circulated in Bamako. Finally, the Malians were informed of the events that they have become used to for some time. They were wondering about this umpteenth coup d'état.

The military of the former CNSP (Conseil National pour le Salut du Peuple) are at the heart of this coup in Mali. The fundamental issue is the speed at which the episode was normalised. The coup d’état took place and was then legitimized by a ruling of the constitutional court a few days later. Malians seemed to have moved on as if it had not happened. Analysts commented, then moved on even though many questions remain about the unspoken aspects of this coup. Already in August 2020 many people were asking about the coup against Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. It too was easily accepted, according to Bruno Charbonneau “in the sense that national and international actors have quickly and largely returned to their practices and habits of before”. The mediator of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Goodluck Jonathan, quickly went to Bamako three days after the coup to continue his efforts and demand a political transition to a civil and constitutional regime. 

Many observers believe that this coup d’état symbolises a failure of the security crisis and the fight against terrorism in #Mali and the #Sahel

As usual, the international community denounced the coup once again. The United States, France, the European Union (EU) and the French-speaking countries reacted and demanded the return of civilian rule.  A few days later, the strategic questions linked to the stakes of the Malian crisis resurfaced. The debates and discussions remain the same as before the coup. The most recurrent topics are, among others, whether or not to enter into dialogue with the jihadists, who should or can participate in the political negotiations, in the peace agreement or in reconciliation, whether or not the Barkhane operation should leave, etc. Moreover, the security and humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate, with no visible change in short- and medium-term trends. 

This coup is an embarrassment for the UN, France and the EU, which have set themselves the task of stabilising the country and restoring state authority. Many observers believe that this coup d’état symbolises a failure of the security crisis and the fight against terrorism in Mali and the Sahel. Others believe that it is a violation of democratic norms and the country’s constitutional rules. Another category of people believe that the coup may have reinvigorated criticism of France’s strategy to support African leaders and fight terrorism in the Sahel. In an interview with expert and analyst Jean Herve Jezequel detailed the possible consequences of this second putsch in a country already weakened by the conflict with the jihadists and said that “Mali sometimes gives the impression of a worrying return to square one”.

A few days later President Macron announced at a Defence Council meeting in Paris on 3 June 2021 that France was suspending its joint military operations with Mali and would only resume them once the framework of the political transition in Mali had been clarified. The real issue is that in Mali we still do not know the nature of the political forces capable of bringing about a change from the old order to a new, more democratic and republican order. Everyone agrees that when one sets out to fight armed insurgent groups such as those operating in the Sahel countries in general and in Mali in particular, it is not possible to leave in this way. There are geopolitical and geostrategic interests that dictated the 2012 intervention. Macron’s words are a classic communication, say political analysts who see an ulterior motive in the run-up to the 2022 presidential elections in France. 

Observers believe that the interests of Europe and France will eventually prevail given the dangers of a major destabilisation of Mali and the countries of the Sahel that are on the horizon. Others believe that the message is intended to reduce the Malian government’s willingness to negotiate with insurgent groups, notably the AQIM-affiliated Katiba Macina and the Islamic State-affiliated Dawlatul Islamia. France thus appears totally trapped in Mali and the Sahel. In his book, “Soldat de l’ombre- au cœur des forces spéciales” (Tallandier edition 2020), General Christophe Gomart acknowledges “that dozens of relevant examples could be cited to illustrate the successes or failures of the special forces. As if to say that in war there are victories but also defeats. 

This situation could give wings to insurgent groups who would feel strengthened by the various recurrent crises in Bamako and the possible temporary or definitive abandonment of the support of the Barkhane and Takouba forces to Mali’s armed forces. This announcement by President Macron leads Malians and Sahelians to ask themselves more questions about the strategies they should define for their own security. France could well reorganise its deployment and repositioning of its forces to counter threats that go beyond Mali, the Sahel and Africa. Only security experts will be able to elucidate the strategies and measures that will be defined in the short, medium and long term. Whatever the case, the French authorities cannot withdraw their troops in the short term. They can only do so gradually. 

Several observers believe that the French authorities are in a psychodrama in terms of power relations on public opinion with the rumour of increased geopolitical relations between Russia and France/Europe in the Sahel countries. Clearly, the intervention in Mali is linked in one way or another to the international community, with the United Nations as the driving force, with the support of MINUSMA.  The rapid and uncoordinated disengagement of the Barkhane forces in the Sahel will impact all ongoing stabilisation initiatives in the Sahel region and in the Lake Chad basin. Ongoing initiatives with the Sahel G5 and other counter-terrorism operations will be affected. Withdrawal cannot be rushed and must be planned with medium and long-term objectives in mind. Fighting terrorism is not quantifiable at a glance according to specialists in armed conflict. As Army General Pierre de Villiers said so well In his book “Servir” (Pluriel , 2018), “I am convinced that the times to come will be difficult. We have a duty to look reality in the face, without darkening it or exaggerating it, but with the concern to comprehend the current world as it really is”.

Boubacar BA is based at the Centre for Governance and Security Analysis in the Sahel.

Article by:

Boubacar Ba
Expert in conflict resolution, small arms project management and local governance in Mali

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