The fourth coup: Mali between peaceful transition and security vacuum

A group of Malian soldiers overthrew President Keita and formed a committee to lead the country. This was welcomed internally and denounced externally. However, their mission now faces domestic and foreign pressures that necessitate them to find a consensual solution to this crisis.
30 August 2020
The salvation committee called for a national peace conference and negotiations with Mali’s partners and neighbours. [AFP-Getty]

On 18 August 2020, soldiers at a military base in Bamako, the capital of Mali, staged a mutiny. By the end of the day, a group of military colonels calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People had detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Këita and forced him to resign. The putsch leaders were reportedly motivated by their anger at the country’s deteriorating material conditions and the many casualties sustained in the conflict in the north coupled with what they saw as the indifference and corruption of Mali’s top political and military leadership.

The domestic and foreign response to the coup varied widely. The 5 June protest movement, which has been demanding that President Këita step down, cautiously welcomed the coup. On 19 August, the movement said it was prepared to discuss a roadmap with the salvation committee and other political forces. Meetings in the following days between the coup leaders and political parties, civil society groups and prominent figures suggested that the public was prepared to cooperate with the putschists.

Outside Mali, the coup was swiftly condemned. The G5 Sahel, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) all called for the restoration of the constitutional order. ECOWAS immediately froze Mali’s membership and suspended all commercial and economic transactions with the country. France, the strongest foreign player in the region with 5,000 troops on the ground in Mali, announced its agreement with ECOWAS even as it restated its priorities: a resolution of the crisis, stability, democracy and combatting terrorism.

Speaking after Këita’s resignation, the salvation committee said it did not wish to hold political power and it articulated its own vision of a transitional period, calling for a combined civilian-military council that would hold presidential and legislative powers pending elections for a new president and parliament in April 2021. It also called for a national peace conference and negotiations with Mali’s partners and neighbours.

Malians’ positive response to the coup may ultimately influence foreign parties to moderate their stance. Moreover, the coup leaders themselves are constrained by their need to reach some sort of consensus with the 5 June protest movement, which provides the political legitimacy for President Këita’s removal. They must also mollify foreign powers, particularly France and ECOWAS, whose support is vital in the Malian military’s fight against armed jihadi rebels, a conflict that constitutes a real threat to the central authority in Bamako. Notably, the coup leaders quickly expressed their commitment to cooperation agreements with the UN, French, and African forces assisting in the conflict, and signalled their desire for security and continued combat against armed rebels.

Given the rapidly developing events and the multiple domestic and foreign parties and factors involved, several scenarios are possible. Firstly, the coup could successfully oversee a transition that ends with the inauguration of a newly elected civilian government in May 2021. While this trajectory may seem far-fetched now, there are signs that it is a real possibility, particularly popular support for Këita’s removal and the protest movement’s willingness to cooperate with the coup leaders during a transitional phase. France and Europe already seem to have backtracked slightly, stressing that a democratic process and peace is what concerns them most, implicitly admitting that Këita and his government are less important. ECOWAS, too, may be persuaded to moderate its stance by the need to preserve Mali’s cohesion. A clash with a popularly backed military could push the already fragile country to the brink of collapse.

Secondly, the putschists could refuse to cede power to an elected civilian leadership, sparking renewed protests and isolating Mali internationally. Fearing that rebel groups would take advantage of the situation, France and ECOWAS could join forces to remove the coup leaders. This scenario seems unlikely because the coup leaders doubtlessly realise they are not in a position to take on protestors, rebels, and foreign parties.

Thirdly, ECOWAS and France could force Këita’s reinstatement by shifting the balance of security and military force in the capital. This seems unlikely, however, as it would involve a substantial risk to Mali’s already shaky stability and could play into the hands of the jihadi groups that physically control most of the country.

Overall, the challenges facing Mali are beyond the ability of any single force or party to resolve. The reality of a fragile security situation, the country’s complex ethnic and social makeup, deep-seated domestic grievances, and a tattered economy will compel domestic and foreign forces to cooperate to avoid a total breakdown that could benefit the armed rebels. The situation will thus spur coup leaders, politicians, and foreign parties to act with greater flexibility and openness.

*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic, available here: