The Coup in Mali: What Took Place and Why it Has the Region Nervous

After seven years in power, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resigned as President of Mali on 18th August. The televised address to the nation came as little surprise: Keïta had been kidnapped shortly before by soldiers from his own army,  The coup followed growing anger over disputed elections, allegations of corruption and a floundering economy – but fears are mounting that the gap in governance will make the country vulnerable to terrorist faction. 

Wearing a surgical mask amidst Covid concerns, the former President was clear that he had little say in the decision to step down.

“If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?” he said in his address before announcing his official resignation and urging for calm from his supporters. “I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power.” 

Both Keïta and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé were arrested on Tuesday and taken to a military camp on the outskirts of Mali’s capital Bamako. The soldiers that arrested the former leaders announced their intention to remove Keïta and Cissé by force with the intention of electing new leaders through democratic means.  

A spokesperson for the soldiers called for “a civil political transition leading to credible general elections”.

Mali Has A History of Coups

Keïta was first elected in 2013, following a very similar coup in 2012 from the very same military camp outside Bamako. He secured a second term in 2018 but has since faced anger from growing sections of  Mali’s population over government incompetence, dispute over legislative elections, corruption, a dire economic situation and constant attacks from Jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda and ISIS based in the country’s north. The weeks leading up to the president’s arrest saw widespread protests in Bamako, with the President rapidly losing any hope of gaining back popular support. 

Support for the coup is strong on the streets of Bamako. Soldiers and citizens alike celebrated the ousting of the current regime with gunfire and parades through the capital. There are, however, serious concerns over the coup’s impact on Mali’s future stability. 

Opportunity for Jihadist Groups

Keïta rose to power in national elections that followed the 2012 coup, which created a vacuum in Mali’s leadership. This same vacuum also created space for various Jihadist groups to increase their activities in Mali, bringing the country to the brink of collapse. 

The desert landscape of Mali’s lawless and ungoverned northern region is home to countless militant groups, many of which are linked to international terrorist organisations such as ISIS and al Qaeda, and an increasing array of armed cross-border drug traffickers. Following the 2012 ousting of President Amadou Toumani Toure, various groups took advantage of the chaos in government and vacuums in state power. Islamists and separatist Tuareg fighters groups began to join forces in the north, forcing government troops from the region. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seized on this instability, taking direct control of several cities in Mali’s northeast, including Kidal and Gao, before declaring the region a caliphate. 

AQIM was ultimately pushed back after the interference of French and foreign forces, which stopped the militants short of reaching Bamako.

Mali has since struggled to maintain stability, especially in the north. Groups such as AQIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are taking advantage of power vacuums within Mali as well as spreading throughout the Sahel region and into Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. 

Frayed Relations

The coup is creating a diplomatic strain, too. Neighbouring states in the Sahel, as well as France and the EU, have warned against any unconstitutional transfer of power. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrespublicly demanded the “immediate and unconditional release” of Keita and Cisse, while French President Emanual Macron denounced the resignation as a ‘mutiny.’ It is unclear if the former PM and President remain in custody.

The Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup, pledged to close land and air borders with Mali, pushed for sanctions against the orchestrators of the coup and suspended Mali from its internal decision making body. 

If Mali does not act quickly to restore both democracy and the faith of its international partners, then the country could once again start to cede control to warring jihadist groups. This is not only a concern for Mali but for the broader Sahel, alongside French security forces, UN Peacekeepers and the African Union, all of whom are struggling to hold the region together. Further afield, the EU is watching the situation closely, fearing a surge in the flow of refugees to Europe if violence is not brought under control.