Military coup in Mali threatens stability and increases jihadist expansion

The Malian army has not been seen as a key player in the unstable West African country’s politics since it ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in 2012. In fact, it is not considered the main bulwark against militants in Mali; that distinction belongs to France’s Operation Barkhane. So it was a surprise when, on 18 August, mutinous soldiers detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse. A few hours later, Keita announced his resignation on state broadcaster ORTM TV, saying that he did not want “any blood to be shed to keep me in power”. The military has unveiled a junta – National Committee for the Salvation of the People – and promised a civil political transition culminating in new elections. “In order to prevent the country from sinking, we, the national forces under the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), have decided to assume our responsibilities before the people and before history to ensure the continuity of the state and public services,” said Col Maj Ismael Wague, Mali Air Force deputy chief of staff. Wague was flanked by several military officers, including two colonels who have been identified as masterminds of the coup.

Echoes of 2012 coup

Soldiers deposed President Keita late on 18 August following weeks of anti-government protests over various grievances, including his failure to end the Islamist insurgency that started in 2012 when his predecessor was ousted under similar circumstances. Keita, 75, came to power in 2013 with a promise to end the insurgency and improve the economic situation in the former French colony. He was re-elected in 2018 despite a spiralling jihadist insurgency and economic challenges. Since June this year, anti-government protesters have been demanding that he resign for failing to restore peace and end corruption. Coup leaders said Malians had lost hope following escalating insecurity and bad governance.

Will jihadists exploit the crisis?

Islamists hijacked a 2012 Tuareg insurgency in the north, leading to years of deadly violence that has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Initially, Islamists and affiliates of al-Qaeda seized large parts of northern Mali before French forces dislodged them. They melted into local communities where they stirred and entrenched historic grievances over alleged marginalisation. The emergence of Islamic State created friction with al-Qaeda, leading to clashes in various parts of the country. By the middle of this month, IS claims of attacks in the Sahel saw a notable drop, as the group appears to have been side-tracked by battles with al-Qaeda.

The main affiliate of al-Qaeda, the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) is thought to be more powerful and established, compared to IS’s affiliate, known in the local media as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Although the clashes between militant groups undercut any quest for expansion, it is also a remote possibility that the two groups might bridge their ideological differences and take advantage of Mali’s unrest. The political paralysis is likely to create a security vacuum that the militants may exploit to seize territory or sow more chaos.

Jihadists fuelling communal tension

Jihadists have been exploiting historic communal tensions and fuelling violence in Burkina Faso and Mali. In Mali, Dogon hunters and pastoralist Fulanis have frequently clashed over natural resources in the central Mopti Region. The arrival of militants heightened suspicion and clashes between the two communities. The Dogon accuse Fulanis of close links to jihadist groups, while the Fulani claim the Dogon are collaborating with the Malian army to attack them. JNIM often calls for revenge for alleged crimes committed against Fulanis and targeted the Malian army in its propaganda, thus undermining trust in the authorities.

In Burkina Faso, jihadists have claimed attacks on churches and Christians in an effort to instigate religious violence. The nation has no history of religious strife. These developments have spurred self-defence groups in Mali and Burkina Faso to take up arms and defend their communities, initiating more violence.

Will the military reach out to jihadists?

JNIM is largely a home-grown group of fighters borne out of historical grievances over statehood and inspired by jihadist ideology. As military efforts seem to have failed to end the insurgency, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in February 2020 said he had reached out for dialogue with jihadist leaders Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa. Ag Ghaly is a Tuareg nationalist and former diplomat. Koufa is a radical Muslim cleric from the Fulani ethnic group. Malians have backed calls for talks with jihadists rather than military intervention led by France.

In principle, JNIM indicated it was ready for talks, while IS supporters expressed apprehension over what such a dialogue will mean for them. If the Malian army maintains a powerful role in an envisaged transition period, it is likely to explore talks with JNIM amid pressure to end the spiralling violence that has not been quelled by the combined efforts of local troops, French forces and the regional G5 Sahel counter-terrorism mission.

International security efforts

In July 2014, France replaced Serval with Barkhane, a 5,100-strong counter-terror force meant to help Malian forces and UN peacekeepers (Minusma) to rout militants and stabilise Mali. Barkhane troops also operate in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. They are supported by small contingents of troops from other European countries, including the UK, Estonia and the Netherlands. At least 41 French soldiers have died in Mali since 2013, including 13 who were killed when two helicopters collided during an offensive against jihadists in the north-east on 25 November 2019. Minusma has over 15,000 troops deployed in Mali since 2013. Despite over 200 peacekeepers being killed in the line of duty, the UN force has failed to gain the acceptance of local communities, especially in north and central Mali.

The G5 Sahel force, a regional counter-terror alliance composed of 5,000 troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger, was formed in 2015 but has also largely failed in stemming jihadist attacks. Its operations have been hampered by limited funding. Malians accuse the international forces of worsening the Islamist insurgency and want them to leave the country.

There were major protests against foreign troops in November 2019. Some protesters carried banners urging military cooperation between Mali and Russia. That and reports that two of the coup masterminds had recently returned from training in Russia have fuelled rumours of Moscow’s hand in Keita’s ouster. The public hostility has left foreign troops, especially Barkhane, battling entrenched militants without support from local communities.

What next for Mali?

Protestors in Timbuktu, Mali

An alliance of opposition activists has led protests calling for Keita to leave office

In 2012, the army relinquished power to an interim civilian government in a month. It is unclear what will happen this time but the military junta has promised elections “within a reasonable time”. Although the 5 June Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) has led months of anti-government protests, it lacks a leader and vision to unify Mali, end corruption, revive the economy and stem jihadist violence.

The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has sent a high-level delegation to Bamako in a bid to secure Keita’s release and press for a quick return to civilian rule. Ecowas has also imposed sanctions on Mali that include border closures by neighbouring countries. Whilst the sanctions put pressure on the junta, they risk jeopardizing regional counter-terrorism efforts at a time when the Sahel has become a new battleground for al-Qaeda and Islamic State group.

The coup is an embarrassment for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is likely to face pressure at home to justify support for the military junta in Mali.

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