Seven months after Mali’s 2021 coup, the country’s military junta and the international community are at an impasse. This piece highlights the weaknesses of an approach by the international community that is on the one hand diplomatic, trying to nudge interim authorities into committing to an electoral timeline, and on the other hand punitive by imposing sanctions.
Mali’s military transitional government – led by coup leader Assimi Goïta – displays much of the same apathy towards the consistent insecurity that characterized the ousted civilian government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. Momentum on governance reform, albeit frail, in the aftermath of the August 2020 coup has evaporated since. The transitional government has failed to make meaningful progress on its stated priorities. Instead, its main achievement has been to construct an image of populist support through the instrumentalization of anti-French sentiments, the rapprochement with Russia and the fight against corruption.
The international community is trying to keep up with events. The regional bloc ECOWAS and the European Union (EU) have changed their stance with every new twist in Malian politics. They imposed sanctions after the first coup, fell into stasis after the second coup, and adopted a new round of sanctions in November 2021 when it became clear the Malian authorities would not respect the electoral timeline. That timeline foresaw elections in February 2022 which would end an 18-months transitional period and bring back democratic rule, a prospect that has now evaporated. Regardless, ECOWAS has stated more sanctions will follow should Malian authorities fail to respect the original timeline.
In addition, an escalating diplomatic crisis between the transitional government and Paris over the recalibration of France’s military footprint in the region, and over a potential deployment of Russian mercenaries to Mali accentuate how, 15 months after the first coup d’état, Mali is increasingly isolated.
The impasse has taken place in an alarming context for the Malian population. Malian citizens face a deteriorating security situation with limited proof that the transitional government’s rhetorical prioritization of security has led to any measurable effect. In the ninth year since the beginning of this multi-dimensional crisis in 2012, violence is so widespread that it is threatening “the very survival of the state”, according to the United Nation expert on human rights in the country. In 2021, violent incidents have far surpassed those occurred in 2020, and attacks attributed to violent extremist organizations have further expanded towards western and southern parts of the country. In this sense, efforts to address grievances around insecurity that led to mass mobilizations in mid-2020 and paved the way for the military takeover of power remain either absent or ineffective.
The strategy of the international community in Mali of using diplomatic and punitive measures to direct the country back to constitutional order has two shortcomings.
First and foremost, elections will not solve Mali’s problems. The international recipe to press for the organization of elections to mark the re-introduction of a legitimate leadership has had limited success in Mali. The 2013 elections that followed Mali’s latest military coup established a government that was legitimate only on paper and did not help to rebuild the social contract. They also didn’t establish a stable civil-military balance nor improve the security situation over the course of two mandates. Rather, it was Mali’s contested legislative elections in early 2020 that ultimately paved the way for the military’s coup in August that year. An excessive focus on elections thus seems like a flawed approach when considering the country’s electoral experience over the past 10 years.
Not only can elections be triggers for further contestation, they also risk producing flawed outcomes. Even if elections are organized in Mali, the influence of current junta leaders is likely to be substantial, as was the case with 2012 coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo in the first post-coup presidential elections in 2013. In addition, the elections will hardly be representative of the entirety of the population, as their geographic reach under the current security situation will be extremely limited. Official voter turnout numbers are typically only around 35 to 40% in Mali, with civil society groups even estimating the turnout numbers to be much lower.
Second, sanctions are risky in an environment that condemns international interventionism. It is key to realize that today’s political climate in the country is markedly different from the more accommodating environment that characterized Mali under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (2013-2020). While both Keïta and the military junta arguably share an apathy for meaningful reforms, their strategy towards external support appears radically different. The junta and Prime Minister Maiga have heavily invested in expanding their authorities’ domestic support base rather than their international backing. The military junta uses the narrative of neocolonial interference to bolster popular support, mobilizing anti-French sentiments already present since long before the start of the current crisis. The Junta’s explicit “no” to an international order in which France calls the shots has proven to be a popular move in Mali.
Sanctions by the international community thus risk bolstering the current leaders’ image of standing up for Malians against that very same international community. One can read in a similar vein Mali’s overture to new security providers such as Russia, or its renewed fight against corruption. Both seem like a façade intended for propping up support from a domestic audience or silencing critical voices, rather than addressing structural issues - in this case widespread insecurity and endemic corruption.
The transitional government’s ability to legitimize its position will in the long-term depend not only on domestic support, which it is trying to generate at present, but also on the continued commitment of international partners. In the short term however, the heated rhetoric around international interventionism that is present in Mali – and throughout the Sahel – does not bode well for a principled approach to elections and sanctions, risking a spiral of escalation and instrumentalization. In parallel to renewed dialogue between ECOWAS and Mali and pathways to de-escalate tensions, what is needed most now is addressing structural governance issues, including conditions that have produced flawed electoral outcomes on several occasions. To move forward, the international community might thus need to trade short term principled approaches for more sustainable long-term outcomes.