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Military coup deepens unrest in extremist-hit Mali

‘A period of uncertainty is beginning.’

A crowd cheers Malian army soldiers Moussa Kalapo/REUTERS
Crowds amassed at Independence Square in Bamako to cheer Malian soldiers who launched a coup that has plunged the West African country into a new phase of uncertainty.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was forced to resign on Tuesday after soldiers arrested him at gunpoint in a coup that has plunged the West African country, plagued for years by extremist violence, into a new phase of uncertainty.

The African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) both condemned the coup – which left four people dead and more than a dozen injured, according to Amnesty International – and suspended Mali from their respective bodies.

The junta leaders, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), ordered a nighttime curfew and the closure of land and air borders – a move likely to impact humanitarian organisations working in the country.

Many fear that the group’s actions could further destabilise the country and the wider Sahel region, where al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic-State-linked groups continue to expand their reach, triggering record displacement.

“A period of uncertainty is beginning,” said Boubacar Sangaré, a research officer at the Institute for Security Studies.

Etienne Sissoko, a Malian economist, told TNH that the prices of goods will likely increase as trade slows and regional sanctions bite. International donors may also pause funding, he said, weakening an already lacklustre economy.

The junta has promised quick elections and a civilian transition, but its intentions remain unclear. Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist from the University of Bamako, said soldiers can expect stiff opposition should they try to hold on to power. 

“If they don’t honor their commitments, they will face further uprisings in a few months,” he said.

Democratic elections won’t be enough to solve Mali’s interlocking crises if the same “old dinosaurs” get elected again.

In an email, Klaus Spreyermann, head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mali, said the needs of people affected by conflict should not be forgotten in the days ahead. “It remains the responsibility of authorities to assist them, no matter the changes of leadership in Bamako,” Spreyermann stated.

The coup follows a summer of mass protests against 75-year-old Keïta – better known by his initials, IBK. He had struggled to stem jihadist and inter-communal violence that has left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced in northern and central parts of the country.

Read more → What’s behind the mass protests in Mali?

On Wednesday, the M5-RFP coalition of opposition and civil society groups that led the protests said it was willing to work with the coup leaders, who appear popular for now, at least in the capital. 

Mohamed Sangaré, a youth leader in Bamako, said he was happy to see the end of an “oligarchic regime”, while Aminta Toure, an aid worker, said she saw the departure as an opportunity for change.

But Fily Keïta, a young businesswoman from Kati who is not related to the ousted president, said democratic elections won’t be enough to solve Mali’s interlocking crises if the same “old dinosaurs” get elected again. “The fall of IBK is not the solution,” she said.

Security vacuum

A day of chaos and confusion began early Tuesday morning at a military camp in the garrison town of Kati – where a previous coup was launched in 2012 – just outside the capital, Bamako. Soldiers then moved to Bamako and roamed freely in armoured tanks while cheered on by jubilant crowds.

Keïta was arrested at his residence in the afternoon and driven in a military convoy to Kati camp. Just before midnight he appeared on national television in a surgical mask to deliver a brief resignation speech, in which he requested that no blood be shed.

Addressing the country a few hours later, the coup leaders – who appear to come from the upper echelons of the army, though little is known about them – insisted they won’t hold on to power and will push for elections within a “reasonable” time frame.

Analysts say that the jihadists could try and exploit the latest crisis to boost their legitimacy.

They also promised to preserve a 2015 peace agreement with northern armed groups and collaborate with international counter-terrorism forces and UN peacekeepers stationed in Mali.

But past coups have had a destabilising effect on the country. When low-ranking soldiers dissatisfied with the government’s handling of a Taureg rebellion in northern Mali toppled the government in March 2012, they created a security vacuum that jihadist groups quickly exploited – taking over parts of the desert north before turning south, towards the capital. 

Thousands of French troops and peacekeepers have since deployed to Mali – making a repeat occurrence unlikely. But analysts say that the jihadists could try and exploit the latest crisis to boost their legitimacy, while implementation of the already shaky 2015 accord with the northern rebels could be further disrupted.

Summer of protests

Keïta vowed to put an end to corruption when he won elections by a landslide in 2013, but he was widely criticised for promoting family members to top positions and squandering money while unemployment and poverty have remained stubbornly high.

The 2015 agreement stagnated under his watch, and jihadist groups expanded their reach from northern to central parts of the country, stirring inter-ethnic conflicts that became far deadlier than anything the extremists were doing directly.

Read more → In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict

A series of attacks by jihadist groups on military installations towards the end of last year cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers, increasing pressure on Keïta’s government — which relatives of the deceased accused of apathy and indifference.

Political tensions rose in March, when the results of a long-delayed legislative election were partially overturned by the country’s constitutional court in a decision that was perceived to benefit Keïta’s party, sparking protests in various cities.

“We observed the incapacity of the different political reach a consensual solution.”

The M5-RFP protest coalition emerged with the goal of ousting Keïta. Led by the influential Muslim cleric Mahmoud Dicko, the group proved able to capture and channel the frustrations of many Malians.

The sociologist Brema Ely Dicko noted that “The street mobilisation provided favorable grounds for dissatisfied soldiers to latch onto.”

Several ECOWAS delegations failed to mediate the crisis as M5-RFP dismissed Keïta’s concessions and the security forces cracked down in July, killing at least 11 protesters and bystanders and injuring dozens more, according to rights groups

“We observed the incapacity of the different political reach a consensual solution,” said Sangaré.

He added: “In the future, we need political and institutional reforms, a change in governance that [will create] real change.”


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