Mali: Another Coup , Another Outcome


August 26, 2020: President Keita was forced to resign by the military on the 18th. This was the second coup since 2013 and it got the same hostile reaction from the neighbors, international organizations and Western supporters. The March 2012 coup was triggered by lack of financial and political support for troops stationed in the thinly populated north, which was being taken over by a Tuareg rebellion led by Islamic terrorist groups. Elections were held in 2013, after a French led force advanced into the north in January and quickly defeated the Taureg rebels and their Islamic terrorist allies. Eight years later the Taureg tribes are still waiting for the government to deliver the economic aid promised when the Tauregs agreed to a peace deal. The Islamic terrorist groups are still up there and have spread to central Mali, partly to support their smuggling operations (drugs and people) that finance the terror groups. Eight years later and the corruption and mismanagement are still prominent and the target of growing popular anger.

The military has been rebuilt, a task carried out largely by the French military. Currently the army has about 7,000 troops. Another 800 personnel serve in the air force and riverine navy. There are also nearly 5,000 paramilitary troops, including the 2,000-man Republican Guard stationed in the capital to protect government officials and facilities. Most of the paramilitary personnel act as national police and serve throughout the country. Overall, the rebuilt army is a more effective force than it was in 2012. But the Mali troops are still considered the least effective in the region. The 2020 army has a few units that are first-rate and these often operate with the French counterterrorism forces. But these elite Mali troops account for less than ten percent of the army.

The 2020 coup was triggered by the inability of the government to agree to reforms and cooperate with the opposition parties. There had been over a month of fruitless negotiations with president (since 2013) Keita, who seemed to believe he could wait it out. After all Keita had been reelected in 2018 amid accusations of voting fraud. The opposition produced many proposals but few Keita was willing to accept. Mediators from ECOWAS (Economic Community of 15 West African States) kept the negotiations going but Keita refused to consider resigning and the opposition saw curbing Keita’s power as essential if there was to be any hope of peace and prosperity. The army leaders, who were not formally part of the opposition, seemed to agree and carried out a coup that had more popular support than the 2012 one.

Demonstrations had been going on since June 5th and that led to an unexpected coalition, called the June 5 Movement (J5M), containing political, economic and religious groups that rarely agree with or work with each other. The coalition held together but past experience shows that such a coalition will have a difficult time implementing sustained change. Faction leaders and Malians in general understand that without a much less corrupt government they will be stuck in a cycle of economic decline and inability to deal with tribal, religious and political rebels in central and northern Mali. Foreign aid donors are backing away because of the corruption and the waste of so much aid via theft and mismanagement.

Some faction leaders feared Keita might try using mass arrests and violence to retain power. These leaders went into hiding leaving cleric Mahmoud Dicko as the de-facto spokesman for J5M. Dicko is a popular senior imam (Moslem cleric) who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and came to be chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Despite (or because of) his education in Saudi religious schools (which stress the need for Islamic law) Dicko openly backs a secular government, but one run by honest (or a lot more honest than now) politicians and officials. Imams like Dicko are one reason Islamic terrorist beliefs have not spread to the majority of Malians, most (95 percent) of them Moslem. Many foreign students in Saudi religious schools note that for all its piety Saudi Arabia is very corrupt as are most other Arab oil states. There were some exceptions but without all that oil wealth many Arab governments would be undergoing the same political pain Mali is suffering.

Corruption has long been a major problem for Mali. Corruption and misuse of foreign aid are the main reasons for many other problems. The international aspect of this can be seen in the worldwide surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 Mali ranked 130th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 120th in 2018. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

Keita and his associates were supposed to be the cure for the current mess, which began after France intervened in January 2013, leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied because of lack of support from the corrupt government down south and took control of the capital. The army soon backed off when neighboring nations threatened to intervene. The elected government was soon back in charge and more corrupt than ever.

In April 2020 parliamentary elections were conducted after nearly two years of delays. These were the first such elections since the military coup in 2013. Fewer than 15 percent of eligible voters participated. Most of the 19 million people in Mali don’t have to deal with the Islamic or tribal terrorism found mainly in thinly populated central and northern Mali. Everyone knows about this problem and how it has spread from the north to central Mali in the last five years. The main reason for the spread of this violence is corruption. It has been a problem ever since Mali became independent after the French left in 1960. It is a problem common throughout Africa and many other parts of the world. Voters are discouraged because it seems that whoever they elect, they just get another bunch of corrupt and incompetent leaders.

Lots of corruption often produces rebels and in Moslem majority nations that often means Islamic terrorism. There are several of these groups in Mali and largest of them is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding.

Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg or Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not incorporate all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business, while the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.

Meanwhile the Islamic terror groups evolved with more radical JNIM members joining more radical groups like ISIL, which is universally hated by other Islamic terrorists and Moslems in general. By 2018 there were two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa when the smaller one, ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), showed up. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.

In the last year there has been a lot more fighting between JNIM and ISGS in northern Mali. Some of this is about money and access to smuggling routes but a lot of it is about ISIL insisting that they are the leading Islamic terror group and all other Islamic terrorists must obey ISIL. In practice that does not work very well for ISIL but since ISIL members are generally more fanatical than those in other Islamic terror groups, ISIL members tend to keep at it until they get killed by one of their many enemies.

There are also a lot of tribal conflicts in central Mali but these have been active for decades and are made worse by the corruption. The tribal war between Dogon and Fulani has been particularly bloody this year.

As long as Mali suffers from the high levels of government corruption and mismanagement there will be Islamic terrorism and the threat of separatism succeeding, as it did in 2012-13. France won’t always be willing to move in the deal with the problem. Many in France are questioning the wisdom of remaining in Mali and the Sahel. What keeps the French forces there is past experience. When Islamic terrorists are left free to expand the terror groups will do just that. Nearly all the mayhem will be local but some of it will show up in the West, triggering demands that “something be done.” At the moment the French, aided by the Americans and a coalition of Sahel states, are doing something and it forces the Islamic terrorists to restrict their activities and spend a lot of time avoiding detection and attack (on the ground or via airstrike).

The counter-terror operations by France, the G5 Sahel states, UN peacekeepers and the Mali Army have been successful but it has only suppressed Islamic terrorist and tribal violence, not eliminated it. There are fewer large-scale terror attacks or tribal raids. But there is still lots of low-level activity that does not kill but rather intimidates and extorts financial and other support for the armed groups.

August 22, 2020: In central Mali (Mopti) near the Burkina Faso border, Fulani rebels used a roadside bomb against an army patrol, killing four soldiers and wounding another one.

August 21, 2020: Popular Islamic cleric Mahmoud Dicko presided over a large rally in the capital. Dicko urged everyone to support the military government.

August 19, 2020: Leaders of the 5,000 strong G5 force demanded that the Mali military release president Keita and other officials seized during the coup yesterday. G5 showed no interest in using its troops to enforce this demand, nor did the 5,000 strong French force or the 12,000 UN peacekeepers.

August 18, 2020: The army forced president Keita to resign and began trying to form an interim (until elections) government. President Keita

August 2, 2020: In central Mali (Mopti) troops suffered five dead and five wounded as result of two attacks. One was an ambush and the other was a mortar attack on an army base.

July 23, 2020: In the north (Timbuktu region) JNIM used a suicide bomber to attack a French patrol near the Burkina Faso border, leaving one French soldier dead.


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