Mali Coup

The International Community’s Soft Acceptance of the Coup in Mali

People attend a ceremony hosted by Imam Mahmoud Dicko in honor of the Malians killed by security forces during ongoing protests against Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was ousted by the Malian military on August 18th. (ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP via Getty Images)

On August 18, an apparent mutiny escalated into a military coup against Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, Mali’s now former president. After his arrest by soldiers, Keïta appeared on state television late that night to resign under obvious duress. A few hours later, the newly-formed National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) presented itself. The CNSP’s structure gelled over the following days, with Colonels Assimi Goïta, Malick Diaw, and Ismaël Wagué emerging, respectively, as president, first vice president, and spokesman. The CNSP is now beginning to appoint core ministers, and Goïta is implicitly functioning as head of state.

Within the international community there is a general norm against coups. In practice, however, each coup elicits an ad hoc reaction from major powers such as the United States and—of particular relevance in Mali—France. The contrast between rhetorical norms and actual behavior was on prominent display after Egypt’s 2013 military takeover, a textbook coup that Washington refused to treat as such, presumably in order to avoid triggering the restrictions of aid that the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 requires in the case of a coup, and to preserve the long-standing US-Egypt relationship.

For analytical purposes, the reaction of Western and regional powers to coups can be divided into four broad categories:

  • Hard rejection: coup-makers are pressured to stand down immediately and restore the ousted incumbent;
  • Soft rejection: the ousting of the incumbent is allowed to stand but the coup-makers are not permitted to rule;
  • Soft acceptance: the ousting of the incumbent is allowed to stand and the coup-makers are given a relatively lengthy period in which to organize a transition to a regime other than themselves; and,
  • Hard acceptance: the coup itself is treated as a fait accompli and the coup-makers are accepted as the country’s new, long-term rulers.

In the Sahel region, of which Mali is a part, the response to coups has generally been soft acceptance. In the twenty-first century in the Sahel there have been five completed coups, one possible coup whose exact status is subject to debate (the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014), and one coup that initially succeeded but was quickly reversed. Notably, only in that one instance of reversal—Burkina Faso in 2015—was a coup met with a hard rejection. In all other instances, Western and regional powers quickly accepted that the ousted incumbent would not return. One coup—Mali in 2012—could be classified as a “soft rejection.” The incumbent did not return, but the junior officers who led the coup were made to cede power to the president of the Malian National Assembly within three weeks.

Three other completed coups in the region—Mauritania in 2005, Mauritania in 2008, and Niger in 2010—were all met with varying degrees of acceptance. Mauritania’s 2005 coup and Niger’s 2010 coup are instances of “soft acceptance.” The 2008 takeover in Mauritania, meanwhile, is the 21st-century Sahel’s one case of “hard acceptance”—an instance where Western powers not only acquiesced to the coup itself, but also to the military ruler’s decision to run in, and win, the election that the junta organized.

The Dynamics of Mali’s Recent Coup

The CNSP is, increasingly, enjoying a soft acceptance. First of all, talk of restoring IBK to power faded quickly. Jeune Afrique reports that within 24 hours of the coup, France was telling other West African governments that IBK should not return. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held out a bit longer, but once an ECOWAS delegation began in-person negotiations with the CNSP on August 22, the call for restoration subsided and discussions turned to how long the transition would be and what it would look like. Ongoing negotiations over the length of the transition, meanwhile, speak in units of months and even years, with a three-year transition seemingly the CNSP’s position at multiple points in the talks.

The negotiations are also implicitly premised on the idea that Mali will be operating outside of its Constitutional framework for the duration of the transition. Per the Constitution, a presidential resignation should trigger the formation of an interim government headed by the president of the National Assembly, followed by new elections within 21–40 days. Neither of those two requirements will be followed this time.

The parameters of the conversation in 2020 are thus completely different from the dynamics that followed Mali’s 2012 coup. As noted above, in that instance the junta surrendered power within three weeks to the National Assembly president (although elections were held approximately 16 months later, not within 40 days).

Why Different Responses?

Numerous factors come into play to explain different responses. Chief among them are how well-liked the ousted incumbent was, what the incumbent did to help precipitate the coup, how long he (in the Sahel, it is always he) had been in power, how well-organized, senior, professional, and savvy the leaders of the junta are, the other priorities of Western powers in and for the country, whether Western powers see the coup as stabilizing or destabilizing, and how much attention Western powers are paying to the country in the first place.

In most instances, as seen above, Western powers and even regional actors make little effort to restore incumbents who are seen as failures or who may have directly prompted coups through their own overreach. Few tears were shed, in Paris or Washington or Abuja, for Mauritania’s Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, dictator for more than twenty years, when he fell in 2005 in a coup led by his own right-hand men. Or for Niger’s Mamadou Tandja, whose push for a third term in 2009 led directly to a coup a few months later. Or even for Mali’s Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012 and IBK in 2020, both of them second-term incumbents who were clearly struggling to address armed conflict, corruption, and widespread popular discontent.

Juntas’ compositions, intentions, and timing also appear to matter to Western policymakers and ECOWAS. The two juntas that met the harshest rebukes in recent years were the junior officers who took over Mali in 2012 and the factional senior officers who briefly took over Burkina Faso in 2015. In different ways, both would-be juntas not only failed to unify the armed forces of their own countries, but also raised the hackles of Western and regional powers with their erratic, destabilizing approaches. For Burkina Faso’s in 2015 coup, few Burkinabé or international powers appeared willing to see the country’s nascent transition disrupted by Compaoré loyalists belonging to a military unit whose very existence the transitional government had been trying to undo. In short, senior officers who overthrow a long-ruling, unpopular incumbent are likely to receive a soft acceptance; junior or factional officers, especially when they overthrow a fledgling government, are likely to receive a rejection.

In Mali’s case, the CNSP cannot credibly claim to be playing the “referee of politics” in the same way that the Nigerien military claimed to be doing in 2010. IBK had not sought a third term, and his second term was not scheduled to end until 2023. Yet IBK had increasingly and visibly struggled to contain Mali’s problems, which is why French officials, in the aftermath of the coup, privately told other West African leaders that IBK’s return would “lead to an enduring blockage, feed instability, and hamper the implementation of the Algiers peace accord,” a 2015 peace agreement for northern Mali. Meanwhile, the CNSP’s professionalism, the lack of contestation against them from within the Malian armed forces, and their obvious “know[ledge] of international norms and how to use them” have all garnered the CNSP at least a grudging acceptance from the international community.

All of the Sahel’s twenty-first-century coups, meanwhile, have occurred against the backdrop of the “global war on terrorism.” During the Cold War, Western powers prioritized African rulers’ ideological leanings over their democratic bona fides. In a roughly similar manner, the Western powers have prized stability and counterterrorism over democracy and anti-coup norms during the war on terrorism. For example, Mauritania’s 2008 coup received the acceptance it did in part because France and the United States ultimately appeared sympathetic to the coup-makers’ argument that the ousted president had failed to contain jihadism.

The CNSP signaled very quickly that it would question neither the role of France’s Operation Barkhane, nor the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, nor the continuation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which Western governments appear to see as flawed and frustrating, but also indispensable. The CNSP appears to understand the real rules of the game, namely that overthrowing an elected president is seen as less egregious, for Western powers, than interfering with counterterrorism or peace accords. By following these rules, the CNSP has made it likely that they will be permitted to remain in power for months and even years, rather than weeks.

Other Possible Paths for Mali?

There have been hints that a hard rejection of the CNSP would have been conceivable, but at the cost of substantial harm to ordinary Malians. ECOWAS has imposed serious restrictions on the Malian economy, but the Central Bank of West African States could have gone even further in cutting off the money supply and triggering economic pain that might have forced the CNSP out of power. Additionally, the US could have immediately declared the takeover a coup in the legal sense and begun cutting off aid. And France and ECOWAS could have declared that no negotiations were possible with an illegal authority. All these paths would have had pitfalls and consequences, but the point is that Western and regional powers’ soft acceptance of the CNSP was not the only possible choice.

The question remains whether soft acceptance is ultimately good. What seems most problematic is the lack of imagination, introspection, and self-criticism on the part of Western powers as well as Malian elites. If the only truly negotiable element of Malian politics now is who rules and for how long, rather than the utility of the foreign presence or the Algiers Accord or the Constitution of 1992, then what many observers are predicting—namely, that Mali will remain stuck in a cycle—appears justified.

Many hopes for the future of Mali rest on the idea that someone of exceptional personal integrity will be elected president sometime between now and 2023, or that dramatic breakthroughs will occur in politics, peacebuilding, or counterterrorism. Some observers have called the present political crisis an “opportunity” for Mali. Yet French and American eagerness to “get back to business,” paired with ECOWAS’ focus on the technicalities of the transition rather than the principles undergirding it, have effectively already closed that window of opportunity. The soft acceptance of the coup is ultimately a soft acceptance of the status quo in Mali.