Former coup leader Assimi Goita toppled Mali’s president and prime minister of the country’s transitional government on Tuesday, the latest evidence of unrest in Africa’s volatile Sahel region, where France is conducting a difficult military battle against Islamist terrorists. Goita’s activities were dubbed a “coup d’état” in Paris.
Mali’s newest political crisis began on Monday, when the civilian administration fired two key figures in the August 2020 military coup — then-Defense Minister Sadio Camara and then-Security Minister Modibo Koné.
Tensions had simmered for months as opposition voices argued that the junta was the power behind the scenes in the civilian-led transitional government set up a month after last year’s coup. The junta kept some of their major players in strategic posts; Goita served as vice president.
So Mali’s civilian leadership fired Camara and Koné to try to take the upper hand, said Andrew Lebovich, a Sahel specialist at Columbia University and the European Council on Foreign Relations: “It was an attempt to try to reassert some form of civilian control over the transition.”
But this move backfired on then president Bah Ndaw and then PM Moctar Ouane. When Goita announced he was pushing them out, he said their failure to consult him on removing Camara and Koné “testifies to the clear desire of the transitional president and prime minister to seek to breach the transitional charter”.
Ndaw and Ouane agreed to resign on Wednesday, military and diplomatic sources told Agence France-Presse.
Their firing of the two key coup players caused the junta to detain the civilian leaders later on Monday and announce their sacking the next day, said Emmanuel Dupuy, a Sahel expert and head of the IPSE think-tank in Paris: “Kicking out Camara and Koné – and Ouane was very hard on this – angered the military, particularly Goita.”
The military made it “very clear that they are the rulers of Mali”, Dupuy continued.
Goita said in his announcement that “the transition is following its normal course and elections will be held as anticipated in 2022”.
But experts are doubtful that Goita’s junta is serious about returning Mali to full civilian rule: “The target of reforming the constitution and organising elections by early 2022 looked hard to achieve, but at least the government was trying to move towards these,” said Paul Melly, a Sahel expert at Chatham House. “The events of the last 24 hours raise questions over whether key elements of the military will allow this to happen.”
Sanctions talk ‘just words’
Mali’s foremost Western partner France demanded that they put the transition back on track, with President Emmanuel Macron calling the junta’s actions a second “coup d’état” on Tuesday.
But after the 2020 coup, it soon became clear that France had no choice but to work with the powers-that-be in Mali if it wished to continue its fight against jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel, the vast, sparsely populated African region just south of the Sahara Desert where governments find swaths of territory difficult, if not impossible, to control.
France started its military operations in Mali in 2013, after Mali asked it to help regain territory seized by Islamist militants who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the country’s northern desert regions the previous year.
The French military succeeded in this initial task, named Operation Serval, supported by EU allies and the US. Serval prevented the jihadists from capturing the centre of Mali, including the ancient city of Timbuktu.
However, the insurgency since spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso – despite the deployment of some 5,100 French troops backed by small contingents from some European allies in the ongoing Operation Barkhane, which has the more difficult task of securing the wider Sahel region from jihadist groups.
Macron suggested that this time France will not let Barkhane stop it taking action against the junta members who detained and sacked the civilian leadership. He told journalists that Paris is “prepared to take in the coming hours targeted sanctions” against those responsible.
But Dupuy argued that this will not happen: “Talk about sanctions is just words; it’s not reflective of reality,” he said, because France or the EU would be “imposing sanctions on their partners in the fight against terrorism”.