In Mali, the coup presents opportunity - and danger

If you blinked, you missed it: on the morning of August 18th, reports first emerged of a mutiny at a military base near Bamako, the capital of Mali. Yet by midnight, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was on national television, submitting a public resignation and dissolving his government - the morning mutiny had revealed itself to be a major coup. As the dust cleared in the early hours of August 19th, five military officers calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People were claiming authority as the new "interim government".

As far as coups go, it was relatively bloodless; of the 4 fatalities, all were seemingly accidental, killed by stray bullets from celebrating soldiers shooting into the air. But the real bloodshed may be yet to come.

First, some context: President Keïta, in office since September 2013, was by no means beloved by the populace of Mali. Since June this year, tens of thousands of protesters across the country have been calling for the President’s resignation, predominantly for the deep corruption in his administration and the weak state of the economy. A major point of criticism has also been his handling of the domestic security situation: since 2012, the government has been embroiled in a war with not only Islamist factions loyal to Al-Qaeda and Daesh, but ethnic Tuareg separatists seeking independence for an area known as Azawad. Though the Malian army, with extensive foreign military support, succeeded in recapturing most of the country, the war continues to kill Malians to this day.

With all this considered, it is unsurprising that Keïta’s ouster faced little opposition at home. The reaction abroad, however, was significantly more displeased: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately denounced the coup and suspended Mali’s membership in the regional bloc. France, Mali’s top security partner with a significant military presence in the country, stopped short of condemning the coup but coolly urged a return to civilian rule.

Moreover, ruptures are already beginning to emerge in Bamako. The military leadership has proposed an 18-month transition period in which the military would rule until new elections can be held. But opposition group M5-RFP, that led the recent anti-government protests, has rejected this proposition as a blatant power grab for the military. Both they and ECOWAS have insisted that the interim leadership be composed of civilians. With new developments every day, it is impossible to predict how this standoff between the military and M5-RFP will develop, but the military’s behaviour thus far leaves little room for optimism.

A further major issue is how the change of government will impact the war in the north. The current insurgencies originally broke out in the wake of Mali’s last coup in 2012, exploiting the instabilities that arose from it. Some observers have warned that a failure to form a strong new government with a popular mandate will allow the insurgents to shore up their positions and regain lost territory.

This threat looms especially large with growing opposition, both in Mali and France, to the continued French military engagement in the region. To maintain local stability, Mali’s other regional partners and the African Union at large will have to step up to fill the security gap left by departing French forces. Should they fail, the implications are not merely national, but regional - Islamist extremism in the Sahel region transcends national borders, and a worsening situation in Mali may empower Al-Qaeda and Daesh forces in the rest of the region.

It is thus with some optimism and some apprehension that Mali, and the world at large, must grapple with the aftermath of Keïta’s overthrow. Will Bamako see a new civilian government with a popular mandate? Will the military junta successfully hold on to power? Will the insurgents in the north exploit the situation to their advantage? Only time will tell.

Photo: Flickr// ©European Union 2013 - European Parliament

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