Remember that coup in Mali? You’d be forgiven for forgetting, given that it hasn’t been in headlines at all of late. For anyone who has lived in a country where elections might literally be life or death events, the Mali coup and its aftermath are not too hard to imagine. Nevertheless, Mali has averaged one coup per decade over the last 30 years. That’s cause for concern, especially since it isn’t clear that the military transitional government will actually give up the reins of power as they claim they will.
by: Babatunde P. Odubekun & Geoffrey von Zastrow
Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa — one of the largest countries on the continent. Timbuktu, one of Mali’s ancient trading cities, played a crucial part in both Islamic culture and the trans-Saharan caravan route between c. 1400 and 1600.
Yes, that’s right, Timbuktu is not a mythical city and it is in fact located in Mali.
No Lights, No Camera — but Plenty of Action
It’s understandable that the 24-hour news cycle (outside of West Africa) is focused on the coronavirus, upcoming U.S. presidential elections, and the return of indoor dining. That being said, just because this is happening on the other side of the world doesn’t mean it has any less value — news or otherwise — to those of us outside Mali’s borders. Quite the contrary, events such as the coup in Mali have the potential to have an impact far beyond its borders.
What Happened and Why it’s Important.
Philip Obaji Jr. has a succinct and informative summary of what happened in the short-term build-up to the coup:
“Since June, Mali has seen thousands of its citizens pour into the streets of major cities demanding the resignation of Keita’s government. Opposition politicians, trade unions, civil society organizations, religious associations, and even personnel from security agencies came together under the June 5 Movement, or M5-RFP, to express their anger at the government’s poor response to the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment, rising inequality, and the unending violence in Northern and Central Mali by local extremist groups” affiliated with al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
On August 18, 2020, Mali’s then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keiïta and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse resigned after mutinying soldiers detained them at gunpoint. The influential Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded by vehemently condemning the overthrow of Mali’s democratically elected government by enacting harsh sanctions, that included indefinitely suspending all monetary transactions between Mali and ECOWAS’ 14 member countries, with all bordering ECOWAS countries closing off their land and air borders to Mali, leaving the country landlocked and isolated. ECOWAS took sanctions one step further by suspending Malis’s voting/decision powers as a part of the ECOWAS economic block.
The International Response to the Coup.
Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with former President Keiïta’s government, ECOWAS, of which Mali is a member, sanctioned Mali, shutting borders and halting financial transactions. France and the United Nations called for Keita’s release, and he is now in the United Arab Emirates for medical treatment.
The Future of Mali
The coup sparks new concerns that the upheaval could provide an opening for extremist groups to cement their foothold in Mali. As Obaji writes, “a similar coup in 2012 contributed to the fall of northern Mali to  militants” who seized control across wide swaths of northern Mali, until they were driven out by French military intervention the following year.
Government in Flux
On the 13th of September 2020 following three days of negotiations, the opposition M5-RFP announced that it had rejected the military junta’s plan, largely as a result of the junta’s failure to commit to a civilian-led transitional government. This outcome has the potential to leave the officers who orchestrated the coup in power for up to 18 months as elections are organized. (As it happens, public perception may actually favor the mutineering Malian Armed Forces.)
“The final document read at the closing ceremony was not consistent with the deliberations of the various groups, including the majority choice of a transition led by a civilian,” — M5-RFP (opposition party) statement said
As we mentioned earlier TV and print media tends to focus on events closer to home, and larger events abroad that easily capture viewers’ attention. However, the lack of airtime and copy given to Mali by US media is belied by the increasing presence of western military forces in the region — take for example France’s building the 5,000 strong “G5 Sahel Force” in 2017 with a focus on fighting cross border insurgencies in the region. We would be remiss if we failed to mention the 1,500 American troops now stationed at Air Base 201 which became operational in 2019 and is expected to cost in excess of $280 million when the agreement expires in 2024, far beyond the $22 million initially slated for the project. French colonial history, civil unrest, and a military coup: all of this against the backdrop of extensive yet underdeveloped mineral riches in Mali presents a unique and opportune moment to learn more about the land of Timbuktu.