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Another mutiny turned coup: Mali is no stranger to military unrest

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has resigned. Paul Morigi/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

What appears to have started as a mutiny, and resulted in a coup, came on the heels of renewed civilian protests in Bamako, the Malian capital. Tensions have been high since president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s 2018 re-election which was marred by irregularities. All the while, he has continued to face allegations of corruption and fraud.

On Tuesday, August 18, reports of mutinying soldiers firing into the air and taking control of an army base filtered out of Mali. With limited information on the initial motives of the soldiers, fears of a mutiny, or worse, a coup, set in. The situation escalated quickly when senior government officials were arrested and tanks appeared on the streets of the capital Bamako.

By afternoon, soldiers stormed the presidential palace and arrested both president Keïta and prime minister Boubou Cissé. The two were taken to the Kati military base, where the mutiny had begun. Soon after, the president resigned in a national television address stating:

If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?

Large scale protests calling for Keïta’s resignation began in early June 2020. In July 2020, Keïta dissolved the country’s constitutional court, ostensibly in an effort to ease tensions. In April 2020, this same court overturned parliamentary election results for some 30 seats, a move that advantaged Keïta’s political party. This sparked protests in which at least 11 protesters were killed by security forces, intensifying the calls for Keïta’s resignation.

On top of potential election fraud and crackdowns by security forces, Keïta’s government has bungled its response to ethnic-religious violence. The Tuareg rebels, a group that has historically had separatist aspirations, have loosely aligned with jihadist groups, posing a steep challenge to the state. The group Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) conflates the material grievances of the Tuareg with the ideological concerns of various prior Salafi-Jihadi groups, posing another ongoing threat to the state and its military.

Mali’s recent political turmoil has only been exacerbated by its economic struggles. Reliant on gold mining and agriculture, the country has been especially vulnerable to volatile commodity prices that have suffered further declines in the midst of the global pandemic. In addition, nearly half of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty.

Mali’s history of military unrest

Mali is no stranger to political unrest. In 2012, a small, localised mutiny at the Kati barracks escalated to the overthrow of then president Amadou Toumane Touré. The fallout was dramatic, prompting a failed countercoup and political and civil disorder. Worse still was the loss of half the country’s territory to insurgents. As a result, the international community intervened in an effort to mediate the crisis.

Yet, it is important to consider the parallels. The 2012 coup occurred when disgruntled soldiers rioted to demand better weapons, ammunition, and equipment to battle against Tuareg insurgents in the north. When the defence minister’s attempts to negotiate with the mutineers failed, the crisis quickly escalated.

Though the original intent was not to overthrow president Touré, inaction led to a putsch. Mutinies are public events that occur within a state’s active armed forces, benefit from their collective nature, and have political aims short of the seizure of executive power. Coups, on the other hand, are rebellions led by the military and sometimes political elites, seeking to oust the executive.

While scholars have studied coups extensively, research on mutinies is still in its infancy. Mutinies are important to investigate as they can often have dire consequences for civilians and occur more frequently than coups in the post-Cold War era. Further, they can escalate to other, more severe forms of political violence.

Mutinies are also likely a proximate indicator for coup activity. For example, in 2011 Burkina Faso experienced four mutinies, shortly followed by a successful coup in 2014 and another coup attempt in 2015. Guinea Bissau saw three mutinies between 1998 and 1999 and experienced three coups, one of which was successful, between 1998 and 2000.

An interesting empirical question is raised here: why do some mutinies escalate to coups while others do not? While this is an emerging line of research and important question for policymakers, there is an initial consideration to be made in the case of Mali: mass political protests matter.

We know that protests spur both mutinies and coups. Further, protests in the capital city are most likely to spur coup activity, like those protests that have troubled Bamako this summer. Protests can signal to mutineers and military leaders that there is widespread, civilian support for a putsch. This may shift mutineers’ or military leadership’s objectives from demonstrating grievances to upending the status quo and ousting the executive.

International reaction

The apparent coup drew sharp criticism from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The influential grouping of 15 countries proceeded to close all borders with Mali and ordered sanctions against the conspirators. The African Union, European Union, and United Nations each also issued statements condemning the coup.

ECOWAS recently demonstrated its willingness to help oust illegitimate leaders, the most recent case being The Gambia. More broadly, the African Union has adopted a strong anti-coup norm, and the creation of the organisation’s anti-coup framework has seen an accompanying decline of coup attempts in the region.

Given the swift and wide-ranging international condemnation from regional organisations and world powers alike, Mali’s putschists would seem to be especially vulnerable to international responses. This is particularly the case given the substantial presence of foreign troops. These include over 11,000 soldiers deployed to Mali as part of the UN stabilisation mission and an additional 5,000 French soldiers.

Aid dependence here could also play an important role. The World Bank estimates that overseas development assistance amounts to around 70% of Mali’s central government expenditure.

International interventions can be important, but they will ultimately be informed, and either strengthened or weakened, by the role of Mali’s internal dynamics. While Burkina Faso saw Gilbert Diendéré’s 2015 coup unravel within a week, this was primarily due to internal resistance. In sharp contrast, there has so far been no public support for Keïta and his government.

Public opposition to Keïta makes his return unlikely, but external pressure can help right the ship. It remains to be seen what promises of elections will ultimately lead to. Elections have increasingly become the norm following coups, and given swift international pressure a poll can be seen as a forgone conclusion. However, the holding of elections–even if “free and fair”–says little about the quality and durability of the future government.

Promoting inclusiveness among the country’s various interests can help 2020 look more like Mali’s 1991 coup, that led to multiparty elections, rather than its 2012 experience.

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