On the afternoon of May 24, the Malian transitional president, Bah Ndaw, and his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, were arrested by members of the armed forces and taken to the Soundiata Keïta military facility in Kati, a camp that has been at the heart of every coup that has taken place in the country. Two days later, Ndaw and Ouane resigned, according to a spokesperson for the military junta, known as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP).
Mali has been under a transitional government for 18 months, following the coup d’état of August 18, 2020, in which the military overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita. General elections are scheduled for early 2022, between February and March.
This current situation seems to be taking the country back to the starting point of August 2020. So how did Mali get here?
A tense background
The popular fervour that accompanied the 2020 coup d’état faded very quickly. The junta, which had initially embodied the much hoped-for change, eventually appeared to be a repeat of the system it overthrew. None of the dignitaries of the old regime were questioned, including those against whom there were strong accusations.
On May 14, Ouane submitted the resignation of his government to Ndaw, who then immediately reappointed the prime minister to his post and asked him to begin discussions with the political class with a view to forming the next government. This was seen as a welcome step, because it re-established a dialogue between the new authorities and the political class, which had broken down in the months since the 2020 coup. But it seems to have gone badly.
The May 14 cabinet reshuffle took place in an extremely tense context. The M5 protest movement – which opposes the transitional government and is calling for the dissolution of the National Transitional Council – had already scheduled a demonstration for June 4.
Meanwhile, the Mali National Workers’ Union (UNTM) had begun a second straight week of strike action, which was to continue until May 28. Given the political situation, and having no one to talk to in the absence of a government, the union suspended its strike and called on its members to return to work on May 26 until the situation returned to normal.
The colonels of the “ex-CNSP” were informed of the new government at the same time as ordinary Malians – that is, through the media when the list of new ministers was published on May 24. They were surprised to see that two of their members: the minister of defence, Sadio Camara, and the minister of security and civil protection, Modibo Koné, had been left out.
Their reaction was not long in coming: barely an hour after the publication of the new composition of the government, Ouane and Ndaw were arrested and taken to the military camp in Kati.
The role of the vice-president
Colonel Assimi Goita, the vice-president of the transitional government, who is also the leader of the junta, could not have been clearer in a communiqué which was read out on national television on May 25. In it, he denounced the prime minister and the president for forming the new government “without consultation with the vice-president”, namely himself.
Goita also underlined his attachment to the transition charter. But this charter clearly stipulates that he does not have the right to replace the transition president. The post of vice-president did not exist before the coup, and was created specifically to be occupied by a member of the junta – it’s therefore seen as a way for the junta to plan for the possibility of leading the transition.
For this reason, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made the lifting of sanctions on Mali conditional on adding to the charter a provision clearly stipulating that the vice-president cannot himself replace the president of the transitional government.
It remains to be seen whether the detention of the president and prime minister is a temporary impediment or a permanent removal. In the second case, which seems to be the most likely, Mali is facing a coup d’état within a coup d’état.
On May 25, ECOWAS sent its transitional envoy, former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, to Mali. The attitude of ECOWAS, and more generally of the international community – France, the United States and the UN through its Malian mission, Minusma – will be decisive in the outcome of events.
The coup plotters are aware of this and are now seeking to secure the support of the people and political actors, in particular M5 – the protest movement that, in weakening Kéita’s power, allowed the 2020 coup to take place.
Although M5 was at the heart of the earlier coup, it ended up being mostly excluded from the transition, with the exception of a few of its members. Things may not be the same this time. The junta invited the M5 movement’s leaders to Kati just hours after the arrest of the president and prime minister. This may have been a way for the military to offer the leaders of the movement new positions in government, both to secure their support and to make amends for excluding them in the past.
France v Russia
Since the president and his prime minister were arrested, a certain opinion has been formed by supporters of the junta who believe that the current situation comes down to a confrontation of two divergent points of view.
The first, represented by the arrested executive, is seen as beholden to the interests of France – the publication of the new cabinet came barely 48 hours after Ndaw’s return from Paris. The second, representing the junta, opposes the influence of Mali’s former coloniser, promoting instead a rapprochement with Russia.
This latter argument carries a lot of weight with those who have a negative view of the French military presence in Mali, and who regularly protest against operations in the country.
An immediate analysis that can be made regarding this latest power grab is that the members of the junta are worried they have not been sufficiently involved in the formation of the new government, especially after the dismissal of two of its members.
Beyond the simple loss of these ministerial posts, it’s probable the junta saw the announcement of the new government as the beginning of the process of its removal from Mali’s political affairs. This could also have meant the beginning of legal problems for those involved, given that the Malian constitution makes coup d’état a crime for which there is no statute of limitations.
What happens next? The transitional government will probably receive the support of ECOWAS and of Mali’s international partners, first and foremost France. It is now up to these different players to intervene, because they are the only ones able to resolve this fast-moving situation.