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At 60 and with new rulers, Mali once again at a crossroads

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Sixty years since independence, Mali, once again, stands at a crossroads.

The new military rulers who last month overthrew embattled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita named on Monday former Defence Minister Bah Ndaw president of a transitional government, tasking him with leading the country to elections. Colonel Assimi Goita, head of the group of soldiers behind the August 18 coup, was appointed vice president.

The announcement, made on state television on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of the independent Republic of Mali, marked the latest twist in a deepening saga with major implications for a fragile country at the heart of the battle against armed groups in the wider Sahel region.

It was not immediately clear whether the appointment of the 70-year-old Ndaw would please the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc, which for weeks now has been pushing for a transition to civilian rule. Fearing that the unconstitutional transfer of power may set an example domestically and compromise international efforts to contain the worsening security crisis that has spread beyond Mali’s borders, regional leaders have sought to pressure the military government by cutting off money flows and imposed sanctions.

Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahel expert at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, said Ndaw’s appointment was “good news” as political heavyweights with electoral ambitions appeared unwilling to step forward due to a ban on transitional leaders that prevents them from running in the next polls.

Describing him as “a lesser-known figure with a reputation of decency”, Guichaoua said his profile “looks acceptable by the domestic political forces and the international community.

“The ECOWAS wanted a civilian president and Ndaw meets this criterion, even though he is retired military,” he added. “We’re now getting closer to having a functional institutional architecture able to govern Mali, in which the junta will, in any case, remain highly influential.”

Colonel Assimi Goita was named vice president [File: Moussa Kalapo/Reuters]

Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations, said that while N’Daw is generally seen as a well-respected figure, it may be too soon to determine if his nomination is a positive development. 

“Naming the transitional president is just one step in a long process of necessary reforms and government actions that have not yet been taken,” Lebovich said. 

“We also don’t know yet what his priorities may be as transitional president, and given that the CNSP leader Col. Assimi Goita will be Vice President of the transitional government, it’s clear the junta will maintain an active presence within the transitional government.”

France, the former colonial power which has for years spearheaded international military efforts against armed groups in the region, had also called for a swift handover. But it had also had to tread a careful path, condemning the coup while at the same time tempering its criticism of the military officers who removed 75-year-old Keita – a leader who appeared to be on a good footing with Paris but faced growing opposition at home due to the country’s persistent economic malaise and spiralling security crisis.

“Having been seen as supporters of Keita, their (France’s) position is weakened in Mali,” said Jean-Yves Haine, a professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle university and ILERI school in Paris.

There was no immediate reaction by France to the announcement about the new government, which is to be inaugurated on September 25.

Tumultuous history

A French colony since the late 19th century, Mali achieved independence in 1960, first in a federation alongside Senegal on June 20, 1960, and then becoming a country in its own right on September 22 of that year following the secession of its neighbour the month before.

Since then, the West African country has retained strong relations with France as it experienced alternate cycles of political stability and instability, punctuated by rebellions, financials woes and military coups -several of them.

Its very first president, Modibo Keita, was overthrown in 1968 by Moussa Traore, a young army lieutenant who met the same fate nearly a quarter of a century later. Buoyed by widespread anger at the government, Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Toure in 1991 led a coup against Traore. But unlike Traore, Toure quickly withdrew from public life – auguring the country’s longest period of democratic governance – only to return some 10 years later to successfully run for the presidency.

With a month left to his second term in office, however, Toure himself was toppled in 2012 amid dissatisfaction about the government’s response to a surge in rebel activity in the country’s north. The overthrow and killing of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi the previous year led many Tuareg rebels who had headed to the neighbouring country to fight on the side of its longtime ruler to cross the Sahara and return to Mali, bringing them with an ample stock of weapons and military trucks.

Taking advantage of the political turmoil in the capital, Bamako, the battle-hardened separatists from the marginalised Tuareg community, allied with an al-Qaeda offshoot, quickly overran much of the country’s north. But the rebellion was quickly hijacked by armed groups, which seized control of major northern cities.

With the fighters advancing towards the south, the alarmed the interim authorities in the capital, Bamako, appealed to France for help.

“They (armed groups) are seeking to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali,” then-French President Francis Hollande said in January 2013 as he announced the launch of Operation Serval to beat back the fighters. “France, as is the case with its African partners and all of the international community, cannot accept this,” he added.

The French-led military operation helped dislodge the al-Qaeda-linked fighters, paving the way for elections in 2013 which brought Keita – also known by his initials, IBK – to power.

Violence, however, severely escalated during Keita’s seven years in office, with large parts of Mali still remaining beyond government control.

Malian troops and French soldiers during a 2017 joint patrol in Inaloglog [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

‘Original sin’

Despite a multitude of regional and international forces active in the Sahel – including France’s Operation Barkhane, whose roughly 5,000 troops are mostly based in the north and east of Mali – the armed groups have managed to proliferate and strengthen their foothold across the semi-arid region south of the Sahara.

Attacks have jumped fivefold since 2016, with thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced amid a drastically devolving situation in Mali’s volatile central region.

The failure to restore stability after years of military efforts has fed into a growing anti-French sentiment in Mali, with critics denouncing the military presence of the former colonial power in the country and growing suspicious of its role in the wider region.

“In Bamako, [anti-French sentiment] emanates from sections of the political landscape most attached to Mali’s sovereignty, which won’t accept French interference in Malian affairs,” said Guichaoua.

“They accuse France of having stopped the return of the Malian forces in Kidal in 2013, when France drove out the jihadi coalition that had occupied northern Mali in 2012, in order to let the separatists regain their stronghold.”

Describing it as a domestic issue, France did not take on the Tuareg, who remained in control of their bastion of Kidal, a Sahara outpost near Mali’s border with Algeria.

Guichaoua said that, while this could be considered the “original sin” of the French in the eyes of some sections of Mali’s population, those in Kidal also contested France’s presence on account of the war and the way it is being waged.

Late last year, a series of anti-France protests prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to call on countries in the region to express public support for Paris’s expensive operation, threatening to withdraw its 4,500 troops, before changing tack and committing an additional 600 soldiers.

Following last month’s coup, France, as well as the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, have declared they will continue operations in the country during the transitional period.

And while Mali’s new kingmakers might still align with the French militarily, it remains to be seen whether Paris will still be able to influence political developments.

“The junta is not aligned with the M5-RFP, the anti-IBK coalition which has in its midst some vocal anti-French figures,” said Guichaoua, referring to the opposition alliance that led weeks of relentless street protests calling for the resignation of the former president.

“The junta is made of pragmatic leaders, whose stance towards the French is open but might also depend on the ability of the M5-RFP to push its agenda.”

For Haine, this is where the crux of the problem lies. He said progress on the political and economic fronts must be made if the military intervention is to produce any positive result.

“Military solutions to fight terrorism are only part of a larger strategy. Political stabilisation, public support, institutional strength and above all, socioeconomic conditions are key elements for an external intervention to succeed.”

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