Sixty years after independence, Mali, once again, finds itself at a crossroads.
The new military leaders who toppled ailing president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last month appointed former defense minister Bah Ndaw president of a transitional government on Monday, tasking him with leading the country to elections. Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of the group of soldiers behind the August 18 coup, has been 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 heart. of the battle against armed groups in the wider Sahel region.
It was not immediately clear whether the appointment of Ndaw, 70, would appeal to the regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which for weeks has been pushing for a transition to a civil regime. Fearing that the unconstitutional transfer of power could set an example at the national level and undermine international efforts to contain the worsening security crisis that has spread beyond Mali’s borders, regional leaders have sought to exert pressure on military government by cutting the flow of money and imposing sanctions.
Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahel expert at the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent, said Ndaw’s appointment was “good news” while political heavyweights with electoral ambitions did not seem willing to move forward due to a ban on transitional leaders that prevents them from standing in the next elections.
Describing him as “a lesser-known character with a reputation for decency”, Guichaoua said his profile “seems acceptable to national political forces and the international community.
“ECOWAS wanted a civilian president and Ndaw fulfills this criterion, even if he is retired,” he added. “We are now getting closer to a functional institutional architecture capable of governing Mali, in which the junta will remain very influential anyway.”
Andrew Lebovich, policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said while N’Daw is widely regarded as a well-respected figure, it may be too early to determine whether his appointment is a positive development.
“Appointing the transitional president is just one step in a long process of necessary reforms and government actions that have yet to be taken,” Lebovich said.
“We also don’t yet know what his priorities might be as transitional president, and given that the head of the CNSP, Colonel Assimi Goita, will be vice-president of the transitional government, it is clear that the junta will maintain an active presence within the transitional government. ”
France, a former colonial power which for years has spearheaded international military efforts against armed groups in the region, also called for a rapid transfer. But he also had to follow a cautious path, condemning the coup while tempering his criticism of the military officers who kicked out Keita, 75, a leader who appeared to be on good footing with Paris but who was doing in the face of growth. opposition to the country due to the country’s continuing economic malaise and the spiraling security crisis.
“Having been seen as Keita’s supporters, their position (of France) is weakened in Mali,” said Jean-Yves Haine, professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle University and ILERI school in Paris.
There was no immediate reaction from France to the announcement of the new government, which is to be inaugurated on September 25.
A French colony since the end of the 19th century, Mali gained independence in 1960, first in a federation alongside Senegal on June 20, 1960, then becoming a full country on September 22 of the same year following the secession of his neighbor of the month. before.
Since then, the West African country has maintained strong relations with France as it has experienced alternating cycles of political stability and instability, punctuated by rebellions, financial difficulties and coups d’état. military – several of them.
Its very first president, Modibo Keita, was overthrown in 1968 by Moussa Traoré, a young army lieutenant who suffered the same fate. almost a quarter of a century later. Carried by widespread anger against the government, Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré in 1991 led a coup against Traoré. But unlike Traore, Touré quickly retired from public life – heralding the longest period of democratic governance in the country – only to return a decade later to successfully run for president.
Within a month of his second term, however, Touré himself was ousted in 2012, unhappy with the government’s response to a surge in rebel activity in the north of the country. The overthrow and murder of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya the previous year led many Tuareg rebels who had headed to the neighboring country to fight alongside its longtime ruler to cross the Sahara and return to Mali, their bringing a sufficient stock of weapons and military trucks.
Taking advantage of the political unrest in the capital, Bamako, seasoned separatists from the marginalized Tuareg community, allied with an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, quickly invaded much of the north of the country. But the rebellion was quickly hijacked by armed groups, who took control of the major cities in the north.
As the fighters advanced south, alarmed interim authorities in the capital, Bamako, called on France for help.
“They (the armed groups) seek to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali,” declared the then French President Francis Hollande in January 2013, announcing the launch of Operation Serval to push back the combatants. “France, as is the case with its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept it,” he added.
The French-led military operation helped dislodge fighters linked to Al Qaeda, paving the way for the 2013 elections that brought Keita – also known by his initials, IBK – to power.
The violence, however, escalated during Keita’s seven years in power, with much of Mali still remaining out of government control.
Despite a multitude of regional and international forces active in the Sahel – including the French Operation Barkhane, of which around 5,000 troops are mainly based in northern and eastern Mali – armed groups have managed to proliferate and strengthen their presence in the semi-arid region. south of the Sahara.
Attacks have increased fivefold since 2016, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a dramatically devastated situation in the volatile region of central Mali.
The failure to restore stability after years of military efforts fueled growing anti-French sentiment in Mali, with critics denouncing the former colonial power’s military presence in the country and growing suspicious of its role in the wider region.
«A Bamako, [anti-French sentiment] emanates from sections of the political landscape most attached to the sovereignty of Mali, which will not accept French interference in Malian affairs, ”Guichaoua declared.
“They accuse France of having stopped the return of Malian forces to Kidal in 2013, when France drove out the jihadist coalition which had occupied northern Mali in 2012, in order to allow the separatists to regain their stronghold”.
Describing this as an internal issue, France did not confront the Tuareg, who remained in command of their stronghold 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 certain sections of the Malian population, those of Kidal also contested France’s presence because of the war and the way it is. conducted.
Late last year, a series of anti-French protests prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to call on countries in the region to express public support for the costly Paris operation, threatening to withdraw its 4,500 troops, before changing tactics and engaging 600 additional soldiers.
Following last month’s coup, France, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, said they would continue operations in the country during the transition period.
And if Mali’s new rulers could still align militarily with the French, it remains to be seen whether Paris can still influence political developments.
“The junta is not aligned with the M5-RFP, the anti-IBK coalition which has anti-French personalities within it,” Guichaoua said, referring to the opposition alliance which has led for weeks incessant street protests calling for the former president to resign.
“The junta is made up of pragmatic leaders, whose position towards the French is open but could also depend on the ability of the M5-RFP to push its agenda. “
For Haine, this is where the crux of the matter lies. He said that progress on the political and economic fronts must be made if the military intervention is to produce a positive result.
“Military solutions to fight terrorism are only part of a larger strategy. Political stabilization, public support, institutional strength and above all socio-economic conditions are key elements for a successful external intervention. “