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Mali Needs a Marshall Plan, Not a Military Coup and Power Vacuum That Enables Violent Extremists

Mali’s military has staged a coup, taking President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé into custody near the capital, Bamako. The situation is reminiscent of the 2013 French military intervention that was prompted by a coup, the flight of the then-president, and the success of an al Qaeda affiliate that nearly overran the country. All those factors are at play once again, seven years later.

The president of France, the United Nations, and the United States have called for the restoration of the constitutionally-elected government. But that is unlikely to occur in the short term. Keita announced on August 19 that he had resigned to stop further bloodshed. Cissé, in a gesture of reconciliation, said that he understood the frustration of the protesters who have held massive demonstrations in the dusty streets of Mali’s capital.

For months, Malians fed up with a government unable to effectively rule a country beset by a brutal jihadist conflict, communal violence, and a shattered economy have demanded that the president resign. Under the banner of the June 5 Movement, a broad coalition of opposition parties, religious leaders, and civil society protested Keita’s 2018 re-election, claiming it was plagued by irregularities, and denounced the government’s effort to pack the Supreme Court with loyalists. The situation further deteriorated when the military killed 11 protesters.

The Keita government was simply unacceptable to many Malians who were forced to flee their homes to escape jihadist and communal violence. The government’s incapacity—as well as that of foreign military forces that were struggling to prevent the country’s disintegration—was further illustrated by its inability, or unwillingness, to secure the release of presidential candidate and opposition leader, Soumaila Cissé, who was kidnapped by jihadists last March.

Fearing state collapse, the heads of the West African states—ECOWAS—proposed a unity government and the resignation of the Supreme Court. That wasn’t enough for the protesters or for the titular head of the June 5 Movement, Mahmoud Dicko, a conservative Muslim preacher.

They rejected the ECOWAS proposals and brought the protesters back into the streets to demand the president’s resignation. When that didn’t happen, the military intervened in a manner reminiscent of the 2012 coup that opened the way for a near-takeover of the country by an al Qaeda affiliate.

The situation is especially perilous because Mali is central to African and international efforts to defeat al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates operating throughout the Sahel region. The French military, acclaimed for having defeated al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and liberating Timbuktu in 2013, is now disparaged because AQIM’s successor—Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin—is expanding attacks across central Mali.

In addition, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel—the group that killed three U.S. army green berets in Niger in 2018—has increased its attacks, employing heavy machine gun fire, and suicide bombers in southern Mali and neighboring countries of Burkina Faso and Niger. The United Nations mission there (known as MINUSMA), the most dangerous in the world, is seen as powerless.

In a world convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic, a coup in Mali may seem like a distant distraction. But if Mali implodes as it did in 2012, these al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists could destabilize the entire West African region, creating a massive refugee crisis.

France, the United States, the African Union, and ECOWAS must act to force the military to stand down. Once calm is restored and mediation efforts led by ECOWAS are resumed, negotiations must result in the selection of an interim president and prime minister that are acceptable to Keita’s party and the June 5 Movement. The job of the interim government must be to end the endemic corruption which rendered the Keita government incapable of confronting the severe poverty and a spreading pandemic. The interim government will need support from countries in the region and internationally.

Moreover, there should be no rush to elections until the country is sufficiently stable so that the majority of citizens can safely go to the polls. To do so would only discredit the elections and condemn the country to continued unrest.

To resolve the tragedy of Mali and stabilize the Sahel, the violent extremists must be defeated—otherwise they  could destabilize all of West Africa. Mali’s neighbors, Burkina Faso, and Niger, like Mali itself, have proven unable to defeat the jihadists, who are now threatening the more prosperous West African states of Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Nigeria. This means that the United Nations peacekeeping force must be given a broader mandate, one that will allow it to actively pursue and defeat the violent extremists operating throughout the Sahel.

The G-5 fighting force led by France and composed of European and African troops will also need to be fully engaged in this effort. In addition, local militaries need support so they can effectively protect civilians from communal violence which has been stoked by the jihadists.

Finally, France and the United States should lead the international community in providing a comprehensive economic recovery plan similar to the Marshall Plan for postwar Europe that covers Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The plan would address underlying causes of poverty and communal violence: unemployment, inadequate education, and a shrinking resource base that are made worse by rapid population growth and advancing desertification.

Without increased diplomatic, security, and donor engagement in partnership with regional leaders in West Africa, the Sahel’s security crisis will only intensify, encouraging jihadist forces globally while adding strains to a region that is struggling to address a humanitarian crisis, rein in endemic violence, and manage the coronavirus pandemic.

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