This week, after weeks of protests over terrorism and corruption, Mali’s military arrested the country’s prime minister, Boubou Cissé, and president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who soon officially resigned his post. In the days since, powers around the world, including France, the United Nations, United States, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have demanded the reinstatement of the elected government—even as many Malians have cheered its demise. The international community’s calls are unlikely to go heeded, and Mali seems set for more unrest in the days ahead.
To help explain how the country—once considered a key example of stability and democracy in the region—got here and what may follow, we’ve collected our best reads from the last few years.
The timing of the military’s action against Keita and Cissé may have come as a surprise, but the fact that the armed forces stepped in probably should not have been. In fact, it follows “a similar coup in 2012 that originated from the army base in the town of Kati, where Keita and Cissé are currently being held,” wrote the journalist Philip Obaji Jr. That coup “toppled then-President Amadou Toumani Touré and contributed to the fall of northern Mali to Islamist militants.” After a resolution at the U.N. Security Council that followed an official request for help from Mali’s interim government, France intervened in an operation that helped lead in 2015 to a peace agreement between the government and northern armed groups.
The French presence has continued in some form until today, yet so has the violence. As the terrorism expert James Blake wrote in 2019, Mali is populated by many different groups, all with complicated relationships. Their grievances are “long-standing,” he explained, “often relating to disputes over land and water.” And whereas disagreements used to be quickly resolved, “containing the fighting is getting harder and harder to do,” particularly because jihadi groups became adept at exploiting local concerns. In March last year, that violence seemed to enter a new phase when “100 armed men dressed as ethnic Dogon hunters stormed the village of Ogossagou in central Mali,” Blake explained. After killing more than 160 ethnic Fulani civilians, many homes were burned the ground. At the time, it was “the latest and most deadly episode in a campaign of systematic violence against Fulani herders, who are being forced to flee their land,” and looked likely to set off counterattacks.
A month after the strike on Ogossagou, the prime minister and the government resigned. As Leiden University’s Liesbeth van der Heide reported at the time, the chain of events was a sign that little had improved since the start of the French intervention. There had been scant progress on disarming rebel groups, she explained, and the “decentralization policy” enacted after the 2012-2015 war that “was meant to provide communities in the north with more autonomy in the hope that inclusion in governance would prevent local groups from taking up arms” had been ineffective and mismanaged. “In response, armed groups that control large swaths of territories in northern and central Mali are carving out a political and administrative role by force.” Such problems, she argued, wouldn’t go away just because one government replaced another.
She was correct. Throughout 2019, Mali remained on edge. In December, reported Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer, the Trump administration was “preparing to create a new special envoy position and task force to deal with security threats in the Sahel region of Africa, reflecting a growing alarm in Washington about the rise of extremist groups in West Africa, including ones affiliated with the Islamic State,” a measure that came as extremist groups carried out “increasingly deadly attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and spread their reach further south.” One reason for the uptick in violence, explained the experts Jacob Zenn and Colin P. Clarke, was that an apparent truce between al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the region had fallen apart, leading to a rise in scuffles between local affiliates.
By the summer, and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, some kind of reckoning seemed unavoidable. “Too many Malians—particularly the young, who make up a third of the country’s workforce—have no work. Unemployment among young people has reached almost 15 percent, up from 7 percent eight years ago before Keita took office,” Obaji noted. “The country’s poverty rate has increased from 45 percent in 2013 to almost 50 percent today. More Malians were displaced by insecurity in 2019 than at any time in the country’s history. The health care system is in shambles, and the threat of violence has left millions of kids without schools. Despite French military intervention, violent extremist groups—one of which kidnapped a perpetual runner-up in presidential elections—are still very active in parts of the country.”
With the Keita administration now out, observers are wary of what may follow. “Insisting that the Keita government be replaced by other politicians,” Obaji wrote, “will only mean bringing in another group of people who will likely use power for their personal benefit, thereby maintaining the status quo and leaving much of the country discontented.” Yet a military regime seems like a bad option, too. “France, the United States, the African Union, and ECOWAS must act to force the military to stand down,” urged Vicki J. Huddleston, who was U.S. ambassador to Mali between 2002 and 2005, and Witney Schneidman, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “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.” Even more than that, “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.” Without sustained investment along those lines, the problems that have plagued Mali for years may only intensify.