The overthrow of a democratically elected government in Mali last week has left ECOWAS and the African Union scrambling to return the country to constitutional rule. Talks to that effect have so far borne little fruit.
On Monday, Mali’s military junta and regional mediators discussed the make-up and goals of a transitional leadership rather than the possibility of reinstating the ousted president. The meeting reportedly ended with no solid agreement.
Initially, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, had sought to put pressure on the coup plotters to reinstate President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita — also known as IBK for short. However, diplomats say his reinstatement is highly unlikely given the popularity of the coup.
“The military’s insistence of a three-year transition period under the military’s supervision is a non-starter for ECOWAS and the international community, and it runs the risk of undercutting public support for the civilian government’s ouster,” Judd Devermont, Director, Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said.
The junta in no hurry to hand over power
The junta wants to hold on to power for at least three years before the country returns to civilian rule — a demand that leaves ECOWAS in a big puzzle and it puts the political situation in the Sahel at risk.
International Crisis Group (ICG) — an independent organization working to prevent wars and shape policies across the world says, if ECOWAS accepts the demand made by the putschists, it would set a rather undesirable precedent that could signal a degree of counterproductive flexibility on behalf of the bloc. The thinktank warns that military leaders in neighboring countries could take advantage of insecurity in their countries, notably Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger.
“Like Mali, they have been witnessing recent civilian mobilization against their heads of state and government based on being deemed as irresponsive towards the spread of rural insurgencies,” José Luengo-Cabrera, a researcher for the ICG in the Sahel region, told DW.
For Cabrera, if ECOWAS agrees to the demands of the coup leaders in Mali to hold on to power until the army see it fit to hold an election — it will serve as an opportunity for militaries in the region to alter the structures of power especially if the polls are deemed to be held in conditions that are inconducive for people to vote or worst if the results are deemed invalid and controversially overturned in favor of the incumbent.
“By any standards,” Cabrera adds, “what is decided in the negotiations taking place in Bamako in the coming week or so is likely to send a reverberating message to neighboring countries in similar situations.”
According to Devermont, it is increasingly clear that the Malian people regard the political elite as bankrupt and want a rethink of the Malian state. “There is no appetite to rush to elections without addressing the country’s systematic problems,” Devermont told DW.
“However, a military-run process has short odds of succeeding. It is likely to lead to abuses, delays, and manipulation, and will probably fail to set the country on a new path.”
Malians back coup leaders
Ordinary Malians and the opposition groups don’t share the international community’s worry. They want military leaders to have enough time to organize a credible election.
“What is important for us is to see that this transition delivers to the Malian people’s expectations,” Sy Kadiatou Sow, a member of the opposition M5 and former foreign minister of Mali, told DW.
“This is a historic opportunity for our country. We must take time to put things back in place.”
Sow says that soldiers would oversee the review of the constitution and make electoral reforms to avoid future disputes within the military transition.
“There were big risks that the situation would degenerate further. The regime of IBK was very repressive, and there were serious threats both to the leaders of the M5-RFP and to all the demonstrators,” she added.
Last week’s coup — Mali’s second in eight years — followed months of protests calling for President IBK to resign over the collapsing economy and the deterioration of jihadist conflict.
Drawing parallels between two coups
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is gone: Bram Posthumus — DW’s West African correspondent, wrote on his blog. Mali will be none the better for it. Parallels with the same event, in March 2012 will inevitably be drawn. For the seasoned reporter, some things remain the same: working conditions and pay of the soldiers supposed to fight Mali’s asymmetrical wars were terrible — they still are. Corruption and poor morale permeated the army in 2012; they still do, Posthumus writes.
“Corruption stalked the land in 2012 and still does. The roads in Bamako have fallen apart during this last rainy season because they are not maintained. Why are they not maintained? Because the money that is supposed to go into this rather crucial repair work disappears.”
Unlike the coup in 2012, which lasted less than a month — the current junta is holding its ground, and analysts predict the military may get all they want.
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“The three-year transition would have a military president and a government mostly composed of soldiers,” one of the Malian military officials told AFP.
“It appears that the longstanding consensus on how to oversee political transitions is breaking down, Devermont said. “It was previously common to undergo a short transition led by civilians, as in the case of Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, or to conduct a quick handover led by military rulers, which occurred in Niger and Guinea,” Devermont added.
“Mali and Sudan’s multiyear transitions, however, are more of a throwback to the 1980s when the military and civilian elite proposed longer transitions, which at best had mixed results and at worst failed.”
ECOWAS and the AU — weary of prolonged instability in the Sahel, have taken a hard line on the coup. They have both suspended Mali from its decision-making institutions, shut borders, and halted financial flows with the country.
The troubled Sahelian nation was slapped with similar sanctions after a March 2012 coup d’ état.
Eric Topona, an editor at the French Service, contributed to this report.