SIM Report: Frustration over Mali's slow transition may fuel civil unrest and instability in the six-month outlook

SIM REPORT: EAST & SOUTHERN AFRICA, ISSUE 14

MALI: FRUSTRATION OVER SLOW TRANSITION MAY FUEL CIVIL UNREST AND INSTABILITY IN SIX-MONTH OUTLOOK

One year has now passed since a faction of the armed forces deposed democratically elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on 18 August 2020. However, progress in the political transition has been slow, and it is becoming increasingly likely that the high-stakes national elections over the coming six months will be postponed. During this period the government plans to hold a constitutional referendum (31 October), local elections (31 December), and legislative and a first round of presidential elections in February 2022 which are due to end the interim period. Calls for extensions have multiplied among senior interim officials, due to ‘logistical barriers’ and ‘security threats’ that will undermine free and fair, credible polls. Such a delay is highly likely to fuel civil unrest and anti-government protests in the six-month outlook, as well as possible sanctions by international actors, such as the United States, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It may also fuel disputes and frustration within the armed forces themselves, including potentially generating mutinies or coup attempts, as well as general risks of instability.

BROKEN PROMISES AND ‘RED LINES’ 

In September 2020, the Transitional National Council (TNC), which is led by Colonel Assimi Goïta since May 2021,  reluctantly agreed to an 18-month transition following intense pressure by ECOWAS and other international actors. While ECOWAS and  local civil society organisations (CSOs) had initially pushed for a transitional period of no more than a year, the Comité national pour le salut du peuple (CNSP) – the junta that seized power from IBK and eventually handed over power to the TNC – repeatedly emphasised it needed at least 18 months to reform governance structures.

While demands by ECOWAS and other international organisations, as well as Malian civil society that the transitional government be led by a civilian were initially heeded, trust in the transitional authorities was seriously undermined on 24 May with  the arrest and subsequent dismissal of then-president Bah N’Daw and prime minister Moctar Ouane. This second coup was prompted by the exclusion of several CNSP members from Ouane’s cabinet, despite Goïta’s complaints and warnings. When Goïta moved to seized power, this meant that another demand that the vice-president (who at the time was Goïta) should not ‘in any case’ be able to replace the president had not been respected. The latter move prompted France to halt  joint military operations and the World Bank Group to suspend payments to the country, while the African Union and ECOWAS  suspended Mali’s membership to their organisations, underscoring growing international frustration.

RECENT CHANGES UNLIKELY TO HAVE EXTENSIVE IMPACT

In a likely bid to ease political pressure, Interim President Goïta appointed a prime minister from civil society: Choguel Kokalla Maïga, a central leader and spokesperson in the Mouvement du 5 juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques (M5-RFP) – the diverse protest movement that led mass protests against IBK between June and August 2020 and repeatedly voiced concerns over the military’s dominance of the transitional authorities. Although Maïga’s appointment has divided the M5-RFP, the tacit continued support from the influential Imam Malam Dicko – the movement’s apex spiritual leader – has been important to minimise opposition.

Nevertheless, concerns about a probable extension of the transitional period have not been allayed by Maïga’s ambitious plan of action, which the TNC overwhelmingly approved in August. The interim authorities have announced four broad priorities: improve security, implement political and institutional reforms, organise elections, and improve governance. Within these frameworks sit a series of additional objectives, including a review of the 2015 peace agreement, holding a national dialogue, creating a new electoral institution to oversee the forthcoming elections, and improving mechanisms to fight corruption. All of these need to be completed or launched by February 2022, when the first round of the presidential elections will be held.

We deem the holding of elections in February to be unlikely, given increasingly frequent and deadly attacks by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and community militias in the central and northern regions, as well as the multiple challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. A less ambitious, and more realistic plan of action would likely focus more narrowly on reforming electoral institutions and holding transparent national elections by next year, while allowing the new authorities to shape future policies in terms of governance and security sector reform.

Failure to deliver on the four priority areas, in particular the elections, is likely to fuel anti-government sentiment, increase the risk of government infighting, and undermine a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Such failures are certain to further frustrate international partners and domestic political activists and may elevate the risks of further instability. This signals a growing risk of further international sanctions and international isolation, as well as the threat of general strikes and protests. An ostensibly opportunistic  assassination attempt of Goïta in July underscores growing frustration with the interim government and may signal more trouble ahead.

Companies with staff and interests in Mali should anticipate further delays and continue to monitor the transitional process as well as any announcements by key political stakeholders which may signal a deterioration in the country’s stability outlook. Further mass casualty attacks by NSAGs and ethnic militias over the coming months may also undermine stability during this timeframe.

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