Mali’s latest coup d’état, on Tuesday 18 August, has been almost universally condemned internationally and especially by the African Union (AU), Mali’s neighbouring Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN and France. By contrast, most Malians have been proclaiming that it is a victory. As the news spread, anti-government protesters poured into Bamako to cheer the mutineers and celebrate the coup. 

On the morning of 18 August soldiers from the Kati military base just outside Bamako detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) at gunpoint at his residence and took him back to the Kati base. They also rounded up a number of senior civilian officials and military officers.  Under the orders of the mutineers, IBK announced his resignation and dissolved parliament. 

The mutineers denied reports of causalities, Amnesty International (AI) said it had documented the death of four people and that 15 others were wounded by bullets. AI’s claim awaits verification.

Malian Air Force deputy chief of staff Ismael Wagué (front row 2nd left) speaks during a press conference in Kati, Mali

In recent months tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators have rallied to the broad-based M5-RFP opposition coalition which is led by the popular and influential Imam, Mahmoud Dicko. As the M5-RFP spokesman, Nouhoum Togo, said: ‘IBK did not want to listen to his people. He thought that France or the international community could save him.’

Popular demands for IBK’s resignation had been building up since he rigged the legislative elections in April 2020 and used the corrupted Constitutional Court to reverse the results of several dozen elections that had gone against him. Malians were also fed up with his corrupt rule and especially deals organised by his powerful and influential son, Karim Keita. He had also failed to make serious efforts to achieve peace in the north, or to stem the advance of the jihadists into central Mali and the resultant inter-community violence. The final straw was his adamant refusal to resign and the use of live ammunition by specialist anti-terrorism troops to quell protestors, with at least 14 deaths and dozens of injuries.

The only surprise about the coup is why it had not happened earlier.

Brema Soumaré, a 35-year-old architect, spoke for many Malians when he told a foreign correspondent: ‘This a coup is a liberation… Organisations like ECOWAS should support the people and not heads of state.’

This coup is remarkably similar to that of 2012 which deposed the then president, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), because it also started in the Kati barracks. On that occasion, the trigger had been the cold-bloodied massacre of some 80-100 Nigerien soldiers by Algerian-trained jihadists at Aguelhok in northern Mali. The soldiers had been left by their commanders without ammunition with which to defence themselves. This was the result of corruption by the number of army generals who had embezzled defence force money for their own personnel gain. The same sort of graft and corruption at the top of the Mali State has once again left the army ill-equipped to fight the jihadists. In 2012 it was the wives of the massacred soldiers who led the protests. This time the soldiers in Kati have once again responded to the calls of their own people to rid the country of corruption and misrule. 

In 2012, the coup was led by a Captain Sanogo and other young officers. Today’s coup leaders — Assimi Goita, Ismael Wagué, Sadio Camara, Malick Diaw. Mama Sekou Lelenta, and Modibo Kon Wagué — all hold the rank of colonel, which suggests that they may have come from the same cohort of army officers as Sanogo. General Cheikh Fanta Mady Dembélé, the most senior named military officer, is not a member of the junta, but may play a key role in the operation.

Col Assimi Goita (37) is the apparent leader of the junta, which calls itself the Comité National de Salut du Peuple (CNSP). He was the head of Mali’s special forces and led the operations against the 2015 jihadist attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako.

IBK’s future is currently the subject of intense negotiations. He may be allowed to go to the UAE where he has been receiving medical attention for months. Turkey is another but less likely destination. At least two West African states are also possibilities. However, some of the CNSP want IBK and his family, and especially Karim Keita, kept in Mali while an audit of the state’s finances is undertaken. 

As for Mali’s future, the CNSP it has already held talks with the M5-RFP’s leader, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, and other members of the opposition. Their stated aim, and the likelihood, is that the country will be restored to democratic civilian government, as in 2013, through elections within a reasonable period of time of around nine months.

The CNSP has stated that it acted to prevent further ‘chaos, anarchy and insecurity’ which is something in which France, the UN, the AU and ECOWAS have all failed. Instead, Mali’s soldiers have taken up their responsibilities to defend the Malian people and, as in 2012, played the role of last resort.

The army — regardless of France, ECOWAS, the AU and the international community — is being applauded by the vast majority of Malians. This will not be the last coup in the region. Other Sahelian states, notably Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso, look extremely vulnerable and so too do several other West African leaders.

The message from Mali to the external world is that they would better understand Africa and be less threatened by jihadism if they listened to its people rather than their supposed leaders.

Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said on 20 August: ’the times of seizure of power by force are over in our sub-region.’ He is badly mistaken. Moreover, if he or his party try to tamper with the elections with are scheduled for December 2020, they too might well find themselves on the receiving end of such force.

This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.