Mali's Military Misadventure

If the originally stated timetable for a return to democracy had been adhered to, Mali would have elected a new president on 4 February and joined Senegal as nations with new leaders and a national mandate. Instead, on September 2023, the ruling military regime announced that the elections would be ‘slightly postponed’ for technical reasons. The likelihood of these polls taking place has been further put in flux following the 10 April ban on all political activities. The regime doubled down on this process by issuing another decree on 11 April that banned the media from covering political activities as well. The regime has cited ‘maintaining public order’ as its reason for the ban, but it is more likely that this was in a response to a call by many political parties seeking a return to democracy as soon as possible. This could lead to an increased and coordinated opposition under one of West Africa’s military regimes.


Another factor for military influence in African governance has been the rise of partisan and identitarian divisions in politics


A Tenuous Timeline

Since Modibo Keita became president on 20 June 1960, there have been five elected presidents of Mali and four have been deposed by military regimes. Keita himself was removed in 1968 after just over eight years in power and succeeded by Moussa Traore who ruled for 22 years before being removed himself in 1991. Amadou Toumani Toure served in a transition capacity for a year before handing over to Alpha Oumar Konare who was twice elected as president before being replaced again by Toure who won two elections. Toure would himself be deposed by the military in 2012 and after two acting leaders for about a year, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected as president but was himself removed two years after his re-election. Mali has been under military rule again since 2020 and, with this period being longer than previous military interregnums between democratic governments, this situation might be more intractable than previous periods.

Like in many African nations, armed forces in Mali have often been an influential and usually well-structured institution. This has meant that while government has been able to ignore with citizen agitations, it has usually been fatal to leaders when the army itself is affected. The 2012 coup d’etat against Toure was driven by animosity from soldiers who felt that a massacre in Aguelhok was as a result of ammunition shortages by the government.

Another factor for military influence in African governance has been the rise of partisan and identitarian divisions in politics. Partisan politics has often been guided along regional, religious and ethnic lines, leading to intense competition and fairly common accusations of ruling coalitions unfairly influencing elections or disproportionately allocating resources. Professional soldiers have often claimed the role of neutral arbiters ready to step in and provide guidance, especially during widespread discontent. This was evident in the 1968 coup, when citizens welcomed the removal of Keita’s government because of the prevailing economic challenges, the 1991 coup when Traore’s austerity programs had caused increased hardship and in 2020 when armed personnel stepped in the wake of the protests and led to the end of the Keita government.


Unfortunately, while the regime focuses on actions designed to stay in power, it ignores the necessary elements of governance needed to appeal to citizens.
Marring momentum

The recent announcement by the Malian regime comes in the wake of increasing political activity as citizens and political groups prepared for a return to democracy. The added limitation on press coverage leads to concerns that the regime could use this decree to shut down attempts by journalists to report on human rights violations and abuses. While human rights organisations have decried the move, others have rightly pointed out that this is only the latest in a series of unilateral decisions taken by the regime that still governs without a clear mandate from Malians. The regime has acted increasingly to curb dissent and stifle groups it considers to be in opposition. On 13 March, it dissolved the Association of Pupils and Students of Mali (L’Association des élèves et étudiants du Mali) following clashes between different groups. This followed a similar dissolution of the Observatory for Elections and Good Governance, a civil society group that had called for elections, in December 2023; and the proscription of the Kaoural Renouveau association and another group led by Imam Dicko that had independently called for civil transitions in March 2024. But the regime’s actions have not just been domestic, they now increasingly affect longer-term prospects for Mali through international activities.

In September 2023, Mali joined Burkina Faso and Niger in announcing the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES in French), a defence and economic pact that they hoped would deter any threat against a member state. This particularly followed comments from that the regional body, ECOWAS, was considering military interventions into Niger after a recent coup. They followed this up with an announcement, in January 2024, of their intention to leave ECOWAS entirely, and in February, they revealed plans to consider a confederation between their three states. All three actions, regardless of their merits or lack thereof, were taken without active citizen engagement and could see Malians affected by foreign policy actions taken by a government without constitutional legitimacy. Unfortunately, while the regime focuses on actions designed to stay in power, it ignores the necessary elements of governance needed to appeal to citizens.

According to UNICEF, more than half of 7.1 million Malians requiring humanitarian assistance in 2024 are children. The report expands on half a million children not having access to education and over 1,700 schools being closed due to the insecurity. These issues are also aggravated by increasing climate related challenges. Researchers noted that temperatures reached 48C in Mali last month, with a hospital tying hundreds of deaths to the extreme heat. The effects need concerted efforts and assistance, which are likely playing second fiddle to Mali’s ongoing security challenge.

Mali has been dealing with a separatist rebel group in the north, seeking to establish an independent nation state called Azawad. There have also been other terrorist groups and security concerns in bordering states including Mauritania and Algeria that have exacerbated security issues. This separatist agitation has been ongoing since 2012 and indirectly led to Toure’s removal from power by the army. The current regime ordered the withdrawal of French troops that helped with trying to manage the clash with extremist groups after nine years and appears to have fallen in league with Russian mercenaries to plug this gap. Yet with a cessation of ties with ECOWAS, it is now faced with relying on Burkina Faso and Niger, neighbours also dealing with a multitude of challenges including severe food insecurity. Insecurity remains high in Mali, leading to severe displacement, and the impact of this crisis could easily overwhelm the region.  


Mali is not the only of West Africa’s four military-led states dealing with different challenges. Insecurity continues to affect Burkina Faso and Niger, while Guinea is beginning to push back against its ruling regime. But Mali is a long way from a return to democracy. A recent national dialogue, largely boycotted by the opposition, has recommended extending military rule for several more years.

The uncertainty means that, in an ever-connected world, the impact of this resolution or resulting clash will affect millions across the region. There needs to be a concerted effort by the military regime, opposition groups and regional bodies to do better at negotiating a resolution to the crisis, as well as outline a clear strategy for a more sustained democratic process. It might prove to be the difference between a region in development and one in disarray.


Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a research analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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