Date: Friday, 28 August 2020
It's been a week of hard bargaining in Bamako and over the West African airwaves as the putschists who turfed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta out of the presidency negotiate with the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) over the shape of a transition to take the country through to fresh democratic elections. In command of the capital, the state machine and popular support, the colonels of the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP) stuck firmly to their bottom line: no comeback for IBK. He has now conceded, and told Ecowas mediators he has no wish to return to office.
Regional presidents, with the hawkish Alassane Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea's Alpha Condé in the lead, started out by demanding IBK's return backed by draconian sanctions, the closure of all borders and the suspension of all trade links. But after the hard-line opening bids, cooler heads prevailed as the two sides edged towards the middle ground and potential compromise.
Senegal's President Macky Sall persuaded fellow Ecowas leaders to soften the sanctions and allow in food, fuel and medicine to protect the wellbeing of ordinary Malians and sustain the twin campaigns against jihadist terrorism and Covid-19.
After the Ecowas mediator and former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan flew back to Bamako on 22 August, the junta agreed the deposed president could leave Kati barracks for his home in Bamako or travel abroad for medical treatment.
One putschist source briefed the media on proposals for a transition to democracy of three years during which a military figurehead would be in charge. But the CNSP official spokesman, Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué, rubbished the reports and insisted that there had been no talk of a majority military government.
The soldiers have proposed a two-year timetable, while Jonathan's team are looking at one year or less. Ecowas hopes the pressure of the franc zone financial sanctions will encourage the junta to retreat.
But Wagué stressed, 'Any decision about the length of the transition, the transitional president or the formation of the government will be worked out among Malians, with the political parties, the social-political groups, the trade unions, the signatory groups, civil society.' It was becoming clear that the putschists' bottom line defence against any lingering Ecowas pressure for a return to the pre-coup state of play was that a broad range of voices across Malian society and the military would decide the way forward – and, implicitly, that this would legitimise IBK's enforced retirement.
And with the former president's own Rassemblement Pour le Mali (RPM) party among the first to hold talks with the CNSP it was hard to see any important domestic voices disagreeing.
Although the opposition mass movement, the Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques (M5-RFP), was miffed that the colonels spoke first to Keïta's governing coalition parties, it was also keen to join the discussions. For now, that won't include its influential clerical ally Mahmoud Dicko, who has announced his retreat from politics, although he is likely to remain influential behind the scenes.
He will want to encourage further overtures towards local jihadists such as the Peul (or Fulani) preacher Amadou Koufa in Mopti region. The abducted opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé – thought to be held by a faction close to Koufa – has at last been allowed to write to his family via the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hopes are high that the new mood of national consensus and compromise might facilitate his release.
Meanwhile, politicians sounding out the mood beyond Bamako are pointing out the need to address urgent social and economic concerns. Moussa Mara, leader of the centrist Yelema opposition party, has warned of reports of a catastrophic situation in the cotton sector, a critical source of income for hundreds of thousands of households (AC Vol 59 No 1, Wanted: change and security).
In this more positive atmosphere Jonathan decided to prolong his stay in Bamako beyond the weekend, averring that both sides were seeking an honourable route out of the crisis even though it had not proved possible to reach agreement on everything.
By Monday morning, 24 August, it was being reported that the Ecowas delegation had abandoned any suggestion that IBK be restored.
Regional leaders had to make that demand, if only for form's sake, but it was always unrealistic. From the outset, the West African presidents had found themselves alone in their calls to bring him back.
The 18 August coup met with all-round condemnation outside Mali, from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres downwards. The UN Security Council, the African Union, the European Union and France instantly united in support for Ecowas's imposition of sanctions and the demand to release Keïta, Cissé and the others detained at the Kati military base. This was in sharp contrast to the jubilation of the crowds on Bamako's streets.
They may have lost this round, but African leaders remain unanimous in their determination to swat the contagion of putschism before it can infect disgruntled officers in their own countries. Even so, a desire to see IBK's return was absent from the numerous vague calls for a return to constitutional order.
President Emmanuel Macron, addressing a press conference at the French presidential Mediterranean retreat, the Fort de Brégançon, condemned the coup against Mali's 'democratically elected' president and pressed for his release. But in calling for power to be 'returned to civilians as soon as possible' in 'a rapid and democratic transition' Macron was implicitly accepting that Keïta's spell in office had already been brought to an end.
AU peace and security chief Smaïl Chergui allowed himself to agree with a radio interviewer that one could envisage new elections by the end of this year – implicitly accepting that IBK's presidency was over.
AU heads of state participating in a 20 August crisis discussion also kept their responses low-key. Meeting chair South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called for Keïta's release, while Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta simply pressed for a 'speedy, peaceful and democratic' resolution.
The absence of specific appeals for Keïta's return to office in the international community reflected not just a realistic reading of the mood in Bamako but long years of exasperation with IBK's lackadaisical approach to leading a country in which more than 12,000 United Nations troops serve in a mission with the highest casualty toll of any current UN peacekeeping operation in the world.
In private, frustrations with IBK were expressed frequently and graphically. Asked last year about the president's approach to governing, one senior international mediator told Africa Confidential: 'Everything you've ever heard about him is true.' His early retirement is sure to be met with more relief than regret.
Against such a background, Ecowas was under discreet but uncomfortable implicit pressure from international partners, such as France, the EU and the United States, who would not welcome indefinite haggling about transition getting in the way of a renewed focus on the security crisis in the north.
Agreement on IBK's retirement plan should not prove difficult, but popular anger at corruption allegations could complicate negotiations with Ecowas about the fate of many of those close to him. His son, the former parliamentary defence committee chair Karim Keïta, who remains in military custody, is a particular target for the fury of the crowds. Those images of him partying strenuously in the Balearics while ordinary soldiers were killed in their dozens trying to hold a line against hordes of jihadists won't be easy to forget.
Who's who in the colonels' coup
Five colonels run the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP), the junta that seized power from President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta's beleaguered government on 18 August. They are: Colonels Assimi Goïta and Malick Diaw, respectively leader and deputy-leader of the committee; Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué, a fighter pilot and second-in-command of the air force; and Cols Modibo Koné and Sadio Camara.
The junta's first statements and actions suggest this a more thought-out putsch than Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo's coup in 2012 which led to a power vacuum, allowing Islamist insurgents to occupy almost two-thirds of the country, and then to the French intervention, Opération Serval, which drove them back (AC Vol 53 No 7, Rebels and putschists & Vol 54 No 3, The end of the beginning).
Three of the five officers at the junta's first press conference – Koné, Diaw and Camara – are graduates of the École Militaire Interarmes in Koulikoro, just outside Bamako. Camara was stationed in the northern town of Gao, where he was said to be working with General El Hadj Gamou, the leader of Groupe d'auto-défense touareg Imghad et alliés (GATIA), the 'self-defence' militia, before becoming director of the Prytanée military academy in Kati (AC Vol 58 No 7, Combat and compromise). He then went for further training to Russia in January, and had only recently returned.
Diaw is the second-in-command of the camp in Kati and this is his second coup. He was there when Sanogo deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012. Koné is reported to have served at Konna in the Mopti Region. It was the threat that the Islamist insurgents would overrun Konna in 2013 that triggered the launch of Opération Serval.
Goïta commands Mali's elite anti-terrorist unit, the Bataillon on autonome des forces spéciales (BAFS), and was stationed in Gao. He also received training from a little-known United States NGO called Spirit of America, which operates in combat zones where the US Agency for International Development and the Pentagon are both active. Its role, the Pentagon says, is to encourage US soldiers to identify local civilian needs that might not be covered by aid programmes or the duties of the military missions.
Goïta took part in the annual US joint training exercise for Sahel troops, Operation Flintlock, last year and Spirit of America claims to have been associated with Flintlock since 2015 (AC Vol 58 No 6, More progress, less movement)). The web page containing Goïta's picture in relation to Flintlock 2019 was quickly taken off the Spirit of America website after the coup.
Not at the press conference at the Kati barracks but believed to have played a role in what the putschists call the 'resignation' of IBK, are three further influential figures: Colonel Mama Sékou Lelenta, about whom little is known; General Cheick Fanta Mady Dembélé; and Lieutenant-General Ibrahim Traoré.
Until late in the evening of 17 August, Lt Gen Traoré, who has powerful friends in Kati, was the head of Presidential Security. Then, President Keïta, who was known for treating his security detail with little respect, peremptorily sacked him. This proved the straw, on top of the army's growing list of grievances, that broke the camel's back and triggered the coup.
Gen Dembélé is French and German-trained, widely read, and described as discreet and calm. Until 2019 he led the internationally funded Alioune Blondin Beye peacekeeping academy, in Hamdallaye, in Bamako. Before that, he had a senior position with the African Union Commission for Peace and Security, tasked with strategic planning and conflict resolution. Malian journalists have linked him to the coup but he has confirmed nothing.
Claims have been made about the junta's ties to the opposition Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des forces patriotiques (M5-RFP), which has been staging mass rallies against Keïta's government since June (AC Vol 61 No 12, Keïta cornered). But CNSP spokesperson Wagué told France 24, 'We have no links with M5. None.'
Yet there are reports that Diaw and Camara are friends with the former interior minister and now senior M5-RFP official, General Moussa Sinko Coulibaly. Coulibaly was briefly detained in October 2019 for tweeting that it was time to 'put an end' to the IBK government. He was also part of the Sanogo coup in 2012. But the 2012 scenario, when the president of the National Assembly – Dioncounda Traoré at the time – became interim president, will not be repeated. The current holder of that post, Moussa Timbiné, is seen as too close to the deposed ruling clan and is in military custody.
Timbiné's parliamentary seat is one of the 31 assigned by the Constitutional Court in April to IBK, which handed him a parliamentary majority. The decision, since reversed, so angered the public with its apparent impunity that it sparked the mass demonstrations in the capital.