Mali: What are the Consequences and Challenges after the “Institutional Coup”?

12 mins read

by Irina Tsukerman and Anis El Okbani

The coup is no surprise, but the culmination of contested elections, rampant government corruption and days of unrest.

Under pressure from the military, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta “IBK” and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé resigned before being arrested by the military. So, is this an “institutional coup”? But how then to qualify it as “institutional”?

Some argue that overall, coups aren’t what they used to be.

The classic military coup, for instance, is abrupt, illegal, and involves an element of force.

The second type, a self-coup (autogolpe) involves a government that came to power through legitimate democratic means but increasingly erodes institutions, freedoms, and democratic safeguards to perpetuate its own power. (Venezuela, and increasingly, Turkey, are prime example of that).

Third, a post-modern coup, involves the use of behind-the-scenes pressure, political maneuvering, and leaks to the media to bring down a government.

Then there is the “hybrid coup” in which the military takes control but provides some level of legal fiction to justify these measures to the public and to the international community.

The 2012 coup in Mali followed the “classic” coup d’etat scenario, but the latest chain of events are indicative of a more complex path. The reason for that may be the perceived inherent frailty of military regimes – but that does not explain the continuity of the junta rule in Algeria. Another explanation is that due to the 24/7 media cycle there is now an expectation of some democratic formalities to avoid scrutiny and pressure from democratic watchdogs and the weaponized human rights organizations. Finally, the involvement of multiple agendas and actors behind the scenes have turned the military in this case from an independent self-interested actor into, at least in part, a tool of foreign interests. For that reason, there is a mixture of elements of all of the aforementioned scenarios.

It is the president of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) in Mali, Colonel Assimi Goita, who explains and claims that the occurrence was, in fact, a “classic coup” in his first outing and public interview. When he refused the qualifier of coup d’etat, on the basis of a constitutional analysis, to propose its reading in favor of an “institutional coup”, Colonel Assimi Goita, held the attention of media, handling both redundancy and oxymoron. He was trying to claim that this was merely a “parliamentary”/political coup, a scenario in  which the head of state is confronted by his own government, and resigns, as a result of political pressure.  In fact, the formula, as presented here, is a contradiction at odds with reality. The use of military was present and visible, and the unrest allegedly over corruption-related issues was visible to the public eye for weeks prior to the final reckoning. The coup in Mali will likely have consequences for the stability of the Sahel region in West Africa. But also security concerns for the EU, the United States and the Arab world, because of the vacuum that the Islamists will seek to exploit.

There are five main Islamist groups in Mali; they have been at the forefront of the news since the 2012 coup and operations which followed. These groups are Ansar Dine,  Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Signed-in-Blood battalion, and the Islamic Movement for Azawad (MA), which consists of the Islamist Tuareg separatists. Some are fully international, some are local, and some seek to spread Islamism across the continent. Some are focused on the idea of a Caliphate, while others claim to be liberating Mali from the yoke of the French colonialism and repression. Over time, however, new groups have added to the fray of the best-known actors, such as the 2019 attacks on the Fulani herders by radicals dressed as ethnic Dogon hunters.

The blame was placed on a Dogon self-defense group reacting to local grievances against the ethnic-majority country, but Islamists have exploited these inequalities to align with local movements and to attract them into the radical, Islamist following, which they claim would provide a solution to their local issues through the pursuit of caliphate and religiously imposed justice. As a result of these attacks, hundreds of civilians were killed including pregnant women. This absorption of local ethnic conflicts and tensions by Islamists opened yet another front in Mali, and yet another avenue for extremists to enter the mainstream and to cause internal destabilization..

France, Algeria and Morocco, more than most European and Maghrebian actors involved in anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel, have a vested interest in what is happening in Mali, as the latest events could have an effect destabilizing for the whole region and hurting their political and economic interests. Currently, more than half of Malian territory is occupied by armed Islamist groups, whose influence extends beyond the border to neighboring countries Niger and Burkina Faso.The coup is no surprise, but the culmination of contested elections, rampant government corruption and days of unrest. Worse yet, since 2012, Mali has been rocked by a succession of clashes with armed Islamist groups and in a vicious cycle of conflict after a military coup. The recent coup has many similarities with that of 2012, including unrest and popular resentment towards the government. The French military intervention since 2013, with more than 5,000 soldiers deployed on the ground in 2020, has failed to prevent either the presence of the Islamists or the coup d’etat.

And this has of course a cost, in addition to mobilizing French, German, Italian and American military resources for the stabilization of the country, the UN spends one billion euros per year to maintain 15,000 soldiers there.

Coded messages between Colonel Assimi Goita and King Mohammed VI

Upon receiving Hassan Naciri, at the Kati military camp (15 km from Bamako), Colonel Assimi Goita recalled that the Moroccan ambassador was the first diplomat to make contact, on Thursday, August 20, with the new strongman of Mali. The Russian ambassador was not far away, while the Algerian and other actors were probably in ambush. Natural resources and strategic position of Mali, oblige!

Mali is a depository of gold, bauxite, manganese, iron ore, limestone, phosphates, and uranium. Smugglers looking for revenue have been attracted to Mali for thousands of years; however, in more recent times, the interests of  armed groups and terrorist organizations in finding alternative to currency traceable by banks made Mali of particular value to these organizations and their associated criminal syndicates. Uranium, of course, is of a special interest to Iran; therefore, there is reason to believe that the Islamic Republic may benefit from the ongoing chaos and instability, and is at the very least looking to have some influence over the government or over the forces with access to the deposits. Even more concerning is the distinct possibility of Iran funding these radicalized groups and even local interests, otherwise of little direct value to the Iranian agenda, precisely for the purpose of gaining uninhibited access to these deposits, as well as sources of funding for its shadow economy, especially after the dissolution of the JCPOA, and an increasing crackdown by the United States.

A few years ago, what analysts describe as “proxy wars” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, opened yet another theater of war in the country. However, the focus has mostly been thorugh ideological outreach in schools, mosques, and cultural centers. However, since the ascent of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has moved a great deal away from proselytization in mosques, and despite investing heavily in humanitarian and educational outreach, prefers to operate indirectly, through joint programming with local imams, and support for individual initiatives. Moreover, the war in Yemen has taken a great deal of focus away from these developments in Africa, which means Iran’s activities go virtually unchallenged. The French and others have been focused almost entirely on combat; Morocco’s educational outreach has been the primary path to combating the extremism emanating from both the Sunni and Shi’a camps. Where the Saudis have left off, the Qataris have been all too happy to take over and provide an alternative. They too have been investing into ideological outreach and humanitarian activism through Qatar Foundation International.

Qatar’s involvement in Mali goes back to the events of 2012-2013, starting with the first coup and continuing with the French operations. Though at the time, hard evidence of Qatar’s involvement in the funding, recruitment, and training of Al-Qaeda elements and Ansar Dine was hard to come by, reports that Qatar, at the very least, was playing both sides and more likely siding with these Islamist elements against France, the US, and various European allies, certainly raised that point. The French government pointed to Qatar’s vested interested in extending its influence in the region, and its use of the rebels and terrorists to advance its agenda, particularly in Northern Mali. Islamist groups capitalizied on the instability resulted from the 2012 to gain control of the territory in the North, and embedding themselves there. Qatar had expressed objections to French presence in Mali at the time, given that the French-led operations would have jeopardized the spread of fundamentalism across Africa, and would have thwarted the political victories of Doha’s local allies. 

In addition to Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups, Qatar was accused of funding Touareg separatists who had been previously weaponized against state actors in Sahara by Muammar Gaddhafi, and in the following years also embraced by Turkey’s Erdogan, who had made an alliance with Qatar and shared similar goals The Tuareg separatists are secularists; however, this strategy of supporting various groups which may otherwise have nothing to in common with each other to advance its final objective, is part for the course for Qatar (which has also funded both the right wing and left wing press in Western countries, and has lobbied with politicians on both sides of the aisle). Furthermore, Qatar contributed to the pile on of outreach efforts by establishing its own NGOs throughout Mali. Even before KSA took a step back from active engagement in soft power efforts, Qatar was at the forefront of building Islamist madrassas, schools, and various centers. Qatar at the time was already making significant strives elsewhere in the region, including with the short-lived Morsi regime in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and as experts describe it, was “deeply entrenched” in Northern Mali. Was Qatar aiming to become a mediator among various rebel factions and Islamists, France, Algeria, and the country’s government? 

If that was the case, Qatar’s complex regional efforts did not contradict the accusations of funding terrorists, as Qatar’s actions have been consistent in that regard in other fronts, including in Yemen, Afghanistan,  Libya, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria, where Qatar simultaneously was linked to various jihadist groups while also attempting to position itself as a diplomatic power broker and mediator. Far from being deterred by continuing military action, as late as 2019, Qatar was observed continuing to provide military aid to its allies – in other words, anyone who could be helpful in securing Qatar’s influencer status. For instance, at one point, Doha airlifted 24 armored vehicles to Mali. Qatar claimed that this aid would help the government fund terrorism; at the same time, however, it continued to be linked to the funding of terrorists groups. This raised questions whether Qatar, was in fact, covering all bases in the event the government would fall and one of the factions came to power, or whether it was deliberately, instigating violence and conflict that would benefits its own entrenchment in the region and help spread radical ideas and ensure consistent support. Qatar was also looking to find new markets for its economy in Africa, and to secure access to precious and rare earth metals, and rich mineral deposits.

Several things are striking concerning Qatar’s role in Mali. First, while the concern about Qatar’s threat to French interests is legitimate, the only French politicians who raised are affiliated with populist right wing parties, known to be linked to Russia, which is an economic competitor to Qatar, and itself has vested – and historic- interests of having a significant political presence, even dominion, in Africa. Second, overall despite all these countless reports of Qatar’s duplicitous and unhelpful role in Mali, not one country has provided firm public evidence of Qatar’s nefarious activity, and to the extent that reports concerning this issue were publicized, the discussion or public debate about Qatar’s role has been relatively muted and certainly has not led to more concerted and high level investigative efforts. Third, even a limited coup in Mali is beneficial to Qatar, and yet the French did nothing to stop it.

Have France and Qatar come to a temporary alliance and agreement in their joint efforts to edge Morocco’s influence out of Mali, as France seems dedicated to cementing and monopolizing its traditional influence in the region? Or is France so beholden to Qatari interests internally (as are many other European countries, and even, to some extent, the United States – even more so now than in 2012 after many billions in investments dedicated by Emir Tamim who had since displaced his father), that challenging Qatar’s self-serving alliances was not to be spoken of, even though any battle against terrorism and extremism is contingent on cutting off sources of revenue and ideological influences, of which Doha surely is at least a contributing factor?
These issues will be explored in more depth in our book, but meanwhile, the growing evidence of France’s willingness to prioritize its competition for influence with Morocco even over its security agenda is becoming more striking.

From now on, France is in competition and leading a campaign of denigration against Morocco, has a good chance of being part of the Malian problem; from that perspective, the royal coup could save the furniture – the appearances and the political infrastructure beneficial to France’s commitments – , for lack of anything better. So the royal message has been decrypted correctly. The rest of the words exchanged concern diplomacy!

However, the passage attracts attention: “The president of the CNSP informed the Moroccan diplomat of the confidence and appeasement measures taken, indicating that the political transition will be debated between the different components of Malian society”. And this too: “the Kingdom of Morocco was and remains engaged” (Communiqué published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Morocco). Case to be continued …

The game of foreign powers in the face of geopolitical realities

The mineral resources of the Sahel zone create intense competition between several actors. These resources include oil, gold, and uranium.
Two projects clash against a backdrop of energy issues: a Chinese project and a European project (France in the lead).
This competitive game could be turned upside down by the powers which have an influence in Libya (Turkey, Russia, Egypt, etc.) which could serve as a point of support for an opening up to the Mediterranean. Turkey’s interests in energy, in addition to its political and ideological interests, are some of the factors driving the spread of its influence all over North Africa, not just in Libya. 

Muslim powers and the emergence of terrorist groups

Behind this emergence, would hide the nostalgia of certain Muslim powers for the old Muslim empires of the 19th century. It is on this ethno-political reality that Islamist extremism thrives. This emergence of radical jihadist Islam in Africa and the Sahel is part of a competition and calculations of rivalry supported by the Gulf countries (increasingly more UAE and Qatar than Saudi Arabia) and Pakistan for a dual objective: Oppose Iranian Shiite influence which exploits a large diaspora, especially Lebanese; in addition to Hezbullah’s organized crime connections, smuggling activities, terrorist operations, abductions, and various active measures aimed at radicalizing or converting local populations. Counter the penetration of Europeans and neutralize the ideas conveyed by the evangelists in the region.

In addition some of the jihadist fighters in the various Sahel extremist organizations have been radicalized in Pakistan. Because of this interference, the African Muslim community has become a breeding ground for jihadists and terrorist groups likely to destabilize states and traditional Islamic societies. Under the guise of the fight against terrorism and incidentally against organized crime, the foreign powers covet, in reality, natural resources and better still, aim, in the long term, by means of a militarization of the Sahelian space to achieve the goal to control and oust rival powers (Turkey, Iran, China, Russia, India, Brazil etc.). 

For now, however, Qatar is backing Turkey in everything that it is doing, and Turkey, in turn, is willing to cut deals with Russia in Libya and elsewhere, so long as it can continue advancing its agenda. While Qatar is striving to become a gas monopoly, Turkey and Qatar have also increasingly coordinated their activities, even revolutionary religious outreach, with Iran and its proxies, to avoid clashes in the region, and in order to be more effective in ousting the Europeans. US, and UAE. Qatar, together with the United States, aims to cut Europe off from Russia (the main supplier of gas to the Europeans). It has a well-established strategy: After Libya and its important energy resources, it is manipulating Islamist groups to extend its influence in the Sahel (Mauritania and Mali). His technique: the policy of the Arab Spring as a business fund to destabilize states and the exploitation of regional natural resources.

Algerian or Moroccan leadership in the Sahelian space?

Algeria had the advantage of asserting its position through the Algiers Accord signed on March 1, 2015 by the most important players in the Malian sphere of influence, excluding the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). But this is stillborn agreement for reasons explained in our book.

Destabilizing factors

The failure of the political and economic governance of Sahelian States, corruption, the instrumentalisation of identity, ethnic and religious referents, droughts, economic and social precariousness, the lack of future prospects for young people, trafficking in all genres, drugs, weapons, Islamist terrorism, interference by external powers to control wealth (oil, gas, uranium, iron, gold, copper, tin, phosphate, etc.), environmental weaknesses fueling tensions between sedentary and nomads, finally the consequences of the Libyan conflict. These stressors are fueled by the presence and circulation of a financial windfall, held by terrorist and organized crime groups.

Sahelian G5

The Sahelian theater, part of a field of confrontation, forces stakeholders to think about a collective response: On February 16, 2014, the Sahelian G5 was created in Nouakchott, associating Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. All of these countries, however, having weak and corrupt governments and dealing with assorted sectarian issues, have come to depend heavily on European funding. This coalition has proven to be highly ineffective in combating these threats, whether separately or together. Furthermore, lack of pressure and tools to reform by the external governments propping up these regimes has exacerbated popular dissatisfaction, thereby increasing sectarianism and further weakening the political infrastructure. Perhaps in the future, those who have vested interest in keep rogue regimes and extremist groups out of power and sphere of influence, should reevaluate their approach.

The above article is the extract from the book: The Underbelly of the Moroccan Kingdom’s Diplomacy: Between Issue, Crises and Challenges in religion and security, Chapter V: Morocco and the African continent.

Irina Tsukerman is a Human Rights and National Security Attorney based in New York. She has written extensively on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli, and other international publications. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.

Anis El Okbani is an entrepreneur based in NY, a Morocco and National Security analyst, and a specialist in geopolitics and strategy.

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