Africa

OP-ED

Mali coup may give Islamists their first political foothold in the Sahel

The political crisis in Mali is an opportunity to review African conflict prevention instruments, particularly regarding governance issues. (Photo: EPA-EFE / H Diakite)

Since the last coup in Mali, the country has undergone a dramatic shift from the secular socialist society that marked the post-independence period to 1991, to emerging as a deeply religious society. Behind this new-found religiosity are two prominent imams, Mahmoud Dicko and Bouyé Haïdara.

News of a coup in West Africa was commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the last two decades it is a sufficiently rare event to make world headlines, especially when the two last coups in West Africa happened in the same country – Mali. 

Colonel-Major Ismaël Wagué, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force, emerged at a press conference on state television on 19 August announcing that the Comité national du salut du peuple (CNSP) had taken control. Dressed in military fatigues, Wagué pledged to stabilise the country. The new military rulers introduced a curfew, dissolved the national assembly and promised a fresh transition to civilian rule.

The coup is the culmination of a series of popular protests similar to those seen recently in Algeria, and in Sudan. Since early June, people have been taking to the streets countrywide after Friday prayers to call for change. In Bamako these protests were initially 100 to 200 strong, but numbers swelled considerably in recent weeks, ending in the crescendo of a military intervention.

The motives of this coup are almost exactly the same as those that led to the military intervention in 2012. Then, as now, there was widespread discontent in the military at the deteriorating security situation in the north of the country, at poor army pay and poor equipment, and an overall disdain for an ineffective political class and unchecked corruption of civilian rulers.

Then, the Malian military was fighting a heavily armed Tuareg militia that had crossed the Sahel from Libya, in the wake of the short-sighted French and UK military intervention in Libya in 2011. Up to then, the militia had served as late Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi’s bodyguard. As Libya collapsed, they helped themselves to his substantial arsenal and set off for their traditional home in the deserts of northern Mali. 

Mali’s military’s equipment proved no match and the armed forces were repeatedly humiliated. 

In the eight intervening years, the security environment has not improved for Malians, despite the presence of a 15,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission and French, US and UK military interventions. French troops play a more prominent role than the UN forces, and local security sources say the French are very effective in counter-insurgency – they are nevertheless very unpopular among Malians. France is the former colonial power and still has much sway in the region, notably in that the French treasury still backs the CFA franc currency.

Since Libya, Mali has become the focus of international Islamist insurgency and counter-insurgency which has drawn to it disparate groups from homegrown Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Islamic State. 

Insurgents have grown in strength across the Sahel region and it has proliferated and spread from northern Mali to Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and northeastern Nigeria.

In this environment of conflict, corruption has proliferated. 

Ironically, the now-ousted president, 75-year-old Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, known simply as IBK, was widely acclaimed as the hero who brought the very unpopular 2012 coup to an end when he won elections in 2013. But the reputations of Keïta and his son Karim for corruption, and the civilian government’s inability to deliver, fuelled anger and stoked the protests.  

Karim, a member of parliament, has blatantly used his position as the president’s son to further his business interests. He gained particular notoriety when, despite the Covid-19 crisis, he purloined a military aircraft to take him to Spain on a birthday jaunt – details of which made it into social media, angering increasingly socially conservative Malians.

But political tensions really erupted after the first round of parliamentary elections in late March. Polls were mired in abductions of opposition candidates and officials. In an unprecedented event, a senior opposition politician, Soumaila Cisse, was kidnapped while out campaigning three days before the election. 

What unites the Imams, the population and now the military is that they want the international forces to leave. The new military rulers have reached out to the northern Tuareg to come to peace talks. Security sources say this is code for calling on the Islamists to join forces with the military coup leaders against their joint enemy – the foreign intervention forces.

In a bid to quell the protests, Keïta has presided over a series of meetings with his opponents and delegations of regional leaders. All failed to end the unrest. The protest leaders refused to join a power-sharing government. Then, sources in Bamako say, Keïta appears to have provoked the ire of senior members of the military when he fired the head of presidential security, bringing to the coup an element of personal vendetta. 

So the military arrested Keïta and his prime minister, Boubou Cissé, and detained them until they had resigned. Video footage shows surprisingly well-equipped soldiers in full battle attire accompanying them to prison amid cheering crowds.

At midnight on 18 August, President Keïta announced his resignation on national television. Veteran Mali-watchers say that, unlike the 2012 intervention, this coup has the backing of the military’s top brass, and that Colonel-Major Wagué may remain the coup’s spokesperson rather than emerge as its leader. 

What has changed since the last coup is that Mali – already socially conservative – has undergone a dramatic shift from the secular socialist society that marked the post-independence period to 1991, to emerging as a deeply religious society. Behind this new-found religiosity are two prominent imams, Mahmoud Dicko and Bouyé Haïdara. 

Haïdara is the leader of Nioro – a town on the border with Mauritania. As well as a respected Imam, Haïdara is a pragmatic businessman with a sizable trucking and transport business: it is said that when he sneezes, Mali catches cold.

Dicko, on the other hand, is more extreme. Qatar reportedly finances his activities and he is reported to bus people to take part in weekly protests in some areas. Diko’s aim is to establish Islamic law in Mali. Both Imams have been prominent in fanning the popular protests. 

What unites the Imams, the population and now the military is that they want the international forces to leave. The new military rulers have reached out to the northern Tuareg to come to peace talks. Security sources say this is code for calling on the Islamists to join forces with the military coup leaders against their joint enemy – the foreign intervention forces.

In the coming days there will be a flurry of international diplomacy as regional bodies, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), implement their rules against coups – just as they did in 2012. This may see Mali being ostracised or face political or economic sanctions. The UN Security Council has been meeting behind closed doors to discuss the situation.

What these bodies might have to face is how, after eight years of counter-insurgency, this military coup has brought with it the prospect of Islamists gaining a political foothold in the Sahel for the first time. DM

Tara O’Connor is co-founder and managing director of Africa Risk Consulting, a commentator and writer on politics, business issues in Francophone west Africa, the Sahel and Maghreb and co-presenter of The ARC Insider podcast on pan-African affairs.

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