The recent coup d’état in Mali exposes the country and the wider region to the burgeoning threat of jihadi terrorists. But it also provides an opportunity for the installation of a new, democratically elected government to further peace and stability.
On 21 August, cries of jubilation were heard on the streets of Bamako, Mali, following a military coup d’état that removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from power. This coup has come in a time of great political instability. Since 2012, the country has been ravaged by corruption, economic negligence, nepotism, and violent local actors. As grievances amalgamated and the country was thrown into disarray, protests broke out in March when Mali’s Constitutional Court decided to overturn the results of parliamentary elections, handing ten more parliamentary seats to Keïta’s party. The subsequent putsch facilitated the rise of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), a military junta that promised to hold a fair and democratic election as soon as possible.
While aspirations towards democracy and good governance might sound like a step in the right direction for the sixth poorest country in the world, if the elections are not handled correctly, the result may become a spiralling security situation which can destabilise the country and the wider Sahel region. Though the CNSP wants to hand power back to the people with the help of the opposition and civil society, it might just hand power over to the greatest destabilising force in the region – jihadi terrorists.
If there’s one thing terrorists love, it’s a weak state. After Mali’s first coup in 2012, jihadist groups and Tuareg separatists gained a foothold in the country’s north. What especially worried the international community was the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and ISIS-aligned forces. Despite France’s success in fighting against Islamist forces in 2013, attempts at eradicating the jihadis altogether were ultimately unsuccessful. Jihadists today boast a “de facto safe haven in northern Mali,” according to General Dagvin Anderson.
The extremist groups are able to flourish due to a lack of far-reaching and effective governance in Mali, which has opened up ungoverned spaces for such groups to take advantage of. Jihadists have thus gained momentum by exploiting deep-seated local grievances in the north, particularly pertaining to poor government resource management and social tensions between subgroups over access to pastures.
There may be even more dire consequences at the regional level. Not only has terrorism been on the rise in Mali, but there’s been a spill-on effect in Niger and Burkina Faso. In 2019, 4800 people died from jihadist violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and 1.7 million people were forced to flee from their homes. More than this, jihadists now pose a threat to countries in the south, like Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Should Mali’s power vacuum further destabilise the region, Islamist violence will only be further exacerbated in the Sahel region, as will the security threat it poses to the Middle East, the EU, and the US.
The international community must act now to help Mali consolidate a new democratic government. An abandonment of support would only precipitate a devastating chain of events. Political chaos could impede strong governance throughout the country, and the military junta would surely be stretched thin without additional military aid. But at the same time, this coup presents an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. If Mali’s new governors prioritise stability through diplomacy, then they may be able to foster peace and redress people’s long-held grievances through the reimplementation of the Algiers Accord. Conceived in 2015, the Accord primarily aspires to bring about genuine reconciliation with northern rebel groups through their disarmament and demobilisation. However, its limited scope – a failure to engage with all actors, and a lack of oversight and government commitment to the Accord – has made it ineffective. What the Accord needs is a renewed approach that would accommodate the changing situation in Mali.
The CNSP, and eventually the new government, should try their best to include a wider range of participants in peace talks, including civil society, women, and youth groups. It should also try to engage or open a channel of communication with Islamist groups such that violence does not devolve into full-blown conflict. Parties should articulate their goals with greater clarity and specificity, ensuring there exists a shared understanding of what should be considered a successful implementation of the Accord. Importantly, the international community has the responsibility to act as an overseer; a bearer of carrots and sticks. To supplement Mali’s efforts, international stakeholders should facilitate peace by mediating party talks and building a framework that incentivises reaching implementation goals and imposes costs for failing to do so.
And of course, behind the high politics of state security is the plight of millions of Malians living with this newfound uncertainty. Mali is not a lost cause; it is not doomed to endure destitution and jihadi violence. If the new military junta can learn from the mistakes of the last coup, prioritise good governance, and rectify grievances through a revitalised Accord, it has the capacity to set a precedent of stability in an unstable region.
Samantha Wong is a second-year international security student at the Australian National University. She is interested in peace and conflict studies, gendered security issues, and diplomacy and hopes to do research in these areas later in her degree.
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