Mali: Second Military Coup Raises Questions At Home And Abroad

Nine months after the military installed a new interim leader, a young colonel has again taken over the country in what looks like pure power play. But it may not be so simple, and Malians and international allies alike worry about what happens next.

Malian soldiers accompanying Colonel Goita on May 31
Malian soldiers accompanying Colonel Goita on May 31
Cyril Bensimon, Morgane Le Cam and Elise Vincent

BAMAKO — Camp Soundiata-Keita is well guarded, and so are its secrets. On Saturday, May 29, in the village surrounding the military base, just 15 kilometers from the Malian capital, Bamako, strangers are met with suspicions and trepidation. "What are you doing here?" scolds a local woman, to an unfamiliar face. She is soon joined by a soldier on guard duty.

In these hills, the birthplace of all Mali"s coups over the years, tensions have remained high since the most recent ousting of the civilian government on May 24. Like the coup nine months ago, this one was also carried out by Colonel Assimi Goïta. In the interim, the mysterious special forces commander became Mali's vice-president. However, when transitional President Bah N'Daw formed a new government that excluded two people close to Goïta, the Colonel responded by arresting the transitional President and his Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. They, along with several other government officials, have since been released but were forced to resign.

On May 28, Colonel Goïta was proclaimed head of state.

"You had better not have come here to reveal our military secrets' warns the guard before walking away. The military camp was built to protect the nearby presidential palace, Koulouba, from enemy invasions, but in reality it is the military camp itself that has become the greatest threat. "More than anywhere else, families in Kati see their sons killed in combat. When politicians slip up, the military responds by going up to Koulouba," said the Colonel.

While the years-long war against jihadists in northern and central Mali is still far from being won, the military has once again used its resources to intervene in the civilian-political game in Bamako. On August 18, 2020, a group of five colonels, led by Goïta, forced Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, known as "IBK," to resign.

This second coup was hardly led by the people.

Nine months later, it was the same story all over again, this time with the transitional president. As history repeats itself, the international community has been left both worried and embarrassed, issuing verbal warnings and condemnations. On June 4, French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would halt joint operations with the Malian military. Just a few days earlier, after a four-hour meeting in Ghana, the West African heads of state decided to suspend Mali from the African Union, reiterating calls for the appointment of a civilian prime minister, while still avoiding the imposition of sanctions.

How did the situation become so grave? What went on behind the scenes that allowed the overthrow of the Malian power structure for a second time in just nine months? As much as IBK's fall had been the culmination of weeks of popular protest, this second coup was a pure power play.

Angered by the growing influence of the military, which has controlled four key ministries since the beginning of the transition period, President Bah N'Daw announced the dissolution of the government on May 14 and reappointed his Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Colonel Goïta, the Vice-President and head of defense and security, was not informed. Tensions rose. For ten days, they engaged in strained negotiations as operatives involved in the first coup sought to maintain their place in the government.

According to reporting by Le Monde, President Bah N'Daw brought his plans to Colonel Goïta, whom he had known all his life. "N'Daw was Goïta's tutor when he was young. He cared for him as if he were his own son," says a former minister. The 38-year-old Colonel then responded by asking his "Uncle," a mark of respect and closeness, for some time to think.

In Bamako, Mali Colonel Goita is officially sworn in as President of the Transition — Photo: Nicolas Remene/Le Pictorium​/ ZUMA

The next day, Goïta tried to have Colonel Camara placed with the Malian intelligence service. But Bah N'Daw decided that this was too far. "It's this the first option or nothing!" he retorted to his former-mentee. "I am the president and it is my right to change government appointments." Tired of being seen by the public as a pawn of the military who was simply given the presidency to appease the international community, N'Daw was ready to stand up.

But there is another obstacle besides simply reshuffling the parliament: the militarization of institutions. Eleven of the 17 governors, the Gabriel-Touré hospital in Bamako, the Health Insurance Fund: all are run by former coup organizers. The situation is grave, but in February 2022, general elections will be held, hopefully bringing this chaotic period to an end.

In a public statement, Colonel Goïta said he was "obliged to act to preserve the transition charter." However, a few hours after the televised announcement, soldiers raided the homes of Moctar Ouane and Bah N'Daw. From Mr. Coulibaly's legal perspective, this was neither an arrest nor a coup d"état, but simply a "recovery of the transition." Prime Minister N'Daw was guilty ... his crime: removing two coup orchestrators from the government.

The possibility of division within the military was too dangerous.

But for Colonel Goïta, the possibility of division within the military was too dangerous. Responding to the new government became "a matter of life and death," which he later used as justification to religious leaders who had gathered at the presidential palace on May 29.

Detained, like his Prime Minister, Bah N'Daw immediately assumed the posture of a prisoner, asking for neither a mattress nor a television. He was not mistreated, and he held his head high. To him, the younger officers acted with "indiscipline" and "insubordination." But he insisted to his family that "it's not for them to be my judge and executioner. That legitimacy rests with me, and that Act is illegal." However, the battle over authority ended with N'Daw's resignation. In assuming power, the silent Colonel Goïta has now perhaps become prisoner to those who made him king.

In Bamako, Malians appear tired of seeing their political life marked by ineffective policies sanctioned by successive coups d"état, the fifth since the country's independence in 1960. As expected, the virtues of democracy are no longer strong considerations for the group that formed on May 24 to support the takeover. "Our politicians, from IBK to Bah N'Daw, have all failed. When they betray the motherland, our army is there to teach them a lesson," warned one Malian named Alexandre.

Behind him on Place de l'Indépendance, only a few hundred people gathered in the place where all the popular mobilizations converge. The fervor that drove the August 2020 coup and the protests against the IBK regime has dissipated.

In April 2020, the disputed results of the legislative elections triggered a wave of anger in Malians. Now in power, the military is promising to reform the electoral system before the end of the transition, claiming to be committed to avoiding another "botched and fraudulent" election. However, such a vast undertaking takes time, giving the coup plotters an excuse to extend their 18-month legal tenure, which is set to end on February 27, 2022. "It will be up to the people to tell us whether or not to continue afterwards," the junta's lawyer warned. Neighboring heads of state have reaffirmed that the date "should absolutely be maintained."

Colonel Goïta and his group took advantage of these protest to seize power, partially by throwing the political class, who they considered to be the cause of Mali's bankruptcy, under the bus. It remains to be seen how these young officers will adapt to the next crisis.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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