Mali: Coups And Democratic Practice On The African Continent

BEVERLY HILLS, August 23, (THEWILL) – In this article, Jude Obafemi examines the coup d’etat in Mali, the successful ouster of President Ibrahim Keita from office and how Africa can get its democratic governments to end poverty and corruption in the continent.


On August 18, Mali’s President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was ousted by a coup d’etat. He was detained at gunpoint and forced to resign. It was the second coup in Mali in eight years, embroiling a poor nation in the throes of an eight-year-old Islamic insurgency and the bite of the coronavirus pandemic into further turmoil. The soldiers who seized power said they were acting proactively to prevent the country falling further into chaos.

The spokesperson of the group, Colonel Ismaël Wagué, the Air Force Deputy Chief Of Staff, flanked by members of the country’s armed forces, said, “We are keen on the stability of the country, which will allow us to organise general elections to allow Mali to equip itself with strong institutions within the reasonable time limit” and he promised a political transition leading to credible general elections for the exercise of democracy through a roadmap that will lay the foundations for a new Mali. It was not completely untrue when he noted, “Our country is sinking into chaos, anarchy and insecurity mostly due to the fault of the people who are in charge of its destiny.”

A curfew from 21:00 to 5:00 was pronounced as was the closure of all air and land borders.

The 75-year-old President promptly resigned on Tuesday, while speaking on national broadcaster ORTM just before midnight, with the acknowledgement that stubbornly holding on to power could lead to loss of lives and the spilling of blood. In the televised statement, the President, masked in keeping with COVID-19 protocols, said, “If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice? I hold no hatred towards anyone, my love of my country does not allow me to. May God save us.”

Although President Keïta was re-elected in 2018, his administration has endured huge street protests since early June as citizens showed their disapproval of widespread corruption, failure to restore security of lives and property, mismanagement of funds that could have lifted living standards and ongoing electoral disputations. These demonstrators constantly demanded for his resignation. And among the military, there was dissatisfaction about remuneration and the ongoing conflict with the jihadists.

All these challenges have engendered this latest forceful takeover. It is doubtful if this will be the fix the once welcomed West African success story so desperately needs. Within the military, there are some forces among high-ranking military officials still loyal to President Keïta.

Although the President has said no blood ought to be spilled on his behalf, if these loyalists decide to react against the forceful takeover, it could inflict more economic and humanitarian agony on the fragile State and the region as a whole. In mid-June ECOWAS missed a golden opportunity when they met for the resolution of the Malian crises settling for the creation of a consensus government of national unity. Yet, none of the parties was willing to concede any ground and the mediation was a non-starter. This coup has effectively put a brutal stop to those efforts.

In the immediate aftermath, some celebratory jubilations were recorded in some parts of the country by groups of anti-government protesters. Some opposition activists who were detained recently for street protests were freed by the soldiers in charge. Earlier reports believed the effort to have been led by Colonel Malick Diaw, the Deputy Head of the Kati Army Camp, located at about 15km (nine miles) from Bamako, and another commander, General Sadio Camara.

However, Colonel Assimi Goita has presented himself as the leader of the new military junta which has styled itself as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). In his initial meeting with civil servants, as reported by local media, he’s said to have stated, “We have no political ambitions. We are soldiers. Our objective is to rapidly transfer power. The state will continue. We assure you of our support in order to work in tranquillity. We want to reassure you.” Other high profile members of the junta include Colonel Malick Diaw, the CNSP vice-president and Colonel Ismaël Wagué, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, who had earlier spoken on behalf of the group.


Yet, the coup was not welcomed on the continent and across the globe but swiftly condemned. Those who wasted no time to condemn it include:

· The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) which urged the immediate release of the president and members of his administration and mandated that troops returned to their barracks forthwith. It highlighted the urgent need to restore the rule of law and return to constitutional order.

· The African Union which voted to suspend Mali from the Union and its Security Council. The Union called for the immediate restoration of constitutional order and the prompt release of detained government officials. Cyril Ramaphosa, Chairman of the AU and South Africa’s President, condemned the unconstitutional change of government. AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, insisted that the idea of military coups on the continent belonged to the past as coups were no longer accepted, whether responding to the will of the people (as has always been the rationale) or not.

· The regional bloc, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which closed all borders to Mali, suspended all financial flows to the country and removed her from all ECOWAS decision-making bodies. In a statement, ECOWAS expressed great concern over the seizure of power by Malian military putschists. Sanctions are one of the options the bloc is considering against what it terms “all the putschists and their partners and collaborators.” As part of its conflict prevention protocol, ECOWAS maintains a zero tolerance policy for coups.

· Other African countries who spoke up in their condemnation of the coup. South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria – which shares an almost 1,400 km-long (870-mile) border with Mali, Morocco, among others.

· European Union (EU) leaders that called for the immediate freeing of all detained politicians and a swift return to the state of law. The bloc’s diplomatic chief, Joseph Borrell was emphatic on the EU’s rejection of all unconstitutional takeovers.

· Through her Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the United States of America, who spoke out clearly denouncing the actions of the soldiers involved and calling it a mutiny.

· France, Mali’s colonial masters, condemned the coup in a statement credited to her Foreign Minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, who urged the soldiers to return to their barracks and release the President from detention. French President, Emmanuel Macron, called for power to be returned to civilians and for milestones to be laid for a return to constitutional order. The French helped Mali regain territory seized by Islamist extremists who hijacked the Touareg rebellion in Northern Mali.

· In a statement by the Foreign Ministry spokesman of the People’s Republic of China, Zhao Lijian noted that Beijing opposed the forceful change of power and was paying close attention to the developments in Mali. He expressed China’s unreserved support for the efforts of relevant regional and international organisations especially the AU and ECOWAS towards a peaceful resolution of the Malian crises.

· The German and Turkish governments that expressed similar sentiments.

Among those detained are the President, Mr. Ibrahim Keïta, his Prime Minister, Mr. Boubou Cissé, the son of the President, Mr. Karin Keïta, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr. Moussa Timbiné, and the Foreign and Finance Ministers, Messrs Tiebile Drame and Abdoulaye Daffe.


The President’s resignation was welcomed by the opposition M5-RFP movement. This movement, composed of opposition politicians, trade unions, civil society organisations, religious organisations and some personnel from Malian security agencies, was at the forefront of the demonstrations for the President’s resignation. Together, they have been unrelenting in the public expression of their anger at Keïta’s government lethargic response to the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment, rising inequality and the rising tide of violence in Northern and Central Mali by jihadists affiliated to al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The statistics vindicate their antagonism. Young Malians who constitute a third of Mali’s workforce are unemployed. Unemployment which stood at 7 percent before Keïta’s administration took over now stands at about 15 percent. Poverty rate has jumped 5 percent from 45 to 50 percent. His administration has also earned the unenviable record of seeing the most displacement of Malians due to insecurity on record for the year 2019. This displacement has meant that millions of children are out of school with no clear path to know when, or if, they ever will return to the classrooms. And there is nothing to deter daredevil jihadists who perpetuate violence unabated in the North and Central regions of the country. Even the healthcare system is moribund. Therefore, those mostly affected by the violence cannot seek treatment they need. Needless deaths are the end result.

President Keïta, confronted with incessant unrest, offered some concessions to the persistent protesters, especially those demonstrating against electoral disputes. He dissolved the Constitutional Court which was accused of illegally overturning the 2020 legislative elections in an illegitimate bid to install candidates loyal to the President. The President’s son, Karin Keïta, also quit his position as National Assembly deputy to pander to their demands. The demonstrators were not sated. They made their intentions known urging for civil disobedience. Nothing but an outright resignation and transition of power will appease their anger. In response and at his wits end, the President resorted to violence. A mid-July crackdown of protesters left a dozen dead, several arbitrarily arrested and scores brutally manhandled. As an act to quell the demonstrations, it was a massive failure. It rather reinforced their calls for total change and a demand for an independent investigation into the arrests and deaths of protesters and into the extravagant lifestyles of the president’s family and members of his cabinet. However, President Keïta was obdurate. He had fought long and hard to reach the pinnacle of his political career. Twice, in 2002 and 2007, he tried for the presidency and failed before succeeding in 2013. With a second mandate in 2018, he was not ready to be pushed aside by the antics of demonstrators and protesters. He failed to read the signs correctly and lacked the understanding of the underlying issues at stake. It appeared only an act of force could remove his hold on power.

Just as inflexible is the leader of the opposition.

The outspoken and widely popular Imam Mahmoud Dicko led the protests and he projected a never-say-die attitude that matched President Keïta’s. To his advantage was a capacity for mobilisation. The Imam’s aptitude for winning the support of those insufferably enduring the brunt of the government’s maladministration was his strong forte. His influence underlines the intersection of politics and religion in the Mali situation. The Saudi-trained Imam had several successes and losses of protests under his belt. In 2019, he mobilised thousands to demand for the resignation of Mali’s Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, over the Ogossagou massacre of almost 160 Fulani herders by an ethnic vigilante group from the Dogon community in Central Mali. He had insisted that these protests will continue until President Keïta’s resignation.

The African Coups

When the conditions that allow for military takeovers exist and there is a level of disaffection among the ranks, it is often a short step before an opportunist group takes the chance to seize power. Oftentimes, the economic backwardness of the people with little to no effort on the part of the government to ameliorate the situation is a very strong motivation. This is conjoined with widespread corruption of the political class who are seen living in luxury in stark contrast with the immiserating conditions of the majority. When juxtaposed with the abuse, misuse and exploitation of the institutions of democracy, the abuse of processes of the law in courts of justice by the powers that be and the engagement by the powerful in acts of tribalism and nepotism, the conditions become ripe for coup plotters to exploit. Often, at this point, the citizens themselves are willing to substitute democracy for whatever else comes. It makes them welcome military juntas expecting that they will steer the country quickly towards change and consequently, economic progress.

Mali is a vast African country that stretches into the Sahara Desert. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it currently faces a renewed wave of jihadist attacks, ethnic violence and civil unrest. With all these taken into consideration with the increase in poverty, widespread anomie, demonstrations that have been met with brutal force by the security forces, it should be a welcome relief that the junta that has taken over has vowed to, within a “reasonable time limit” return the country to democracy.

Yet, the promises ring hollow. Why is that? There is a history to use as reference. Coups on the continent have not been all they promised to be.

On the 21st of March, 2012, then Malian President, Amadou Toumani Touré was toppled by a coup that originated from the exact same army base as this in the town of Kati. The government President Touré administered was a compromise of a unity government which introduced the opposition into the government by offering lucrative positions to figures from other parties, interest groups and persuasions. This political power play served to undermine a once-vibrant opposition as the political class, from both parties, fell into self-enrichment at the expense of uplifting the majority of the poor citizenry. It also meant turning a blind eye to the excesses of the military brass and their involvement in drug trafficking. The Malian State fell more and more into corruption becoming the most corrupt in West Africa. Angry military officers who could not stand aside to let this continue and who were displeased with the management of the Touareg rebellion waged against the Malian government by rebels aimed at attaining independence from the northern region of Mali known as Azawad, decided to intervene. A consequence of this forceful takeover of the Touré-led government was the fall of Northern Mali to Islamist militants and jihadists, an insurgency that has presently spread beyond Mali’s borders into Niger and Burkina Faso. Lieutenant Amadou Konaré of the Malian army had cited the government’s failure to equip troops to defend the nation against northern rebels as a reason for the coup.

But for the pressure brought to bear on Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, leader of the coup against the Touré government, that forced his hand to organise a transition to civilian rule through elections which President Keïta won, it can only be imagined how long Sanogo could have held on to power.

The 2012 coup made the country fragile, a situation that this recent coup could worsen further. Jihadists with strongholds in Northern Mali may use the opportunity the putsch presents to launch attacks on vital State facilities and further destabilise the country. The leadership vacuum may begin to give these militants some more ideas as it did in 2012.

However, the list of coups on the continent isn’t circumscribed to Mali. Though Mali’s stretch the list into 2020, the occurrences have not been as frequent as they used to be. Last year, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was removed from office by mutinous members of the armed forces and in November of 2017, the aging Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was forcefully ousted. There is also on record the unsuccessful attempt last year to overthrow the government of the ailing Gabonese president, Ali Bongo.

Since African States gained independence in the movements for self-governance of the 1960s, the continent has seen no fewer than 200 attempts at forceful overthrow of governments with different levels of success. At least, 88 coup plotters achieved their objectives, wrestling power from governments in power. For the most part, discontented citizens, dissatisfied with the maladministration of the people in power and desperate for new leadership with the belief that the new set of leaders will bring about the type of environment that will spell lasting change and bring about an upliftment of their living conditions have welcome these military incursion into politics with open hands. They have often been disappointed because with the suspension of constitutional order, the poor masses get to bear the brunt of the military’s excesses while in control and the economy often suffers, again to the detriment of the poor majority.

Coups are an indication of the failure of democratisation and have a tendency to create more

turmoil than quell it and this often has destabilising consequences for regional integrity. Military coups often come to life to counter executive coups, the latter being a case where the democratically elected government effectively ends democratic practice by concentrating power in their own hands. There is also the contagion effects successful coups have especially in States with a growing sense of dissatisfaction among the majority, debilitating poverty, rising corruption and attendant unemployment. At the moment in neighbouring West African countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, long-term Presidents have engineered an unprecedented third-term allowance into their constitutions so they can run again.

But a step into the history of coups, tell the sordid story of the African democratic sojourn. In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean Defence Force (ZDF) when they seized power stressed that it was not a coup but an act to quickly quell tensions following the sack of the vice president. Burkina Faso has the unenviable record of being the coup capital of the African continent having notched up 10 coups attempts with six taking place in the 1980s alone. The leader of the 1987 coup, Blaise Compaoré remained in power for a 27-year period before being overthrown by yet another coup. Then, there is the Nigerian example, second only to Burkina Faso with eight coups in total. When the military took over, with the same promises to the suffering masses, no one could have predicted military juntas from 1966 – 1999 with a short-lived democratic government between 1979 – 1983. In Guinea-Bissau another record exists which isn’t flattering in any wise. There has never been a peaceful transition via the polls since the country’s independence in 1974. They have coups to thank for this. Burundi, Chad, Ghana, Comoros, Mauritania, Sudan have each endured six coups each. In all, 23 African countries have seen at least three coups.

In these forceful takeovers and power grabs, more than 30 Prime Ministers and Presidents have been killed. Of the 40 African States with coup experiences, only Morocco, Kenya and Cameroon have witnessed unsuccessful attempts. In 12 of these countries, the first coup occurred within five years of independence. Only 14 of all the 54 States that constitute the African continent are yet to experience a coup d’etat. This last point in no way guarantees peace within the borders of these countries. They have witnessed, at different points of their existence, power conflicts and conditions that have led to coups in other regions.

At times, some coups which usurp power from executive coup-plotters, elected officials who have worked the constitution illicitly to concentrate power in their hands, are deemed ‘good coups’ as they serve to remove power drunk leaders and make way for transition via democratic elections. Yet, a taste of power through the barrel of the gun, even if seen as good, often makes the case for another militaristic intervention in future which may not be as good by comparison. This next intervention could be a severe setback for democratic practice as has been seen in different States in the continent.


The politics of governments of national unity, especially in nation states like Mali with high levels of poverty and wanton corrupt practices, often end up corrupting opposition figures who become part of the administration making them unable to act as checks on the government that they are supposed to oppose. Mali’s slide into tumult will not be good news for neighbours or for global powers with interests in the region and around the Sahel, an already volatile region embroiled as ever in a decade-long conflict with Islamic insurgents. Swathes of territory are already under the control of jihadists. The country is in a critical situation with serious risks that a collapse of the State and institutions will unwittingly result in reversals in the fight against terrorism and organised crime with grave consequences for the region.

If neighbouring nations, regional bodies like ECOWAS and the AU and global powers do not weigh in to demand and actively put pressure to bear for a quick restoration of constitutional order and democratic transition, the instability it might engender across the region and Africa as a whole will scuttle democratic practice taking root in some fragile States on the continent. And no one region in the world will be the better for it. The Malian people will need to elect a new National Assembly that is truly independent in every meaning of the word and composed of members that are freely and fairly elected. The transition promised by the junta must show adherence to the electoral law of the land and show adequate security for the candidates, local leaders, election officials and observers. These features were lacking in the March parliamentary elections which caused part of the protests and demonstrations. They are necessary to ensure a truly free vote for the progress of the country going forward.

Yet, the question to ask is, what good does this coup d’etat do for anyone? Simply replacing Keïta and his government with other politicians will just be bringing in another group of people who will likely abuse power for selfish purposes and perpetuate the status quo leaving more and more people in discontentment. One option out of the quagmire is to allow Keïta see out his term but with his powers checked and balanced by an independent and robust parliament. Mali faces a future of more turmoil, strife and bloodshed if things are let to go out of control.

Last Words

From the foregoing, it is obvious that to move Africa forward, democratic governments across the continent will have to confront a legacy of poverty, illiteracy, militarisation and underdevelopment which have been the product of incompetent and corrupt governments of the past. They must address the abuse of term limits, work collaboratively to strengthen weak regional mechanisms that uphold democratic practices, empower human rights mechanisms, insist on press freedoms, delegitimise restrictive laws and correct the absence of economic competitiveness on the continent. The armed forces in Africa must also come to terms with democratic control of the military. Without the acceptance of the principles of democratic control by the military, democracy cannot take root for any length of time before being scuttled. They must accept accountability before civil authorities, adherence to the rule of law, transparent planning and budgetary processes, respect for human rights, submission before political control over operations and expenditure, regular consultation with civil society and military professionalism.

The consensus must remain that democracy should be the only means of ascending to power.