Strategy Note /

Greater instability in the Sahel: The Malian coup

  • The recent military coup in Mali echoes the events of 2012

  • Despite the military's promise to return the country to democracy, transition to civilian rule will likely be protracted

  • A prolonged political crisis will provide regional militants with a new opportunity to exploit the turmoil in Bamako

Greater instability in the Sahel: The Malian coup
17 September 2020
Published byS-RM


On 18 August, hundreds of civilians celebrated as mutinying soldiers entered Mali’s capital Bamako and stormed the residence of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, before arresting him and several other government officials. By midnight, the president resigned and announced the dissolution of the National Assembly. In a statement on 19 August, the leaders of the coup announced that Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (National Committee for the Salvation of the People) had taken control of the country. The new military junta has promised a transition to back to civilian rule and appealed to civil society and political groups to prepare for elections. However, the military failed to provide any details for when the election will be held.

The coup follows weeks of mass anti-government protests by Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotique (Motion of June 5 – Rally of the Patriotic Forces, M5-RFP) a coalition of opposition parties, religious and civil society groups who were calling for the resignation of Keïta, whose popularity had been waning for several months. His critics questioned the results of the March 2020 legislative elections and alleged that his seven years in office has been marred with corruption and nepotism, which is underscored by his administration’s inability to combat the escalating Islamist insurgency in the north of the country.


The number of militant groups in northern Mali proliferated following a similar coup in 2012 that led to the deposing of then-president Amadou Toumani Touré. The resultant power vacuum prompted Tuareg separatists to launch an armed campaign in the north and declare their own state in northern Mali. In 2013, a French military intervention managed to significantly curb militants’ advances southwards. However, the separatist movement was later commandeered by various groups, including Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), and ethnic self-defence militias who have been operating in the north since. Despite the interventions of French and US forces alongside 14,000 UN peacekeeping soldiers, many of these groups now have an established presence in northern Mali, and through the allegiance of local groups have also spread the insurgency to neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.

A prolonged political crisis will provide the regional Al Qaeda affiliate, known as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), and the IS-aligned Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) a new opportunity to exploit the turmoil in Bamako. These groups have been able to gain influence in the country because state institutions are weak and perceived as corrupt and indifferent to rural areas. Keïta – who was re-elected in 2018 – has done very little to address the systemic issues, which has exacerbated the spread of extremism. Unemployment among young people reached almost 15 percent in 2019, up from 7 percent from 2012 before Keïta took office. Nearly 50 percent of Malians are living in poverty, compared to 45 percent in 2013.

Although the Malian government and the Tuareg separatists signed the internationally brokered peace agreement in 2015, there has been a lack of political will and buy-in to the implementation of essential pillars of the 2015 Algiers Accord. The slow implementation of pillars is likely to feed into growing uneasiness among Tuareg separatist groups, which has the potential to ignite tensions in the north once more. If the current political crisis follows a similar trajectory to the 2012 events, it will likely have negative consequences for counterterrorism operations, the Algiers Process, and regional stability.

If the current political crisis follows a similar trajectory to the 2012 events, it will likely have negative consequences for counterterrorism operations, the Algiers Process, and regional stability


Military intervention by neighbouring states is unlikely. The Economic Coalition of West African States (ECOWAS) has condemned the military takeover and has activated its standby force. However, ECOWAS is unlikely to deploy troops as it did to end the political crisis in Gambia in 2017 after former President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down following his electoral defeat. ECOWAS is unlikely to intervene militarily because the mutineers currently enjoy widespread military and public support. Meanwhile protest leaders have defended the actions of the military and called it a popular insurrection. Given this context, the regional bloc, which is supported by France, is likely to seek resolution for the crisis through political channels.


ECOWAS and the wider international community will likely place sustained political pressure on the military to return the country to some sort of civilian control. Following the coup, ECOWAS member states closed their borders with Mali, halted banking transactions, and suspended accounts and trade with Mali. In 2012, this brand of diplomatic pressure brought coup leaders to the table. However, there is no appetite by coup leaders to rush elections. Negotiations concerning the length of transitional period is ongoing. It is unclear if the wider Malian population will accept an extended interregnum period, meanwhile ECOWAS maintains that the mutineers must transfer power to a civilian led-transitional government and hold elections within a year. The events of 18 August, Mali’s second coup in eight years, greatly underscores the need to set conditions for a more durable and stable democracy.