A month after the coup in Mali, the military leaders remain firmly committed to the fight against jihadists, but until there is a deal on restoring democracy the position looks fragile, writes West Africa analyst Paul Melly.
The final shape of Mali’s promised transition to new elections is yet to be settled several weeks after soldiers seized power in Bamako, forcing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to resign, although former Defence Minister Ban Ndaw has been named as interim leader.
The junta hope this will satisfy fellow members of the Ecowas bloc of West African countries to accept its plan, after weekend talks to reassure opposition sceptics.
But from the outset, the putchists sent a clear message to the international partners who have thousands of troops deployed to tackle the decade-old security crisis that sees northern Mali continuing to suffer jihadist attacks while central areas are scarred by inter-communal tensions and violence.
Colonel Major Ismaël Wagué, spokesman for the junta – the self-proclaimed National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) – insisted that the UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the French anti-terrorist force, troops from allied Sahelian countries and a new European special forces operation were all “partners in the restoration of stability”.
Over the past year or so there had been signs that some Malians were increasingly resentful of the French military presence, despite their role as vital allies for the over-stretched and sometimes beleaguered national forces.
But Col Maj Wagué scrupulously refrained from indulging simplistic nationalistic sentiment. He made it clear that Mali’s new military masters were keen to continue working closely with the international forces – just as they were hoping to secure Ecowas agreement to their plans for the political road ahead.
Although a final deal with the regional bloc on transition terms is proving elusive, the jihadist threat remains.
So the military campaign in the north continues – and it remains a pretty high-risk exercise: two more French soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb near the Saharan town of Taoudenni on 5 September, just the latest in a conflict that has claimed 45 French lives and many more Malian and UN casualties since 2011.
Heavy defeats for Mali’s military
While many troops have been killed in small incidents, there have also been major attacks in which dozens have died, usually when outlying Mali army garrisons are overrun.
The first such incident – the “Aguelhok massacre” of January 2012, when jihadist and Tuareg separatist militants executed around 100 captives after seizing a remote desert base – helped to fuel the discontent among rank and file troops that culminated in a mutiny and military coup in March of that year.
More than seven years later, and despite a long-running European Union programme to retrain the military and rebuild both their morale and their technical military skills, the army was still suffering occasional heavy defeats.
This time particularly at the hands of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which claims allegiance to the Middle Eastern group.
Last year, on 30 September and 1 October, up to 85 soldiers died when ISGS overran their base at Boulikessi on the Burkina Faso border.
Then on 1 November 2019, another 49 were killed in an ISGS assault on a base at Indélimane, near the border with Niger in the far east of the country.
Weaknesses in training and shortages of equipment contributed in part to such disasters.
But there was also widespread frustration with the inconsistency of political leadership from ex-President Keïta in Bamako and a sense that too few members of the governing class were really focused on fully implementing the 2015 peace deal with northern Tuareg separatists.
Procrastination over demobilising separatist fighters and devolving power and money to the regional level has fuelled a mood of disillusion in which terrorism can persist.
Exasperation at this state of affairs seems to have been a major factor behind the 18 August military coup – whose leaders included several officers with experience of the difficult conditions faced by the military in the north.
In the very short term, Malian forces can continue their campaign in alliance with their key international partners – the French force Barkhane, troops from fellow members of the G5 Sahel states (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad), the new European special forces deployment Takuba and of course the UN force Minusma.
The latter’s main task is to maintain stability rather than actively chase jihadist groups – but this has not prevented it securing the dubious distinction of being the world’s most dangerous UN peacekeeping operation, having lost at least 220 troops since it was first deployed in 2013.
Tapping into local grievances
But the complex challenge facing all these forces, local and national, is that the restoration of stability in the north and centre of Mali depends on a lot more than simply hunting down groups of militants.
Barkhane in particular has pulled off a series of strikes against jihadist of various allegiances, and killed a number of well-known commanders, including Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, intercepted on 3 June this year just after he had slipped into Mali from northern Algeria.
But such strikes have not prevented jihadist violence persisting right across the north, from the Niger River inland delta near Mauritania to the Sahelian scrub of the far eastern border with Niger.
Behind the 2015 Tuareg peace deal
- Northern Tuareg communities have complained of being marginalised since independence in 1960
- Islamist militants usurped a Tuareg separatist rebellion in 2012 seizing several cities
- The territory was regained in 2013 with military help from France – and two years later a deal was signed promising development and decentralisation for northern Mali
- But not all separatist fighters have been demobilised as agreed and there have been delays in devolving power and opening the purse strings
- This has allowed insecurity and jihadists groups to flourish
And although a few of the commanders – such as the Western Saharan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of ISGS – are outsiders, many are Malians.
These include Amadou Koufa, the preacher who heads the Macina Liberation Front recruiting mainly among Peul livestock herders, or the onetime Tuareg separatist Iyad Ag Ghaly, who leads Ansar Dine and a wider coalition of militant groups, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM).Moreover, the militants increasingly tap into local community grievances, over access to grazing or government funding, for example, or anger at abuses by heavy-handed soldiers.
Crucial international aid
Force alone will not resolve the problem. Development and better governance matter, particularly in areas where a threadbare state has ceased to provide even the most basic public service functions.
Of course, security still has to be part of the picture, because without it essential services such as justice, education or community health cannot be delivered by officials safe from intimidation or worse.
But real progress does require legitimate and internationally recognised political leadership and a viable peace process that retains the buy-in of the 2015 peace treaty signatories.
And that is why the protracted negotiations in Bamako and the bargaining over a transition settlement that Ecowas will support – thus freeing Mali from sanctions and opening the door to restored international aid – remain so crucial.
For all that the CNSP junta wants to maintain military co-operation with international forces, security without a political deal would probably be unachievable.