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Regional stability following the 2020 coup in Mali

26 November, 2020

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

History Repeating Itself

On the morning of August 18 2020, history seemed to repeat itself when shots were fired outside of the military base in the Malian town of Kati, some 15 kilometers northwest of Bamako. A group of mutinying officers calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple), quickly made their way to Mali’s capital and forced the then-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) to resign at gunpoint. By day’s end, Keïta appeared on state television and announced his resignation as well as the dissolution of the national assembly.


The coup in 2020 was not Mali’s first. In 1968, junior officers quickly and bloodlessly captured the capital while Mali’s first President, Modibo Keita, was away and arrested him upon his return. The leader of this coup, Moussa Traore, was the same man who was removed from power in the following 1991 coup. Non-violent protests in 1991, during which the country was facing a Tuareg rebellion in the north, witnessed soldiers refusing to fire on crowds and instead joining them while paratroopers arrested the President. Multi-party elections were called and a new government created.

A third coup in 2012, is believed to have begun at the same military base in Kati as the 2020 coup did. Soldiers were frustrated at the government for failing to properly address the then separatist movement in the north, including providing insufficient arms and food supplies. While uncertainty and fear set in, many people did sympathize with the young coup leaders as they too found it unacceptable that soldiers were being sent to the north as “cannon fodder”. In 2020, the coup leaders were officers who were similarly disgruntled at the government’s handling of the security situation in the north of the country and frustrated at the lack of proper equipment to tackle this situation. The 2012 coup also led to regional instability and created a power vacuum which extremist groups exploited, a consequence many actors fear may repeat itself eight years later. As of yet, however, that does not seem to be the case. With this 2020 military takeover of government, Mali has now witnessed four coups since its independence from France in 1960. All were largely non-violent and transitioned to democratic rule in a relatively timely manner.

After the 2012 rebellion in the north and inability of the Malian government to maintain control over this area, Mali formally requested international support to prevent further territorial loss. The United Nations responded in April 2013 with the establishment of MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), with the primary goal of stabilizing the country. The call for help was also answered by the country’s former colonial power, France, which commenced the anti-terror Operation Serval in 2013 with the military objective of taking back territory and key cities lost, such as Timbuktu and Gao. After mission success, Operation Serval transitioned to Operation Barkhane, an anti-terror operation throughout the Sahel region to combat remaining terrorist groups. In 2013, the European Union also entered the country with its European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali, with the mandate to train and provide military advice to local forces. The last major international military presence in Mali and the greater Sahel region is G5 Sahel, a joint counter-terrorism force set up in 2014 between the Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger.

Coup Consequences

The months prior to the coup were filled with anti-government protests. Thousands of Malians took to the streets and expressed dissatisfaction at the failure of the government and international military presence to adequately address ethnic and extremist religious violence. Armed groups had been exploiting poverty over the course of years to inflame ethnic tensions, turning groups against each other who had previously co-existed in relative peace for centuries. As a previous Human Security Centre article explains, ethnic tensions create “better conditions for their activities”, as there is no unified local enemy to stand against terrorist groups. The protests, also known as the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), was comprised of IBK’s political opposition, civil society organizations and by followers of the former head of Mali’s High Islamic Council, the Imam Mahmoud Dicko, who called for the resignation of the government. As a result, when the coup ultimately happened it was welcomed by the public. The mutinying officers had essentially forced the government to do what the people had been demanding; resign.

The international response, however, was hostile to the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) closed its borders with Mali, halted bank transactions and suspended trade after condemning the coup. G5-Sahel member states closed their borders with Mali as well and the African Union’s chairperson said he “rejects any attempt at the unconstitutional change of government in Mali”, also suspending Mali until the release of all detained government officials. Following this, South Africa called for an “immediate return to civilian rule”, Nigeria called for the “immediate and unconditional restoration of constitutional order”, Angola said they “repudiate and discourage this way of forcing a change in power”, Algeria issued a “firm rejection of any anti-constitutional change”, the USA condemned the coup as a mutiny, China opposed the change of power by force, Turkey declared itself “deeply concerned”, and Germany condemned the “military putsch.”

Despite popular domestic support for the end of the regime, it would seem logical for other states and organizations to not want to legitimize military coups. A successful military coup runs the risk of setting a standard other countries in the region may be wary of, and the apparent success of this removal of the government so far is sure to have been noted by other governments and their armed forces. The Presidents of Cote d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, and of Guinea, Alpha Conde, are both seeking controversial third terms, and events in Mali may encourage the armed forces of these countries to step in in a similar fashion should protests demand their resignations rather than candidacies.

After the coup had taken place, the junta which took control stated they wanted to stay in power for three years, about the remainder of IBKs term. ECOWAS demanded a two year timeline within which a transition to civilian power would take place. France went even further demanding a transition to take place within months. By early October, however, ECOWAS had lifted its sanctions after the junta nominated a retired Colonel, Bah Ndaw as interim President and former Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane as Prime Minister of the transition, scheduled to last 18 months. Ndaw had also formed a 25-person government with some key posts, such as defense, security, territorial administration and national reconciliation, going to military officers and the rest being filled with civilians.

Fear of Instability

Fear of instability followed the 2020 coup. It was argued that the coup may create a power vacuum that extremist groups with an existing foothold in Mali may exploit, making this an opportunity for these groups to accelerate their rate of attacks and grow in power. Analysts went as far as saying that Mali’s governance and security challenges are “driving instability across the Sahel”.

While these fears may be based on the fact that the 2012 coup did indeed to countrywide instability, they may also be unfounded eight years later. Where the President of the European Council said that these events could have a “destabilizing effect on the entire region”, there are some differences to 2012. The key contrast is the presence of international and regional military forces such as MINUSMA, Operation Barkhane, EUTM Mali, and G5 Sahel, all with mandates related to combating terrorism or stabilizing the country, and none of which existed prior to 2012. Despite the coup, it is unlikely these foreign military operations on Malian territory will cease their effort for risk of giving grounds to terrorist groups and losing on progress in stabilization. Now that sanctions have also been lifted and a partly-civilian transitional government put in place, efforts to combat security challenges in the north are continuing, leaving fears of the cessation of cooperation unfounded.

Impact on Stability

While many assessments in the days after the coup in August foresaw instability in the region, no doubt due to the similarities seen in 2012, no increased instability, whether in Mali nor the greater Sahel region, has happened so far. The coup leaders implemented a transitional government fairly quickly and had sanctions lifted, leading to general acceptance of the current status quo in Mali. However, the regional bodies and neighboring states who had previously condemned the coup had essentially legitimized a military take-over of government from an unpopular leader, leading to the possibility that in the future a similar coup may be attempted in another country in the region which may not see the same peaceful result as Mali has had.

Mali remains a troubled nation with a turbulent northern region. Instability is more likely to occur should MINUSMA or France decide to end their operations there, as without them, the Malian state would lose the stabilizing force in half its territory. However, considering the international community has its own security concerns in Mali, it is in their own interest for stability in Mali to persist despite domestic tensions.

Image: Coup leader Assimi Goïta surrounded by members of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (Source: Kassim Traoré / VOA)

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.