Mali: Who really is Assimi Goïta, the man who said ‘No’ to France?

By Aïssatou Diallo, Benjamin Roger, Fatoumata Diallo
Posted on Tuesday, 1 February 2022 12:36

Colonel Assimi Goïta

Assimi Goïta was a complete stranger when he took over the Mali transition in August 2020. Secret and discreet, the former commander of the Special Forces has engaged in an unprecedented showdown with ECOWAS and France. Is he ready to do anything to stay in power?

It is the day of the Sacrifice. On this Eid-el-Kebir, the crowd is crowding the great mosque of Bamako. Everywhere in the city, the mood is festive, and the men who have come to worship are in a playful mood despite the deployment of security forces: the highest authorities are praying. Suddenly, a man appears behind Assimi Goïta’s back. He brandishes a knife and tries to reach his throat.

But this is a colonel of the special forces that he is attacking, a man who has chased the terrorists in the North, learnt to defeat the enemy, fought hand-to-hand. The soldier dodges. Imperturbable.

This is not the first attack from which the president of the transition has escaped. He already knows that it will not be the last. In a few moments, on 20 July 2021, the assailant was overpowered, and the Malian leader’s personal security team cordoned off the area around the great mosque. “May God give him strength,” some onlookers chanted in Bambara as Goïta slipped away. On his return to Koulouba Palace, surrounded by a few faithful, the survivor relativizes. “It’s all part of the game,” he says serenely. The game? But what is he playing?

“No to ECOWAS, no to sanctions!” Six months after this assassination attempt, on 14 January 2022, a huge crowd defied ECOWAS. It responded to the call of its leader, who skilfully orchestrated this show of force in the Council of Ministers. Millions of CFA francs were mobilised for the people of Bamako to take to the streets. Did ECOWAS want elections on 27 February 2022? No, it did not. It agreed to give the junta a slightly longer period to stay in power, provided that it does not exceed six months or a year? No again. Here in Bamako, Goïta is in charge. And he does what he wants.

How did this unknown man end up at the head of Mali, engaged in an almost senseless power struggle? Did he always dream of the golds of Koulouba? To understand the rise of this discreet military man, we must go back to the 18 August 2020.

The surprise

On that Tuesday, five colonels put their plan into action: in a few hours, they arrested and overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), weakened by several months of popular protest. The conspirators are called Malick Diaw, Ismaël Wagué, Sadio Camara, Modibo Koné and Assimi Goïta.

The last three have worn out the benches of the Prytanée Militaire of Kati, are from the National Guard and evolve in the circle of some of the most influential men of the security apparatus: Moussa Diawara, the head of state security under IBK, who strangely disappeared that day; General Cheick Fanta Mady Dembélé, a Saint-Cyr alumnus, who distinguished himself in several pan-African peacekeeping operations; and Ibrahima Dahirou Dembélé, the former minister of defence. The role of these men, considered by some observers as the brains of the putsch, has never been clarified.

The first act of their coup succeeded, and the conspirators met in Kati, the huge military camp located 15 km from Bamako. It was time to move on to Act II and choose who would lead the transition. Malick Diaw is eyeing the post. He is the eldest and has experience: he has already participated in the coup d’état of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo against Amadou Toumani Touré, in 2012, and hopes that his time has come. But he is divisive and is seen as uncontrollable. He does not have unanimous support among the putschists. On three occasions, Goïta’s name appears.

The person concerned says he is surprised. And with good reason. Certainly, as a commander of the Special Forces, he is used to leading men, but he has never really confided to his comrades in arms that he had an appetite for political power. Yet the colonel accepted his appointment without batting an eyelid. By appointing him, the coup plotters chose the weakest,” says a diplomat in the sub-region. Sadio Camara influenced the vote because he thought he could control Goïta.

A man with a cheeky face

In the aftermath of the coup, when he appeared publicly to claim responsibility for the coup, few diplomats had ever seen this man with his boyish face. The Malian military know him well: he has never lived anywhere else but among them.

The son of an officer from the circle of Yorosso, on the border with Burkina Faso, Assimi Goïta grew up in Bamako’s military engineering camp and always imagined himself following in his father’s footsteps. He did better. After graduating from the officers’ school in the early 2000s, he became a commander in 2008 and has been roaming the desert of northern Mali.

In charge of a mobile battle group, his first mission was to neutralise traffickers and armed groups. This was the beginning of nearly 15 years of combat during which Private Goïta distinguished himself on the most difficult terrain: Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, but also in Darfur, which earned him numerous decorations.

In 2015, following the attack on the Radisson Blu in Bamako, he was put in charge of coordinating “special operations” within the Ministry of Defence.

Just before the August 2020 coup, he was leading the Special Forces in the centre of the country, where the war against the jihadists has become the hardest. “He is extremely respected because he has fought in the most perilous terrain,” comments a good connoisseur of Malian military matters.

Leading men is one thing, leading a country is another. Strapped in his fatigues, Assimi Goïta first shows a polite and friendly face to an international community that has not seen the fall of IBK so badly. This slender man, with a finely trimmed beard, stands back, to the point of sometimes destabilising his interlocutors. “During a meeting, when a diplomat asked him a question, he remained silent. His bodyguard apologised…”, reports a source.

Demonstration against France and ECOWAS sanctions in Bamako, 14 January 2022
Demonstration against France and ECOWAS sanctions in Bamako, 14 January 2022. Florent Vergnes/AFP

Under his impetus, the coup plotters seem to be conciliatory. In September 2020, they pretended to leave part of the power to civilians and appointed Bah N’Daw as head of state. A choice that suited Assimi Goïta: he had known the old colonel-major since childhood and considered him an uncle. Goïta became vice-president, but in the shadows he made the strategic choices. For example, he decides on the allocation of ministerial portfolios. And beware of those who do not listen to him.

The passionate character of this man with a calm appearance came to light on 24 May 2021. While Bah N’Daw and Moctar Ouane, the Prime Minister, tried to marginalise the coup plotters by excluding Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné from the government, Assimi Goïta and his companions took over. This was their second coup.

“Relations had become very tense between the coup plotters and President Bah N’Daw, who did not want to be dictated to by young people,” says the military expert.

Others put forward a different explanation. As tensions within the government grew, Assimi Goïta dismissed Bah N’Daw to protect him. In any case, the illusion lasted barely the time of a pregnancy: nine months after IBK’s ouster, Goïta was ready to assume the entirety of power.

“He is a strategist. He sets his objectives and then moves forward,” says a political figure from the M5-RFP. “He has always had a hidden agenda. In the autumn of 2020, when he accepted the post of vice-president under pressure from ECOWAS leaders, he already had 24 May 2021 in mind.”

General advisors

Since then, installed in the presidential chair, Goïta behaves like a master and does not count his hours. He arrives very early at the office and leaves very late,” notes a former collaborator. He reads all the files. Unfamiliar with the administrative subtleties, he is advised by senior officers. General Yamoussa Camara, who was his director at the Prytanée and then Minister of Defence under Sanogo, and General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembélé, who was arrested during the coup of 18 August 2020, whisper in his ear.

This 38-year-old colonel manages Koulouba with rigour and discipline. At the palace, silence is the order of the day. Nothing filters. “Rather than talk, Goïta prefers to take concrete action,” says Cheick Oumar Sissoko, leader of Espoir Mali Kura (EMK).He gave the orders as soon as he took office. On the night of 24 May, it was he who asked Sadio Camara and Colonel Abdoulaye Maïga to go and find the leaders of the 5-June Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) and to bring them together in Kati. As always, he ducked out of the talks. But, as always, he decides.

In June, for the nomination of the Prime Minister, he decided again: it would be Choguel Kokalla Maïga. He warned the new head of government: “You are not the choice of all [the colonels]”. But he is his.

“Contrary to what everyone thinks, Goïta is very intelligent. He is a real poker player”, emphasised a senior official from the time of the first transition. It was he who chose Abdoulaye Diop as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Maïga, Diop… To them the light, the shocking speeches and the crowds. Goïta prefers the shadows, which are conducive to strategic thinking. And it takes a lot of it, when the fight becomes more bitter…

With the second putsch, the pressure and the sanctions are increasing. Heading those unimpressed with the situation, France is demanding that the military return to civilian power as soon as possible. But Goïta and his men have only one credo: not to be dictated to.

To be powerful, the technique, learned on the benches of the Prytanée, is simple: it is enough to rethink the alliances. Paris is furious? Moscow is benevolent. Assimi Goïta favours accelerating the deployment of Russian instructors in central Mali. The rapprochement with Russia was orchestrated by Sadio Camara. The Minister of Defence, who studied at the Moscow War College, was the brains behind this rapprochement. To the point of being a second president, as many imagine? “Camara is a heavyweight of the regime, but the military strategy adopted by Mali is completely assumed by Goïta. Nobody forced him to do it,” says a former junta collaborator.

Mercenaries

Apart from the top of the Malian government, which formally denies having signed a contract of any kind with a Russian private security company, no one knows how many of these men are deployed in Mali. Many suspect them of being mercenaries linked to the Wagner nebula. “The president of the transition has not said anything about this. However, on the ground, we see that the presence of Wagner is effective,” says Cheick Oumar Sissoko.

This mere suspicion is enough to trigger the wrath of Paris, which sees the arrival of these rivals with their controversial reputation and methods (they are accused of human rights violations) as a threat to its interests. After their takeover of the Central African Republic, their landing in Mali is unacceptable to France. Florence Parly, the Minister of the Army, protested. Emmanuel Macron went further and threatened.

On the other side, Assimi Goïta does not give in. He lets his lieutenants denounce “neo-colonialism” and organise demonstrations against the French presence, flattering the sovereignist feelings of a people worn down by a decade of war and gaining in popularity.

“In this context, the anti-French discourse works. And the arrival of new players [the Russians] brings hope to some Malians,” observes a West African diplomat. Goïta’s intransigence will even cause the French president’s trip to Mali to be aborted in mid-December 2021.

Unpredictable

The strongman in Bamako understood that this populist discourse served him well. But to what extent does he want to change the situation? While some see him as a new Thomas Sankara, he does not claim to be a revolutionary ideologist.

READ MORE Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara: Who killed ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’?

In its turn, ECOWAS has rubbed shoulders with this unpredictable man, coming up against the same roughness and the same tactics. When, on 9 January, the West African heavyweights decided to close their borders, suspend trade transactions and freeze the assets of Mali’s leaders, Bamako turned to new allies to circumvent the blockade.

Will the benevolence of the Mauritanian and Algerian regimes, as well as that of Mamadi Doumbouya, the “coup brother” in Guinea, who has said he will keep his borders open, be enough to avoid suffocation?

The junta will not be able to resist these economic and financial pressures, because it will no longer be able to pay the salaries of civil servants,” says a former IBK aide. It is not with his popularity or by mobilising the street that Goïta will solve the problems of daily life. He has no choice but to return to a reasonable [electoral] schedule.

Behind the scenes, the channels of discussion remain open. The Togolese head of state, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, who, within ECOWAS, is the most understanding towards the junta, is discreetly trying to find common ground. In direct and almost permanent contact with Assimi Goïta, he made a secret stopover in Bamako on his way back from Banjul in the evening of 19 January to talk to the Malian president.

Internal tensions

In the midst of the international scene, Assimi Goïta must also keep things under control within his closest circle. According to several observers, 18 months after the August 2020 putsch, the union of the five colonels is beginning to crack. The former conspirators continue to meet every day to discuss strategic issues and the direction of the transition, but a climate of mistrust is setting in.

The power of Sadio Camara, in particular, is making people cringe. The proximity of the Defence Minister to Modibo Koné, the head of the intelligence services, is all the more worrying because Camara controls 500 men. Goïta, on the other hand, was in charge of only 250 men in the Special Forces.

At the same time, Ismaël Wagué and Malick Diaw no longer hide their ambitions. According to some sources, they were, within the junta, the most favourable to an extension of the transition. Some even see in Diaw the successor to Goïta.

The colonels show a facade of unity,” says a senior official in Bamako. Yet in recent months, Goïta has entrusted the protection of Sadio Camara and Malick Diaw to the Special Forces, his elite unit. This shows how much they distrust each other.

How long can Assimi Goïta last? How far is he prepared to go to stay at the head of the country? The intoxication of power can overtake even the most ascetic of soldiers. In June 2021, when he was sworn in as president, the appearance of his wife, Lala Diallo, covered in gold jewellery, caused a stir. The colonel was previously considered a man of modest means.

“From the beginning, we felt that he was interested in power,” says a UN diplomat who has worked with him. It has to be said, he has not been doing too badly: he managed to lead the coup, then to impose himself by making a second one. He must feel he has a destiny. Even if he ends up leaving Koulouba under [international] pressure, he will try to return later.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options