Who really runs Mali? Bah N’Daw or Assimi Goïta?

By Aïssatou Diallo, Bokar Sangaré
Posted on Friday, 12 March 2021 02:54

Assimi Goïta, vice-president of the transition, and Bah N'Daw, the president, on 24 September 2021 after a meeting with a delegation from Ecowas. © REUTERS / Amadou Keita

This is a first for Mali. The country has both a president, Bah N'Daw, and a vice-president, Assimi Goïta. On paper, according to the transition charter, Goïta is only responsible for security and defence issues. But in practice, it is more complex.

The two men are installed in Koulouba – the “hill of power”, but for some there is no doubt about who really exercises it.

Ever since they took power on 18 August, overthrowing Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and ending months of political instability, the leaders of the former Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP) – of which Goïta was the principal leader – have not left the limelight.

“We do not care about power, but about the stability of the country,” said Colonel Major Ismaël Wagué on national television the day after the coup. A spokesman for the ex-junta, he is now minister of national reconciliation. More than seven months later, it is clear that military power has never been as it  in Mali’s supposedly democratic era.

Like Wagué and Goïta, the main figures of the CNSP – which was officially dissolved on 18 January – occupy leading positions in the transitional government. Colonel Malick Diaw, one of the former leaders of the CNSP, is now president of the Conseil National de Transition (CNT), Colonel Sadio Camara is minister of defence and ex-combatants and Colonel Modibo Koné is minister of security and civil protection.

Militarisation of the state apparatus

In recent months, military personnel reputedly close to the men who led the coup have also been appointed to key positions.

“The junta has taken over the administration, the management of public administrative establishments and public industrial and commercial establishments. They appointed officers from the military chain of command as prefects, governors, etc. Even those who, like me, were conciliatory at the beginning of the transition are beginning to join the rebellion,” says Cheick Sidi Diarra, a former diplomat and founder of the movement Anw Bè Faso Do (“This country belongs to all of us”).

On 25 November, the President made a new wave of governors’ appointments, increasing the number of military personnel to 13 out of a total of 20 posts. The transitional authorities have subsequently been accused of wanting to “militarise” the state apparatus.

According to Lamine Savané, a political science lecturer and researcher at the Université de Ségou, “the military has a real desire to seize all the levers of power. They have surfed on the populist wave, which consists of saying that the crisis in Mali has been caused by politicians.”

From his seat as vice-president of the transition, a position created especially for him, Goïta appears to be the one who makes important decisions. “Even after Bah N’Daw was sworn in, it was still the vice-president who appointed the prime minister. It was also him who chose the members of the NTC. How was he more qualified than the president to do so?” asks Boubacar Haïdara, a researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde.

During the first few months of the transition, Goïta attended field missions to meet with soldiers and held several meetings with diplomats and international organisations. N’Daw, on the other hand, had seemed to have disappeared into the background until his first diplomatic tour in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in mid-November. He had gone to Ghana, where the issue of the military’s presence in transitional bodies had been at the heart of discussions with Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo.

Dissension in the military

Does this mean that relations between the two men are strained? Several sources say no. “Everything is fine between the two men. Assimi Goïta sees Bah N’Daw as an uncle. He spent his entire childhood with him,” says a source close to the vice-president.

An adviser to the former CNSP says: “Bah N’Daw fulfils the role for which he was chosen. The young soldiers also have respect for him because he has a good reputation and there is discipline in the army.”

The President’s entourage is not very vocal on the subject. However, it stresses that N’Daw is the captain of the ship and that his priority is to organise elections within the transitional period.

However, discord could in fact come from within the ex-CNSP itself. Goïta’s appointment as leader of the CNSP had indeed been seen as a potential seed of division between the coup leaders.

“Malick Diaw already saw himself as president and was presented as the new strongman of the country on the very day of the military coup,” says a military officer close to the ex-junta. It was Diaw who signed the agreements and led the discussions with the political class and ECOWAS.

But he is considered too ambitious and has a sulphurous reputation as a putschist because of his participation in the 2012 coup alongside Amadou Haya Sanogo. “Goïta was against choosing Diaw to lead the CNT because of the tension that this episode had caused in the country,” says a person close to the military.

As the transition took place, political observers pointed out that clans were forming within the ex-junta. “Even though this type of information is difficult to verify, a split is likely to occur because of divergent interests. This is what always happens in juntas,” says Haïdara.

For several weeks, neighbouring heads of state have been worried that Goïta may seek to remain in power after the transition. This fear was strengthened on 6 March when Issa Kaou N’Djim, a former coordinator of the Coordination des Mouvements, Associations et Sympathisants de l’Imam Mahmoud Dicko and member of the CNT, said he would vote for Goïta if he ran in the next presidential election.

“The steadfast patriot Assimi Goïta will be the people’s candidate in 2022,” said this close friend of the the country’s military rulers. Kaou N’Djim also heads the Appel Citoyen pour la Réussite de la Transition. “We believe that there is no alternative to this approach because the politicians of 1991 must be stopped. Today, hope has been restored thanks to Assimi Goïta’s leadership.”

Divergent political agendas

Is this a test meant to gauge public opinion? Perhaps. Although Goïta has not yet formally declared whether he intends to run for president or not, one thing is certain. “They have taken a liking to power, that is undeniable,” says a former diplomat close to the junta. “Their role model is Amadou Toumani Touré, who was nicknamed the ‘soldier of democracy’. They sincerely want to do well.”

Within the ex-CNSP, Goïta is not the only one to have political ambitions, whether or not they have been expressed. “Not everyone in the group wishes to impose someone. It is not to the liking of some of the ex-CNSP’s leaders who seem to have a political agenda and have even met with civilians,” says a person close to Goïta.

Above all, a Goïta candidacy would go contrary to the transition charter and undoubtedly face strong opposition from the international community, led by ECOWAS, as well as from some members of the Malian political class.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron reminded N’Daw in early January of the transitional authorities’ commitment to withdraw after the elections. “Their central aim is to support a candidate in whom they have confidence in order to cover their own backs,” says Haïdara. “They are agitated because coups are an inescapable crime in Mali.”

Civilians struggling to make themselves heard

In the meantime, civilians are trying to make themselves heard. In early February, prime minister Moctar Ouane met with political parties to listen to their concerns and proposals for reform.

He also presented his action plan to the CNT, which includes a revision of the constitution. “But in reality, the prime minister has no power,” says political scientist Lamine Savané. “One need only examine how positions are allocated within the government to realise that most of the strategic posts are occupied by military personnel from the former CNSP.”

For his part, does imam Mahmoud Dicko, who had called for several important demonstrations against IBK, intend to return to the forefront? While he has been in the background since the beginning of the transition, he spoke on 7 March at a political rally at the Palais de la Culture to warn the authorities. “We can’t manage the people without the people,” he said. “We do not want to have a distant president, a cold prime minister and a ‘je ne sais quoi’ vice-president.”

This stance comes at a time when the Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP), now the main political platform protesting against the transitional authorities, continues to denounce what it considers to be the “continuity of the old regime”.

Choguel Kokalla Maïga, one of the leaders of the M5-RFP movement, says: “The M5-RFP has done what was necessary. We met the authorities several times and told them what changes needed to be made. But today, it is the military and members of the old regime who occupy all the posts. The transition is blocked because change can’t be brought about by the same people who were opposed to change.” Members of the movement demonstrated for several months to demand the IBK’s resignation.

An adviser to the former CNSP says: “They are young officers who are discovering how to manage public affairs. They have made some mistakes and missed the boat, especially with the M5-RFP, which could have been a major ally. But they are sincere and want to do well.”

However, amidst political ambitions from all sides, N’Daw wants to maintain his “tough guy” reputation – one that he has built up during his military career. The big challenge will be to keep his promise to hand over power to a civilian at the end of the transition period.

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