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Mali: Assimi Goïta is playing a dangerous game

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Friday, 28 May 2021 18:50

Assimi Goïta, vice-president of Mali’s transition government, during Moussa Traoré’s funeral on 18 September 2020, in Bamako © MICHELE CATTANI/AFP

Assimi Goïta, the former vice-president of Mali’s transition government, now President, has taken everyone by surprise by leading a second coup in nine months. But how far can he go in the face of international pressure?

The colonel who leads Mali’s special forces is difficult to read. And not only because he has gotten into the habit of wearing a beige neckband as a makeshift anti-Covid mask. Who is Assimi Goïta really? What is he looking for?

Many of those who have met or crossed paths with him say the same thing, that the man is an enigma. He either doesn’t speak or speaks very little and never lets his feelings show. And when he moves, he is often surrounded by various bodyguards that form an impenetrable shield around him.

The 38-year-old coup officer has taken everyone by surprise once again, by leading a second coup in nine months. His blood ran cold upon hearing the official announcement on 24 May of a ministerial reshuffle that removed two of his close friends: Colonels Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné, respectively minister of defence and minister of security, from power. He had Bah N’Daw, the President of the transition government, and prime minister Moctar Ouane arrested and demanded that they be taken to the Kati military camp.

In recent days, Bamako has been buzzing with rumours of tensions between the leaders of the transition government and the head of the junta, who overthrew Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta back in August. But no one could have imagined that Mali would fall back so quickly into another constitutional vacuum.

Sole master on board

To justify his power grab, the silent Goïta did not speak out but instead issued a press release. In it, he said that ousting Koné and Camara from the government – against his will – was a “violation of the transitional charter” and the “oath taken [by Bah N’Daw] on 25 September 2020.”

He went on to explain that he was “forced to act” to “preserve the transitional charter and defend the Republic.” Goïta also stated that “the transitional process is on course” and that “the planned elections will be held in 2022.”

Less than 48 hours later, and despite pressure from foreign partners and international organisations, Keïta’s ousting got to see N’Daw and Ouane’s heads roll, metaphorically speaking.

Like the former head of state, who was also taken by force to Kati after being overthrown on 18 August, the two men were forced to resign by a quarter of the officers from the officially dissolved Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP). The whole event was witnessed by Ecowas diplomats, who came to try to mediate. “You are just kids,” a furious N’Daw told them, while he was forced to sign his letter of resignation.

Goïta had no interest in hearing the admonitions of his elder, who was also in the army. And to prove to everyone that he had no fear, he promptly declared himself the new president of the transition government. On the evening of 26 May, he sent his special adviser, Commander Baba Cissé, to meet with the press to justify his seizure of power.

The latter mentioned Goïta and N’Daw’s disagreements and pointed out Ouane’s poor leadership. This time, things are different as Goïta intends to be the only master on board, even though the boat seems to be drifting and even if it means proving Paris, Abidjan and Niamey right, who were worried about the ambitions of the former Prytanée Militaire de Kati student.

“The situation could very quickly degenerate”

How far will the mysterious Goïta go? It is difficult to know, as each day brings its fair share of new developments on the banks of the Niger River. “Either he is very sure of himself, or he has lost his head,” says a senior officer. “It is difficult to see how all this can end well,” says another.

For the moment, the various components of the army are carefully watching but not moving. Just like in August, this recent coup d’état has the advantage of having been carried out without a shot being fired or a victim being reported.

“Assimi Goïta, Malick Diaw, Ismaël Wague, Sadio Camara… The CNSP officers all have different ambitions. There has even been tension between them. They have given the impression of being on the same side for the past three days. But if their unit breaks up for one reason or another, the situation could very quickly degenerate,” says an informed observer. The deadly battles between red and green berets after Amadou Haya Sanogo’s coup against Amadou Toumani Touré in 2012 are still fresh in everyone’s mind.

As a leader of the special forces, the new head of the transition government knows that he can count on them. He also has the support of the National Guard, of which Colonels Camara and Koné are members. The latter is very present in Bamako and is in charge of presidential security. Finally, there is no doubt that Goïta also enjoys a certain popularity within the Kati barracks.

“He will have a lot of trouble holding on”

There also remains the question of public support and the international community’s opinion. Internally, only the Mouvement du 5 Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) seems to be in favour of the current situation, and that is no doubt to the fact that they will be selecting the new country’s prime minister from within their ranks.

In fact, many have already raised their voices in protest against this new putsch. These include Moussa Mara, Housseini Amion Guindo, some of the members of the M5-RFP, the late Soumaïla Cissé’s Union pour la République et la Démocratie (URD) and Tiébilé Dramé’s Parti pour la Renaissance Nationale (Parena). Many other leaders and parties have also denounced the derailment of the transition government.

The same goes for several civil society bodies, such as the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH) and the Bar Association. “In August, the street brought the coup plotters to power. Today, there is much less enthusiasm,” says a foreign analyst.

Beyond Mali’s borders, from Ecowas to the African Union and the United Nations, there is widespread condemnation. The same is true in West African capitals, except perhaps in Lomé, where Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé has rather good relations with Bamako’s new strongman.

For its part, the US “strongly condemned” the arrest of the transition government’s leaders, threatened sanctions against the coup plotters and suspended its assistance to the Malian defence and security forces.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who was relatively well disposed towards the Malian transition government a few months ago, quickly denounced this “coup d’état within a coup d’état” and spoke of introducing “immediate measures to target the military and political leaders who are hindering the transition.”

Some also pointed out that the French President’s tone was much less vociferous towards Mahamat Idriss Déby and the Chadian top brass who had seized power in N’Djamena after Idriss Déby Itno’s death on 18 April.

Translation: In Mali, what has been carried out by the military putschists is a coup d’état. It is unacceptable. We are ready to introduce targeted sanctions against the protagonists.

The only major player to not have stepped up to the plate and whose links to Colonels Camara and Koné have been mentioned by many is Russia, whose rivalry with France is growing on the continent.

“If Goïta stubbornly persists, despite international pressure, he will have a hard time holding on,” says a West African diplomat. “Uemoa [West African Economic and Monetary Union] could close the central bank in Bamako, which would be a very effective and easy political measure to take. If the heads of state of the region decide to turn off the tap, the junta will quickly be suffocated.” However, this radical solution could also have serious social consequences for the Malian population.

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