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Failed Leadership and Triggering Military Coups in Mali Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2022

The people of the Republic of Mali are used to having their heads of state deposed by the military. Indeed, apart from interim leaders whose stays in office have always been relatively short, only President Alpha Oumar Konaré was not overthrown (Willner et al., 2020). He was in office between 1992 and 2002, which was a period of remarkable stability, especially socially and politically. Nonetheless, this was an exception as turmoil has persisted for most of the period since the country gained independence from France in 1960 (Gomez, 2019). The turbulence has resulted into numerous revolts and four successful coups. The most recent one was against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who was forced to resign on 19 August 2020 (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). Unless corruption is addressed, the national leaders succeed in revitalizing the economy, and insurgency is stopped, instability in Mali is bound to continue.

Background of the Republic of Mali

Mali has a long history dating back to prehistoric times. The first agricultural communities to inhabit this region are believed to have emerged at around 5000BC. Towns were developed by 900BC, and there was significant use of tools made of iron in 500BC (Meiu et al., 2020). It was once a prosperous country, mainly when it was under the leadership of Mansa Musa between 1312 and 1337 (Carstens, 2020). Throughout precolonial history, nevertheless, there used to be indefinite geopolitical boundaries. The size of the jurisdiction had varied from time to time (Calderon et al., 2020). There are still a number of communities whose members feel that it was a mistake for the French to include them in the Malian state.

Just like is the case with several West and North African countries, Mali is almost a religiously monolithic society. At least 95% of the population are Muslims, and therefore, faith-based differences hardly influence the political atmosphere in the republic (Wet, 2020). Agitation is in part due to tribalism as each significant ethnic group strives to dominate power and the economy to the exclusion of almost everyone else. The win-lose approach has led to noteworthy regional inequalities (Willner et al., 2020). Although Mali is one of the poorest nations on Earth, ethnic groups with minimal representation in government have borne the brunt of country’s scarcity.

There have been several democratic elections in Mali, but small tribes are still disenfranchised. Their candidates cannot win national posts, and because appointments are made out of political expediency, their members rarely occupy positions with considerable authority (Wet, 2020). A leader who has the backing of their ethnic group feels protected, and they, therefore, engage in corruption, neglect the economy, and fail in their duty to maintain law and order (Meiu et al., 2020). Gomez (2019) argues that there is a direct link between perpetually frustrating citizens who are already poor and political instability. This is because individuals and communities reach a point where they feel as if they have nothing to lose by staging a revolt.

Military Coups in Mali

Successful coups are rarer than they used to be the case several decades ago. Most of the revolts over recent history happened during the 1960s and 1970s, when hardly a year passed without a number of governments being overthrown across the world (Willner et al., 2020). Lately, though, this has not been the case, and, indeed, there was no attempt against a government anywhere in 2018 (Calderon et al., 2020). Since 2000, military takeovers have failed in most of the places where they have been staged (Carstens, 2020). During this same period, presidents Amadou Toumani Touré and Ibrahim Keïta were toppled in Mali in 2012 and 2020, respectively (Gomez, 2019). There are, therefore, some issues about this country’s political dynamics, which make it different from much of the rest of the world.

Malian Coup D’état of 1968

In a few years after independence, Mali’s citizenry had started to doubt their leader’s ability to stabilize the country socially and economically. They were particularly dissatisfied with and blamed President Modibo Keïta, who championed socialism from an African perspective. His policies failed, and upon being faced with severe opposition, he suspended parliament and the constitution in 1966 (Carstens, 2020). These unprecedented measures led to the emergence of underground dissent. Another challenge was the disintegration of order in the military, with senior officers having little or no control over their subordinates. This power vacuum was exploited by junior soldiers, and under the leadership of Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, they succeeded in ousting President Keïta in 1968 (Meiu et al., 2020). Had the inaugural regime addressed the concerns of Malians effectively, that coup could have been avoided.

Malian Coup D’état of 1991

While the regime of Modibo Keïta was infamous for economic mismanagement, that of Moussa Traoré was opposed on account of its dictatorial tendencies. Anyone who highlighted the government’s incompetence and incidences of corruption was tortured or killed (Calderon et al., 2020). As of 1990, an umbrella organization which was consisted of several opposition groups started to demand the end of the single-party state (Carstens, 2020). These politicians were joined by students and later by disgruntled soldiers who refused to continue supporting the unpopular leader. Lieutenant Colonel Amadou T. Touré seized the opportunity and ousted Moussa Traoré in 1991 (Wet, 2020). The latter ushered the country back to multiparty politics through which Alpha Konaré became president and led the nation during the most peaceful period between 1992 and 2002.

Malian Coup D’état of 2012

Since independence, the interests of some of the tribes of Mali were neglected by the successive regimes. The Tuareg people are among the most aggrieved, and in 2012, they staged a mutiny aiming to create an independent state of Azawad in the northern part of the country (Wet, 2020). The unrecognized jurisdiction occupied 60% of the entire territory of Mali, and it existed between April 2012 to February 2013 (Gomez, 2019). The 2012 coup against President Amadou T. Touré, who had by now succeeded Alpha Konaré as a democratically elected leader, was orchestrated by soldiers who disapproved of the Head of State’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion (Willner et al., 2020). The northern half of Mali is still a highly volatile region, and it is upon the national politicians to address the grievances which often prompt the locals to revolt.

Malian Coup D’état of 2020

The coup of 2020 was the second one in less than a decade. There had been huge protests between 5 June and when President Ibrahim Keïta was ultimately arrested on 18 August (Calderon et al., 2020). The people of Mali were displeased with the government’s handling of the insurgency in the north, corruption by government officials, economic mismanagement, and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic (Meiu et al., 2020). At least 11 people lost their lives in the demonstrations, as another 124 suffered serious injuries (Carstens, 2020). As is often the case with incidences of violence in Mali, these numbers are disputed.

Revolts in Mali are usually led by young military officers. The mutineers in 2020, for instance, were led by a 37-year-old Colonel called Assimi Goïta (Goddard, 2020). They arrested several senior government and military officials, including the then president (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). A two-year transition period was announced, and plans are underway to hold democratic elections. Goïta is currently the vice president in the interim administration of President Bah Ndaw (Mugabi, 2020). The frequency with which coups are orchestrated in Mali shows that the populace as well as the armed forces are often at odds with the politicians.

Reasons Behind the Coups and in Mali

Mali is one of the world’s most politically unstable nations. Successive governments have done little to alleviate this problem, and hence the reason why there is always the risk of a radical regime change. The country is among the most corrupt on Earth, has leaders who neglect the economy, and are incompetent as far as maintaining security is concerned (Gomez, 2019). Ineffective leadership often results in a vacuum that is time and again exploited by disgruntled junior military officers (Willner et al., 2020). This shows that there is a disconnect between the individuals wielding the legitimate power and their subordinates.

Influence of Corruption on Instability in Mali

Corruption permeates all public institutions in Mali and has consequently posed a severe challenge to government operations. Indeed, the citizens have consistently reported high levels of graft, and state agencies are highly mistrusted (Gomez, 2019). The legitimation crisis has prompted the population to rely on various non-statutory institutions and non-state actors for critical service provision. For instance, individuals involved in disputes often appeal to community elders for arbitration (Meiu et al., 2020). In addition, people opt to arm and defend themselves when faced with security threats (Wet, 2020). Nevertheless, these efforts have usually proved to be insufficient, and hence grievances tend to persist and escalate. Therefore, corruption is among the root causes of instability in Mali.

Influence of Economic Mismanagement on Malian Coups

After every coup that has taken place in Mali, the new administration always comes up with a peacebuilding agenda. Among the proposals have often included empowering the citizens at the local levels. Due to high levels of corruption, nonetheless, only influential brokers benefit. There is the tendency where the government of the day ensures that their allies control not just the politics but also the economy of every administrative division as well (Carstens, 2020). This is done in the hope that these allies will prevent the eruption of an insurgency in the areas they control.

Although they were allowed to control local institutions, it has never been guaranteed that the local cartels will remain loyal to the regime based in the capital city of Bamako. Their aims have always been to undermine the state and eliminate the sense of accountability so as to enrich themselves. Indeed, criminal and illicit economies thrive throughout the country and, therefore, a lot of tax revenue in the process (Calderon et al., 2020). Even if the leadership wished to deliver services to the populace, the assets needed to accomplish that goal are inadequate.

Effects of the Government’s Failure to Maintain Security

In spite of the efforts by the successive governments to restore stability, violence continues. The Tuareg rebellion of 2012-2013 exposed the weaknesses of the state’s security apparatus as the insurgents managed to capture 60% of the country in less than three months. Although Azawad is now a defunct state, threats of a significant upheaval remain as the military is mostly ineffective. Willner et al. (2020) argue that Malian armed forces are unable to address crises without external help. Since 2014, for instance, France has deployed at least 5,000 soldiers in Northern Mali to assist the local authorities in the fight against mutineers (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). Other countries intervening in Mali include Chad, Nigeria, Germany, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso (Mugabi, 2020). The Malian state is weak as despite this kind of support, non-state actors do still pose significant challenges.

Influence of Leaders’ Incompetence on the Emergence of Power Vacuum

Unlike what would be expected in most modern states, Mali’s military leadership is usually weak and with little or no influence on juniors. No successful coup has ever been executed by a General. Indeed, any high-ranking officer who sought to oppose a takeover was either arrested alongside top politicians or even killed (Goddard, 2020). In the aftermath of the seizure of power by Captain Amadou Sanogo in 2012, for instance, a mass grave with 21 bodies of mostly generals who had remained loyal to President Amadou T. Touré was discovered (Willner et al., 2020). International partners have actually cited power vacuum as one of the main reasons why stabilizing Mali has been a daunting task. It is also worth noting that the long-term presence of foreign troops is resented by most citizens (Mugabi, 2020). Much as they resent the incompetence, the populace prefers having their own leaders being in charge of the nation.

Impact of Historical Injustices on People’s Sense of National Identity

Besides being corrupt, politicians in Mali also practice nepotism and tribalism. This approach is partly self-serving, and it is to a certain degree informed by the view that favoring one’s relations has a moral basis (Meiu et al., 2020). A leader whose inner cycle is populated by his relatives and close friends feels protected as they engage in malpractices than one without people he can trust to keep his secrets (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). Malians still hold on to traditional practices, and hence extended families, clans, and tribes have a lot of importance.

Upon gaining power, individuals have the tendency to consult their kin, which in turn advises them to focus on the ethnic group they come from. This is why most of the small tribes have been disenfranchised since independence (Gomez, 2019). Anyone who sought to question the retrogressive practices was tortured, jailed, or killed. The worst human rights violations were witnessed during the presidency of Moussa Traoré, who did not tolerate any political opposition. Over 200 prominent challengers from the neglected communities were executed during his decades-old rule (Carstens, 2020). These repressive tactics are partly to blame for the numerous covert operations which have been staged against the state.

Successes and Failures Associated with the Coups

The most notable success of any of the four Malian coups is the return to multiparty democracy following the ouster of President Moussa Traoré in 1991. Indeed, his removal ushered in about a decade and a half of relative stability. Although it has its own weaknesses, democracy is preferable to autocracy because there are several channels through which the citizens may express themselves (Willner et al., 2020). Nonetheless, the new political dispensation has not worked as it was expected. The mentality and approaches of those wielding power from Bamako have remained unchanged (Wet, 2020). This is why every revolt is based on the same grievances, including corruption, economic mismanagement, and failure to maintain security (Calderon et al., 2020). Had these coups been beneficial, some of the criticisms would have been addressed by now. Therefore, military takeovers have not facilitated the attainment of most of the stated objections.

Analytical Focus on the Coup of August 2020

The coup of 2020 followed several months of protests across the country, but most specifically in the capital Bamako. The demonstrations were organized by the June 5th Movement-Rally of Patriotic Force (commonly known as M5-RFP). It was composed of the political opposition, civil society groups, and a significant number of individuals allied to Imam Mahmoud Dicko. Dicko is an influential figure who was the head of the country’s High Islamic Council between 2008 and 2019 (Meiu et al., 2020). All these parties were aggrieved by the flaws witnessed in the legislative elections which had been held in March 2020 (Carstens, 2020). They were concerned that the government had restrained political campaigns.

Furthermore, there was a low voter turn-out, which further undermined the legitimacy of the results. Barely 7.5% of the registered voters participated, and this worried both local and international observers alike. It was a sign that the citizenry strongly disapproved of President Ibrahim Keïta, who declined all attempts to resolve problems through dialogue (Calderon et al., 2020). His approach compelled the opponents to start marching in the streets.

The socioeconomic destabilization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic escalated the citizen’s frustrations with the government. President Ibrahim Keïta had imposed severe restrictions, and some in the opposition believed that the measures were aimed at undermining political freedoms (Wet, 2020). By disallowing large gatherings, for instance, candidates for legislative positions were unable to campaign effectively. Influential opponents such as Somalia Cisse were detailed on flimsy charges, and the government also overturned the results for 31 members of parliament (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). The then president seemed to be committed to weakening democracy, and the populace was convinced that ousting him was a legitimate move.

President Ibrahim Keïta avoided negotiated solutions and opted to deploy the armed forces in a bit to quell the protests. This decision resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians, and the development caused the situation to escalate (Mugabi, 2020). The president ultimately made significant concessions, including the promise to reconstitute the Constitutional Court and allow for by-elections in the constituencies with the most controversial results. He also pledged to free the detained members of the political opposition and to share power, but all these proposals were declined by the M5-RFP (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). The protests continued, and there was mounting pressure for Ibrahim Keïta to resign.

Reason Behind the Influence of M5-RFP

In spite of his lengthy political career, President Ibrahim Keïta was deemed to be a poor leader. His government was riddled with corruption, and the economic growth rate had started to decline significantly (Willner et al., 2020). The effects of these circumstances were being felt by ordinary citizens across the country. The state had also failed to find a political solution to the long-running insurgency in Northern Mali (Goddard, 2020). The risk of a full-blown civil war had always been on the offing. This was particularly worrisome as it was only a few years ago when the insurgents had managed to capture more than half of the country and announced a secession.

Mali is a failed state, and this was also the case when Ibrahim Keïta was president. According to Meiu et al. (2020), the most crucial government role is to provide security and facilitate non-partisan arbitration disputes. Security forces in Mali are poorly trained and ill-equipped to keep the citizens safe from criminals as well as local and foreign enemies of the state (Carstens, 2020). The populace is aware of these facts, and they also know that their judicial system is weak and unreliable (Gomez, 2019). It is easily manipulated by the politicians, like it happened when the constitutional court overturned the results of 31 legislative posts (Wet, 2020). M5-RFP blamed Ibrahim Keïta for most of these issues and promised to come up with practical solutions once the president was deposed.

Although this is a promise that has been made over and over again by politicians and mutineers alike, the citizenry was persuaded. COVID-19 did catalyze the revolt as the people believed that the regime of the day was incapable of redressing historical challenges (Calderon et al., 2020). Additionally, it was seen as a stumbling block to dealing with emergent problems like the socioeconomic derailments caused by pandemics (Mugabi, 2020). The popular view was that with Keïta out of office, there would be an opportunity to explore new ways of uniting the country. It was hoped that a new leader would be able to counter security threats and promote economic growth to the benefit of ordinary Malians.

The Involvement of the Military

The military was growing weary of continuing their support for an unpopular president. Seventy-four days after the protests broke out, junior officers in the Malian army started a revolt at a base in the town of Kati, which is about 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) away from Bamako (Wet, 2020). Upon reaching the capital city, the soldiers arrested senior government officials and the top leadership of the armed forces (Willner et al., 2020). Boubou Cissé, who was the then Prime Minister, appealed for dialogue over what he termed as the legitimate frustrations of the mutineers. The latter declined and arrested Cissé, the President, National Assembly Speaker, the Finance Minister, among other influential individuals (Meiu et al., 2020). M5-RFP approved of the developments arguing that they resulted from a popular insurrection (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). The military takeover was, therefore, embraced by a broad cross-section of society.

The international community, nevertheless, condemned the military takeover and urged the officers involved to return to their barracks. The United Nations, European Union, France, and the African Union called on Colonel Assimi Goïta to release the detained leaders immediately and unconditionally (Wet, 2020). There was unanimous condemnation of the coup by the UN Security Council. The Economic Community of West African States sanctioned Mali and asked the neighboring countries to close their borders with Mali (Goddard, 2020). The country was also suspended from the International Organisation of La Francophonie (Carstens, 2020). It was clear that the foreign partners were skeptical that the ousting of President Ibrahim Keïta was the appropriate way of restoring peace and reinvigorating the economy.

The Establishment of a Transition Government

The involvement of the military immediately changed the power dynamics in the country. President Keïta resigned on 19 August 2020, and 5 colonels led by Assimi Goïta took over the running of the country (Goddard, 2020). They formed the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), but it was uncertain if any member of M5-RFP would be given any role in the new administration (Mugabi, 2020). Around the same time, four people were reported to have been killed by the military as 15 others got wounded in unclear circumstances (Calderon et al., 2020). They may have been hit by stray bullets as the members of the armed forces were engaged in celebratory gunfire.

Colonel Assimi Goïta and his team were fearful of counterattack by parties loyal to President Ibrahim Keïta. They decided to close the country’s land and air borders and imposed a curfew between 21:00 and 05:00 (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). In a bid to quell the tensions, the members of the opposition groups were invited to discussions about how to hold new elections. The interim government selected by CNSP is expected to remain in charge for a period of 18 months (Wet, 2020). President Bah Ndaw is not expected to run for elections but will play a prominent role in organizing them. Goïta has since been named the vice president, and the junta that ruled Mali between 19 August 2020 and 25 September 2020 was disbanded on 18 January 2021 (Willner et al., 2020). So far, the political environment in Mali has stabilized and the citizens are looking forward to the planned elections.

Steps Which Could Have Prevented the 2020 Coup

The political fallout that led to the 18 August 2020 coup could have been avoided. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta failed to address the legitimate concerns of the ordinary Malians in time, and the delays made it difficult to govern the country. The fact that he had a long-running political career means that he should have taken note of the recurring patterns which undermined stability (Calderon et al., 2020). The populace has always complained about corruption, nepotism, and a weak economy. When these issues were raised by M5-RFP, the president opted to eliminate the opposition in parliament by rigging the 2020 legislative elections (Mugabi, 2020). He was a flawed negotiator and preferred the use of force to listen to other people’s views.

The citizens found it to be unnecessary to seek legal redress as the courts were already staffed with President Keïta’s loyalists. This became apparent when the Constitutional Court overturned the elections of 31 Members of Parliament (Maclean & Diouara, 2020). The move was seen as an attempt to return Mali to the era of single-party politics. The decision was ill-timed as the signs of political unrest were already apparent. Carstens (2020) argues that Keïta did instigate the coup through his egotism. A leader should always be keen to deescalate conflicts and not to coerce the opponents.

The international community, especially France, failed as well, as they remained supportive of President Keïta even after it emerged that he had lost legitimacy. Regional governments, the African Union, and the UN did little to persuade the parties to the conflict to dialogue (Meiu et al., 2020). The opposition felt abandoned, and this is why they resolved to appeal to the population. The latter responded with the kind of enthusiasm that helped sustain the momentum until the military intervened (Wet, 2020). One of the lessons learned is that foreign partners ought not to wait until a political crisis has spiraled out of control. They should be involved as early as possible in order to increase the chances of a peaceful resolution.

Reliability of the Transition Administration of President Bah Ndaw

It is difficult to tell who is really in charge of governance in Mali at the moment. Goddard (2020) argues that multiplex political arrangements could be continuing behind the scenes. It would be unfortunate if these agreements are made purely for the current leaders’ expediency. If this is the case, it is probable that there will be protests in the next few years and possibly another coup (Willner et al., 2020). Military operations are usually clandestine, and this may be the reason why information is barely being disseminated to the members of the public. There seem to be no fixed deadlines within which those at the whelm of power commit to facilitating the return to a civilian rule (Goddard, 2020). This shows that President Ndaw’s team should be more transparent than they are at the moment.

The Future of Mali

It is difficult to predict the future of Mali on the basis of the leadership of the interim President Bah Ndaw. The current administration keeps on saying that the citizens will see a significant change in governance soon. The duration over which the undefined achievements will take is ambiguous. So far, the population appears to be in support of the transition regime (Goddard, 2020). This could either indicate that they perceive it as a positive break from the years of corruption under President Keïta, or they may be fearing the repercussion of opposing the armed forces (Calderon et al., 2020). The future is uncertain, and the impact of President Ndaw’s approaches may not be known until he has left office.

Mali, nonetheless, has a long history of the majority and powerful tribes isolating the minority weak ones. President Ndaw does not seem to be making any efforts to unify the country (Carstens, 2020). This suggests that he may be overwhelmed by the demands to meet the vested interests of the powerful forces behind his administration. He is also in the acting capacity, and hence it is unlikely that he will initiate long-term plans. The work of shaping the future of the country will have to be completed by the next president.

The use of the Constitutional Court by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta exposed the weaknesses of the judiciary. It is not independent as an impartial arbitrator of legal matters ought to be. Besides the charge of administrations, there is a need for a new constitutional order that makes it impossible for any Head of State to assume autocratic powers. Until this is done, the cycle of revolts and coups in Mali is bound to continue.

While there are reports of economic gains in Mali, they hardly improved the lives of ordinary citizens. The country had maintained an average GDP growth rate of over 5% between 2014 and 2019. Nonetheless, and like Maclean & Diouara (2020) say, such statistics are rarely perfect indicators of the well-being of individuals. Aggregate figures could mean that a small section of the population has acquired remarkable economic benefits to the exclusion of much of the rest of the society (Meiu et al., 2020). The actual status of the economy is difficult to discern in a country without reliable records and with insignificant dissemination of information to the members of the public.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had pledged to make appointments based on the candidates’ ability and not political considerations. He had actually appointed a highly regarded banker called Oumar Tatam Ly as Prime Minister, by the latter was frustrated until he resigned after seven months in office (Mugabi, 2020). The President abandoned the plan to form a government of technocrats and started nominating politicians (Wet, 2020). It may be challenging to avoid tribal kingpins while choosing officeholders in Mali. It is still a society influenced by traditional practices, and hence the need for the state to include people with influence in its composition. Unfortunately, the incompetence is bound to be perpetuated, and the country could remain politically unstable in the foreseeable future.


Political instability in Mali is caused by the corruption by the politicians, failure of the leaders to address insurgency, and economic mismanagement. It is also common to find those in positions of power exhibiting poor leadership skills. Instead of deescalating a problem, they seek to intimidate their rivals—consequently, issues that could have been resolved through dialogue end up triggering revolts. Moreover, there is a lack of constitutional order, and this makes it futile for disputants to seek legal redress. For peace and tranquility to be realized, the rule of law must reign. Nobody should be immune from prosecution, and a national leader must also be willing to listen and consider the diverse views of opponents and ordinary citizens alike.


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