Mali is experiencing its worst political crisis since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita assumed office in 2013.
Protesters are calling on Keita, 75, to resign as discontent with his government and its inability to quash Islamic insurgencies in the north and center of the country has morphed into accusations of corruption and bad governance. Mali’s economy was already faltering and now restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus have fueled anxiety over loss of income in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Demonstrations that began June 5 have drawn tens of thousands of people and the crisis appears to have reached a stalemate as protesters reject mediation efforts by the Economic Community of West African States, or Ecowas. The bloc is backed by the European Union, France and the U.S., which have called for a quick resolution to the crisis. The U.S. has urged Malians to “respect the democratic process.”
“Ecowas has always taken the side of the Bamako government,” said Nouhoum Togo, a spokesman for one of the groups in the so-called June 5 Movement.
Keita has since made several concessions, agreeing to raise teachers’ wages, address a health crisis and form a unity government. He’s also acknowledged concerns over a March legislative vote that was marred by the kidnapping, days before it took place, of opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, and allegations of fraud after some of the results were overturned by the Constitutional Court. Keita hasn’t commented on the vote’s legitimacy.
Still, there have been more protests, leaving Mali without a government since the prime minister handed in the resignation of the cabinet on June 11. The June 5 Movement has gained popularity through the support of one of the country’s most influential religious leaders, Mahmoud Dicko, a former Keita ally and the instigator of several previous mass demonstrations. Dicko is an Islamist conservative leader who’s been a vocal critic of the government for several years.
The political crisis “comes down to the failure of the Bamako government to address people’s basic needs,” said Marc-Andre Boisvert, a security analyst at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. “As pressure continues to build, the elite gets all the anger.”
Ecowas recommended several reforms, including the creation of a unity government, and has sent envoys to Mali to mediate between Keita and leaders of the protest movement. It also urged the government to organize new legislative elections in some districts as soon as possible.
Mali’s government spokesman, Yaya Sangare, declined to comment because he said negotiations over the formation of a unity government are ongoing.
Mali has been racked by instability since 2012, when soldiers ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure because they were being sent to fight a separatist insurgency in the arid north with faulty equipment while the army’s leadership stayed in the capital. Ethnic Tuareg rebels then partnered with jihadist groups to seize control of the north. Calm was briefly restored after a French military intervention in 2013 pushed out the jihadists, bringing Keita to power in elections that year.
Deprived of their urban bases, Islamist militants resorted to bombings and hit-and-run attacks, targeting army posts and the 15,000-person United Nations peacekeeping mission. They’ve since extended their operations to Burkina Faso and Niger, and have claimed responsibility for attacks in southern neighbors such as Ivory Coast and Benin.
Those engaged in talks to resolve the political crisis “need to be careful not to create conditions that risk aggravating the already precarious security situation or a further breakdown of an already fragile state,” Gilles Yabi, head of the West African Citizen Think Tank, said by phone from Senegal.
(Updates with U.S. backing for Ecowas in third paragraph)