Dèjá vu in Mali

This is the country's second coup in less than 10 years but it seems lessons were learnt from the failure of the 2012 coup d'état
Umar Ahmed Umar Ahmed10th September 20206 min

Mali became the first nation in 2020 to experience a successful coup on 18 August 2020. Elements of the Malian Armed Forces began a mutiny with soldiers using pick-up trucks to storm the Soundiata military base in the town of Kati, 15 km from the capital, where gunfire was exchanged and senior officers arrested. Tanks and armoured vehicles as well as military trucks then headed for the capital, Bamako. The coup plotters detained several government officials including the President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta who was forced to resign and dissolve the government. This is the country’s second coup in less than 10 years but it seems lessons were learnt from the failure of the 2012 coup d’état.

Back in April 2012, Mali was thrown into turmoil when junior military officers from the bottom of the army overthrew the civilian government just a month before general elections were scheduled to take place. The coup attempt, which later failed, was facilitated by the US trained officer Omedua Amadou Haia Sanogo. The Rand Corporation confirmed “…the leader of a successful coup in Mali, Captain Amadou Sanogo, had received extensive training through the US International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.”[1] A US official also commented that “Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led a renegade military faction that on Thursday deposed Mali’s democratically elected president, visited the United States several times to receive professional military education, including basic officer training”[2]  The US had just expanded ties with Mali, signing a number of deals, including agreements to train Malian forces through hand-picking officers that would travel to the US for training.

Coups from the bottom of the army have the highest rate of failure and in the case of the Malian junior officers in 2012 they failed to consolidate their position despite carrying out a successful coup. They had not established a support-base prior to their coup attempt and as  result of the coup, the country’s security apparatus fell apart and the whole North of Mali was taken over by the Tuaregs and a number of other tribal groups in the region. The junior officers that undertook the coup failed to halt the expansion of the Ansar ud-Deen and then capitulated in the face of the insurgent group’s onslaught, losing a number of key towns in central Mali as a result. The failure of the officers to consolidate their position was fatal to their efforts.

This was a critical omission by the junior officers as the political elites in Mali were created by France and the class being overthrown was a big loss to the former colonial master. Mali is central to French plans in the Sahel region. As a result France labelled the whole North of Mali to be under the control of extremists linked to al-Qaeda who were expanding and threatened the whole region. France was able to obtain resolutions 2071 and 2085 from the UN Security Council to intervene in northern Mali. 15,000 international forces were cobbled together, mainly from France and Europe, and African forces from which France formed a joint African force called the Five Sahel Forces. France was able to restore its influence via establishing a new government in less than a year and a half after the 2012 coup. France was able to restore the erstwhile political class and President Abu Bakr Keita was elected for the first time in August 2013 and then re-elected for a second term in 2018. This was the culmination of US failure to sustain and consolidate influence in the country at the time.

If You Don’t Succeed, Try Again

On 18 August 2020 Mali experienced another coup, by junior officers from the bottom of the army, again. Once again it was led by another US trained officer, Col. Assimi Goita. According to the Washington Post: “The military officer who declared himself in charge of Mali after leading a coup that ousted the West African nation’s president this week received training from the United States, the Pentagon said Friday… Col. Assimi Goita, who emerged Thursday as the head of the junta in power, worked for years with U.S. Special Operations forces focused on fighting extremism in West Africa. He spoke regularly with U.S. troops and attended U.S.-led training exercises, said officers from both countries, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.”[3]

Andy Duhon (left), a former US special operations forces officer, got to know the Mali coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita (right) while serving as a go-between for the American diplomatic mission and the United States Special Operations Command Africa.

However, unlike back in 2012, the coup has public support. Military Spokesman Ismael Wague highlighted: “We are going to set in place a transitional council, with a transitional president who is going to be either military or civilian.”[4]  The announcement establishes that there was a prior agreement to form this national committee, which included six military personnel and eighteen civilians. They will act as the transitional legislative body. Clearly, the coup plotters had already engaged elements of civil society, national unions and opposition parties, who had agreed to be part of the post-coup process. The coup saw an influx of people storming the streets of Bamako celebrating the downfall of the President. A supporter of the opposition, Mariam Cissé told the AFP news agency that she was “…overjoyed, we won. We came here to thank all the people of Mali because it is the victory of the people.”[5]

Whilst public support is not essential for the success of a coup it is, however, necessary for the solidification of a coup.

Whilst public support is not essential for the success of a coup it is, however, necessary for the solidification of a coup. In the case of Mali this was possible because Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had already lost public support due to economic turmoil, corruption, and insecurity in Mali. Demonstrations had been taking place for months against his government. This is the key factor the 2012 coup lacked, which gave France a window to justify its intervention. The junior officers in 2012 did not have public support and could not quickly acquire it as insecurity became brazen. This set the public against it and allowed France to redirect events in its favour. On this occasion, however, the coup plotters got the opposition to agree to the takeover. The opposition came out and openly supported the coup when it took place. In a statement, the M5-RFP said: “it took note of the commitment” the junta has made to “open a civilian political transition” and would work with it on “developing a roadmap”. The coalition’s Choguel Maiga told journalists “we will organise the biggest patriotic rally on Friday” in Bamako and nationwide in order to “celebrate the Malian people’s victory”.[6]

France regards Mali as one of its key former colonies in Africa, its response will have to be more tactical because it cannot intervene on the grounds of extremism or insecurity. This is because the ‘change’ in Mali is welcomed by the people, which complicates matters for France and marks a success for the US to get a foothold in the Sahel region. With Libya on the verge of falling into the hands of those who the US propped up, the European position in North and central Africa are under risk of being snatched by the superpower.



1 Building Security in Africa, Rand Corporation, Pg 2, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR2400/RR2447/RAND_RR2447.pdf

2 Leader of Mali Military Coup Trained in US, Washington Post, March 24, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/leader-of-mali-military-coup-trained-in-us/2012/03/23/gIQAS7Q6WS_story.html?itid=lk_inline_manual_39

3 Mali coup leader was trained by U.S. military, Washington Post, August 21, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/mali-coup-leader-was-trained-by-us-special-operations-forces/2020/08/21/33153fbe-e31c-11ea-82d8-5e55d47e90ca_story.html

4 Mali troops plan ‘transitional’ gov’t; Africa bloc to send envoys, AlJazeera, August 20, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/08/mali-troops-plan-transitional-gov-africa-bloc-send-envoys-200820163514684.html

5 Mali coup: Thousands take to Bamako streets to celebrate, BBC, 21 August, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53868236

6 Mali Opposition Offers Backing To Coup Leaders, Barrons, 19 August, 2020, https://www.barrons.com/news/mali-coup-leaders-face-wave-of-international-condemnation-01597852805


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