After months of public protests, a military coup has toppled Mali’s government. USIP’s Susan Stigant looks at the path forward, saying “there’s a real tension in trying to figure out how to restore that constitutional order without necessarily going back to the status quo prior to the coup.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Looking at the Associated Press story: it was a picture postcard meant to portray unity in the vast and fragile lands that once were French colonies, President Emmanuel Macron standing with the leaders of five West African countries, where France has spearheaded a counterterrorism war since 2013. “We are all convinced that victory is possible,” President Macron said. That was less than two months ago. Today, one of the five leaders has fallen: Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali, the country at the center of the battle against Islamic extremists, was ousted last week in a coup d'état, but an unflinching Macron is pressing on, refusing to withdraw France’s 5,100 troops from West Africa and the story goes on.

Let us get a sense of what is taking place in this nation, why it is important to you, because although foreign policy doesn't typically play out too much in presidential politics, it is something that is obviously going to be important as we move forward. Joining us now on POTUS is Susan Stigant, director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. She is tweeting @susanstigant. Susan, welcome back to POTUS. Thank you for being on today. 

Susan Stigant: Thanks. Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

Tim Farley: So, help us understand a little bit more of the context of what happened. You know that there seemed to be so much promise. Why did Ibrahim Boubacar Keita go away? Why was he taken down?

Susan Stigant: Well, the really immediate events were a series of discussions at a military base just outside of Bamako that ultimately tipped into this mutiny and the arrest of both the president and the prime minister. But there have been several months of protests that have really been an indication of growing discontent across the country over the lack of ability of the government to respond to the extremist insurgency, over increasing corruption, over fundamental failures of governance, and the most basic things: education, schools, roads and basic security for Malian citizens. People saw that things continued to happen in the wrong directions, had taken to the street to protest, and had actually demanded that President Keita step down before this mutiny took place. There are also recent elections that took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, limited participation, and where several of the local elections were overturned in a very controversial step, which has further fueled the tensions and the frustrations felt by the citizens across the country. 

Tim Farley: Is there any sense that the pandemic, the coronavirus pandemic has played a role in this at all

Susan Stigant: I think in most places across Africa, we see that the coronavirus pandemic is laying bare some of the fragility that exists, that the inability of governments to effectively respond. People see that there's a need for hospitals and they look again, and they see that money that should have gone to develop primary health care centers has often gone into the pockets of governments, are being redirected in ways that aren't fundamentally helping citizens. And certainly, the decision to hold the elections amidst pandemic and then to rather dramatically cancel the results of several significant number of the results, and those local constituencies certainly brought these concerns to a tipping point.

Tim Farley: Susan, I mentioned that France and the role that they have right now in what has been going on, I wonder what the U.S. role has been in any other major players outside of Mali who have been involved in trying to figure out a way forward here.

Susan Stigant: The U.S. has certainly been deeply involved in Mali via support of the French-led efforts. There's also a U.N. peacekeeping mission that's been deployed in Mali to support the response to the extremist organizations. But the lead in terms of negotiating next steps has been taken by the regional economic community, the surrounding countries, including Nigeria, that takes a very active role. There's also a significant role that the United Nations will look at in terms of trying to mediate next steps. And there's a real dilemma that's being faced at the moment. There's a norm that coup d'états are not acceptable, and that you have to move immediately and as quickly as possible back to a constitutional order to civilian-led rule. And at the same time, it's really clear that President Keita did not enjoy the confidence and legitimacy and so there's a real tension and trying to figure out how to restore that constitutional order without necessarily going back to the status quo prior to the coup itself. 

Tim Farley: That's the point you're making, it sounds like the military has said it's up to the people of Mali to decide but they're making the call right now, are they not?

Susan Stigant: This is the fundamental dilemma, I think, that is being faced. In coups and other places around the neighborhood, there's been a real push to move for the military to quickly hand over the role of governance. At this stage in the negotiations, it sounds like the military has shifted to a much longer timeline; there were reports that they were talking about a three-year transition. I think that's probably much too long and this will be really the fundamental point that will need to be negotiated. The other challenge is, of course, that, you know, the security sector isn't disconnected from the problems that are faced in the country, from the corruptions from the governance issues and so in thinking about a response to the extremist insurgency and the violence that exists, there's certainly a security response to protect people in the immediate term, but more importantly, there's a need to address the fundamental reasons that radicalization can occur in communities in Mali. And that takes a different approach: that takes re-establishing a state society relationship, people having confidence that the security sector will protect them, not be a threat to them.

Tim Farley: Once again, Susan Stigant with us, director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Mali’s a huge country. I mean, it's what, about 475,000 square miles, something like that, and it's only got about 19 million people. How important is it in terms of number one, the region, and also in terms of worldwide?

Susan Stigant: I mean, Mali really sits at the heart of the Sahel, which has been one of the regions that's been most seriously impacted by extremist violence. And so, what we've seen in Mali is that it's a place where the violence that takes place in the country has now tipped out of the borders into other neighboring countries and actually risks tipping into coastal West Africa. Countries like Ghana and Senegal, who are a long-standing, I think key anchor partners to the United States. They are countries that have upheld democratic norms and elections. They are key trading partners as well. And so the overflow of the extremist threat has actually led to a coalition of the regional countries coming together in a military operation that that stands side-by-side with the French led operation. So getting it right in Mali is incredibly important to provide a foundation to stabilize and lay the groundwork for a more democratic, accountable governance across the continent.

Tim Farley: And the United States, obviously, you talked about the role and I wonder, are we on it? You know, in other words like, obviously, this is not one of the issues that we hear an awful lot about lately. There are a few other things that people are talking about these days. But I just wonder, you know, they got it in hand, the State Department on top of this, I mean, give us a sense of the involvement of the U.S. right now and its level of engagement.

Susan Stigant: I mean, I think one of the great opportunities at the moment is this emerging consensus in the U.S. government across the various agencies on what we talk about as part of the fragility agenda that there's a critical need to take a long-term view to focus centrally on the state-society relationship, to focus not just on training and equipping and capacitating militaries to fight extremists, but to work on what we talk about as security governance, so the ability of security sectors to work under civilian control and work in a way that responds to citizens needs and priorities.

So I think if the U.S. government is able to harness and apply some of those fundamental understandings about what works in context, like Mali—granted, it's incredibly complex—there's a great opportunity and it's a place where as you said, and France as a partner, globally is, is leading, but the U.S. role is really important, for reasons that you had talked about earlier, France has limited credibility, and some people will view its engagement in the Sahel and Mali as an extension of colonial times as a kind of a neo-imperialist agenda. So, there's a real need to balance and step back allow leadership from the African continent, but also to make clear that democratic norms accountable governance, protection of citizens and accountable decision-making is really a priority and an expectation of our partners. 

Tim Farley: I just feel like sometimes regardless of the administration, administration's come and go, but there's a constant, which is the desire or the even the statement that we are going to be more engaged with Africa just in general, forget just about Mali, but that never really seems to happen or it doesn't seem to happen to the level that the promises made.

Susan Stigant: I think there's there have been some really encouraging initiatives in the past and some of those have continued over this administration, whether it's on agriculture and growth, the Power Africa initiative that supports getting electrification so that households can have basic services and can go to school and study and read at night, or the Mandela Fellowship Program that brings with tens of, hundreds of thousands and engage hundreds of thousands of young Africans with U.S. partners. But it's certainly an area where more attention can be built. It's the largest growing continent. It's the youngest continent. The young people on the continent look to the United States with the example that they want to emulate, and they're politically active. They want democratic and accountable governance. And they really look to the United States to help to develop the system that they understand the U.S. has been able to deliver to its own people. So, the expectations are high. The needs are great. The potential is absolutely amazing. So, I think, you know, continuing to build on what is there in the foundation is a great opportunity. 

Tim Farley: Thanks for that forward-looking perspective, Susan, thanks for being on the show.
Susan Stigant: Thank you very much. 

Tim Farley: Susan Stigant, director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. What happens now in the wake of a coup in Mali, she's tweeting @susanstigant.

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