Assimi Goïta’s HOT decision to postpone elections after two coups d’etat in 18 months

  • Mali’s military junta, led by Goïta, postponed elections promised for this February
  • Despite sanctions by ECOWAS and France, Goïta remains hot with the support of Russia, China and Guinea
  • Recurring coups in West Africa are unraveling efforts of democratization and counter-terrorism

Why is Assimi Goïta’s temperature hot?

Answer: After his hotly contested power-grab with his second coup d’etat in May 2021, Assimi Goïta now announces he will hold onto power beyond February 2022.

In December, Assimi Goïta’s interim government proposed to delay elections by up to five years, going against the agreement he made with ECOWAS after his first coup in August 2020 when he agreed to an 18-month transitional period and promised that elections would be held in February 2022. We are observing yet another failure in Mali’s transition to democracy.

Assimi Goïta has been the dominant actor on the political scene in Mali in the past couple of years. He was the leader of the military junta that ousted President Keïta in August 2020, after which he installed himself as Vice President. He led a second coup after 9 months, on the 24th of May 2021, after which he was sworn in as President. Although agreeing to holding elections this February, Goïta has now announced they will be postponed based on claims that insecurity in the country (due to ongoing violent Islamist insurgency) impedes the organization of elections and that peaceful elections take priority over speed.” 

The West African economic bloc ECOWAS has condemned the delay and announced it will close borders with Mali, sever diplomatic ties, freeze non-essential financial transactions, and impose tougher economic sanctions. France (Mali’s former colonial ruler) has backed ECOWAS’ decision and urged both the UN Security Council and the EU to also take action against Goïta.

Nonetheless, Goïta continues to enjoy the support of a few allies, namely China, Russia, and Guinea. In addition, Goïta’s strong actions in the face of international pressure are actually aimed at gaining domestic support, as anti-French and pro-Russian sentiment is spreading in the Sahel. As a result, despite the deteriorating relationship with ECOWAS and France, Goïta’s temperature level remains “hot.”

Who is changing Goïta’s temperature? 

Answer: Despite the efforts of  ECOWAS and France, with the support of Russia, China, and Guinea, Goïta is able to continue ruling Mali on his terms.

ECOWAS had a weaker reaction towards Goïta after the second coup due to fears that sanctions would contribute to instability in the region. Reduced sanctions therefore implied “a degree of acceptance and legitimization” of Goïta’s government. However, with Goïta’s decision to postpone elections, the reaction by ECOWAS is said to represent a “significant hardening” of the bloc’s stance towards Goïta’s government.

Moreover, ECOWAS’ hardened stance reflects the pressure the organization is under after West Africa saw four coups within the past 18 months (two in Mali, one in Guinea, and recently in Burkina Faso). France has backed ECOWAS’ decision and drafted a UN Security council statement to endorse sanctions, which comes as no surprise as Mali’s relationship with France has deteriorated since Goïta took power.

While all the above shows that Goïta’s government is being continuously questioned, he is not giving in to ECOWAS and France’s requests, but instead is turning to other important players for recognition and legitimacy. In particular, Russia and China have blocked UN Security Council sanctions drafted by France. Not to mention that both the Russian and Chinese ambassadors in Mali have expressed their understanding of the difficulties Goïta is facing in organizing elections amid an insecure domestic situation, and have urged the international audience to refrain from exerting additional pressure. 

On the regional front, the leader of the military junta in Guinea, Doumbouya, also sided with Goïta as he expressed that he will keep Guinea’s diplomatic and economic ties with Mali open. Doumbouya’s friendliness towards Goïta most likely stems from the fact that Guinea was also suspended and sanctioned by ECOWAS following a coup in September. 

What is driving Goïta?

Answer: Goïta aims to prove the strength of his government domestically and internationally by proving he doesn’t need Mali’s “traditional” partners to maintain power. 

Firstly, Goïta aims to secure domestic support and international acceptance by claiming that his actions are meant to democratize the country in the long term while maintaining that the country needs the guidance of the current interim government. Although it becomes increasingly harder to believe that a transition to democracy is actually Goïta’s goal as he continues to postpone elections, it remains a good mask that allows him to claim his actions as legitimate. 

Moreover, Goïta is exploiting anti-French and anti-colonial sentiments growing in the region to further legitimize his actions and increase his domestic support. In fact, Goïta is building off of the rhetoric of resisting foreign powers’ interference with Mali’s business, which resonates and is even celebrated in the region. He has denounced ECOWAS’s sanctions as “illegitimate, illegal and inhumane” and asked people to protest on the streets, while also claiming that ECOWAS is manipulated by France. In addition, the junta ordered France’s ambassador to leave the country after he made statements critiquing the transitional government’s actions. 

In the past few weeks, Goïta has also made efforts to get rid of European interference through the counter-terrorism mission Takuba. Denmark has announced that it will withdraw its troops after the junta publicly stated that Denmark was “not welcome” in Mali. Sweden similarly announced it will leave Mali in March, while Norway already reversed its decision to deploy troops and Germany is deciding what to do.

Although France is not going to give up as easily, the French Defense Minister said that there are limits to the price that France is prepared to pay.” Goïta aims to show that he is not constrained by these “traditional” partners in the international arena while turning increasingly towards the Russians and the Chinese.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Goïta’s postponement of elections represents yet another failure in the region’s processes of democratization, holding repercussions for domestic and regional stability.

Mali’s internal conflicts have led to spillover into neighboring West African states in the past, therefore the current tensions create fears that violence could explode and spill over into neighboring countries once again. This issue is especially salient now, as West and Central Africa saw six coups within 18 months. Other than those in Mali, Chad, Guinea, and Sudan, Burkina Fasos government was toppled last week, and Guinea Bisseau experienced an attempted coup this week.

Recurring coups in West and Central Africa are likely to embolden jihadist groups as well as other non-democratic leaders in neighboring countries. In these countries, widespread discontent with the government increases the support that coups receive domestically, making military strength and anti-colonial claims more appealing. However, layering coups on top of already unstable governments and ongoing crises is only going to destabilize societies further in the region.

The coups have also deteriorated West and Central African countries’ relationships with the West and thus, “opened the door for Russia to fill the vacuum.” Citizens’ attitudes towards French intervention have hardened in places like Mali and Burkina Faso where anti-French and pro-Russia sentiment is particularly evident.

The request by the Malian junta for European powers to withdraw their troops is unravelling France’s efforts to intervene and counter-terrorism in the region. If undemocratic leaders collaborate together regionally or internationally, there is not much ECOWAS or France or the EU can do to prevent their democratic backsliding, forcing the West to finally come up with a new strategy for how they approach Africa.