On September 25, Mali’s military government announced it will delay elections that were slated for February 2024. The authorities cited technical reasons for the postponement and did not name a replacement date.
Viewed against the backdrop of the junta’s actions since taking power in 2020, the delay appears the latest in a series of maneuvers by the junta to extend its rule, even as the junta has failed egregiously in its promises to restore security. The United States has little influence over what happens in Bamako, but by taking a clear and public stand against open-ended military rule in Mali and other countries in the region, Washington can enhance its credibility in the long term.
A recent wave of coups in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa has involved officers who show no serious willingness to hand power back to civilians. Military officers have now seized power in Mali (2020), Chad (2021), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger (2023). Add to this the coups in Guinea (2021) and Sudan (2021) and one has a “coup belt” that evokes the dark days of the Cold War. Amid much talk of “coup contagion,” each putsch has had its own, primarily domestic causes — but what has been contagious is coup-makers’ playbooks.
Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goita and associates have been key movers in elaborating this playbook, extending their “transition” time and again. Goita and company came to power in August 2020, appointed a civilian-led transition, overthrew their own civilian appointees in May 2021’s “coup within a coup,” defied sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), compromised on a transition for 2024, and have now begun to tamper with that timetable.
Mali’s colonels have repeatedly exposed the weak hand of regional and Western diplomats. ECOWAS first sought to impose an 18-month timetable in August 2020 — meaning the February 2024 elections should have already occurred in February 2022. What happens in Mali has serious ramifications for how officers in the other countries — some of whom are in close contact with Mali’s junta — will approach their own transition timetables.
The U.S. has few good options in Mali or elsewhere in the region. In Washington, there are concerns that criticizing and antagonizing juntas would diminish whatever influence the U.S. may command in the Sahel. Washington also prefers to take the region’s countries and their coups case by case, frowning on those in Mali and Burkina Faso while showing a significantly more ambivalent and even lenient attitude towards those in Chad and Niger.
And certainly there are diplomatic costs to criticism, as France has learned in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where its soldiers and diplomats are effectively unwelcome.
Yet U.S. “influence” in the region is overstated — what is there to preserve? After 20 years of military training programs, the U.S. has no significant and enduring counterterrorism accomplishments to report. On the political side, if the U.S. has avoided the backlash that has greeted France, it has also not been able to convince soldiers to return to barracks, or even to temper the overreach of some of its favored civilian leaders (the decision by Senegalese President Macky Sall not to seek a third term in 2024 is one bright spot in the region, and may reflect behind-the-scenes international pressure, but Sall continues to crack down severely on the opposition).
Given that U.S. influence has not appreciably bent the curve of the region when it comes either to endemic insecurity or the militarization of politics, it would be better for the U.S. to be consistent, vocal, and clear when it comes to denouncing coups and distorted transition timetables. As of September 30, for example, there was no statement by the U.S. on the Malian junta’s delay of the elections.
Nor has the U.S. clarified, more than two months after the coup in Niger, whether it considers that takeover to be a coup in legal terms — a decision that would trigger a suspension of much assistance to Niger.
As one analyst recently commented, allowing ambiguity to fester when it comes to the U.S. stance on Niger is a recipe for exacerbating conspiracy theorizing about whether the U.S. and other Western powers actually support the coups in the region.
Speaking out at key moments would elicit rebukes from Bamako and Niamey, but it would also send vital signals to the actual people of the Sahel. The region’s populations are Washington’s most important audience at this point, because it is more important to shape positive perceptions of the U.S. over the long term than it is to tiptoe around generals and colonels who rule capitals by force.
Over the long term, moreover, it is in the U.S. interest to give moral support to genuine grassroots democratic culture in the region, which has been a serious force in Sahelian history time and again. At the moment, the U.S. should not materially support civilian organizations that seek to challenge the juntas politically, because doing so could pose profound risks to such civilians (of being arrested and/or tarred with the charge of being Western puppets) and could create unnecessary credibility risks for the U.S. itself.
But by being blunt and forthright that military rule is unacceptable, the U.S. can help set the expectation that norms, and not crass and misguided efforts at realpolitik, will guide Washington’s and others’ policies towards the Sahel.
Publicly criticizing and privately pressuring the region’s military rulers does not mean that Washington will be loathed as much as Paris is. Washington does not have Paris’s colonial baggage, and French officials, from President Emmanuel Macron down to individual ambassadors, have been particularly imperious and insensitive to Sahelian concerns, squandering numerous easy opportunities to appear flexible and humble.
The U.S. can be a more friendly critic, clarifying that it disapproves of juntas’ choices but leaving the door open to conversation
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