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Mali’s president resigned Tuesday after being held at gunpoint by members of the military, risking further destabilizing the West African country and drawing condemnation from Europe, the U.S. and the African Union.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who has struggled to address concerns about corruption and the deadly violence associated with Islamic extremists and ethnic separatists, has faced protests against his government for months — those who overthrew the president accuse him of stealing a parliamentary election in March by challenging the result and using the ensuing instability to install lawmakers from his own party.
But while the soldiers who ousted the president have promised to hold fresh elections, the coup has left one of the Sahel’s most strategic nations with a leadership void and the prospect that the turmoil could spread way beyond its borders.
“The military coup lays bare the insufficient progress Mali has made on addressing the problems which have underscored decades of instability and blighted so many lives,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All Malians should work to strengthen the crucial institutions on which stability and progress depend, and put justice for the worsening violence, including by the military, front and center.”
Here’s what the situation in Mali means for the country, the continent and Europe.
What does the coup mean for peace and security?
Keïta’s reign — which began after another coup in 2012 — coincided with the establishment of a French peacekeeping mission in Mali. While deeply unpopular at home, Keïta has been a vital partner for Paris in its counter-insurgency efforts in the region, and French President Emmanuel Macron was among the first to condemn the mutiny.
What happens to France’s role now is far from clear.
“Will France find a good partner in a new government? Do they work with a possible military junta? Do they continue with their operation independently of the Malian government?” asked Caleb Weiss, a research analyst at the Long War Journal, a project that analyzes the Global War on Terror.
For the U.S., another central actor in Mali’s counter-insurgency efforts, there are also major doubts about what happens now. By law, the U.S. does not give military aid to governments formed after coups, raising questions about whether the world’s largest economy will stop its aid to Mali, or attempt to bypass its own laws because of security concerns.
Perhaps the greatest question mark for Africa is the impact of the coup on the G5 Sahel Joint Force, an armed counter-insurgency force made up of soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which the EU has vowed to support.
The other G5 Sahel members are considering sanctions on Mali and have all closed their borders with the country in response to the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also suspended financial flows between its 15 members and Mali.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson for the African Union, said on Wednesday that he “rejects any attempt at the unconstitutional change of government in Mali” and called on the “mutineers to cease all recourse to violence.”
“I think this is a potentially devastating move for the country that stands to jeopardize its response, as well as the response of its allies, to the insurgency,” said Weiss, underlining the potential for jihadists in the country to use the instability to jeopardize the security of military bases outside the capital Bamako.
Does it dent Africa’s push to solve its own problems?
The coup came as countries in Africa have expressed a growing resolve to manage their own affairs under the slogan “African solutions for African problems.” In February, leaders from the violence-scarred Sahel region agreed to try to boost their own joint counterterrorism capabilities — an initiative that highlights the growing discomfort with the presence of French troops in the region.
But with no leader in Mali, those efforts will surely take a hit. Most analysts believe that the new military-led government, which has called itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), will seek to retain its ties to foreign forces operating in the country. In June, the Katiba Macina, a militant Islamist group that operates in Mali, reportedly attacked an army convoy, killing 24 soldiers in the deadliest attack against Malian forces this year and a sign that Mali needs as much help as it can get.
While France is unlikely to cease its military operations, according to Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, “military cooperation between both parties will likely be curtailed momentarily.”
“The coup will be a major propaganda victory for jihadist groups operating in Mali, vindicating their view that they hold the military momentum over a paralyzed Malian state,” he added, noting that he expects the security situation to deteriorate in the coming weeks.
Could the coup worsen an already dire refugee crisis?
For Europe, stability in Mali is important as it looks to spread its influence in Africa and help countries develop, in part so that the large flow of migrants from certain parts of the continent are curtailed.
Mali is currently home to more than 45,000 refugees and 250,000 internally displaced people. The coup is hardly likely to alleviate that situation.
What happens in the coming weeks will be key if the country is to regain the confidence of its partners in both Africa and abroad. The cleric Mahmoud Dicko, who has openly criticized Keïta’s government, has been at the forefront of the country’s protest movement but has not announced that he will run for president.
A failure to find a strong leader with popular appeal could have devastating consequences not only for stability in the country but for the wider region and Europe’s relationship with a key partner in the Sahel.