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Why was Mali hit with another coup?

A bloated military makes the country particularly vulnerable

- August 20, 2020

Soldiers and armored vehicles appeared on the streets in the key garrison town of Kati, Mali, on Tuesday morning, just outside the capital, Bamako. What began as an apparent faceoff between mutinying soldiers and army loyalists has resulted in the arrest of senior officers and government ministers.

By Tuesday evening, mutinying soldiers arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. It’s unclear whether this mutiny began as an organized attempt to topple Keïta or if it resulted from isolated grievances. What is clear is Keïta’s time in power is over.

What just happened?

Mali’s troops have been engaged in an ongoing conflict in central and northern Mali — but have frequently gone unpaid and hungry under Keïta’s leadership, due to corrupt diversion of wages. Widespread dissatisfaction among Mali’s population has long been growing, reflecting economic hardship, an allegedly fraudulent legislative election and a deteriorating security situation. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in recent weeks, and Keïta had relied on the army’s loyalty to maintain his authority. This loyalty has fractured.

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But the roots of the current crisis go much deeper. Even if Keïta is ousted from power, it will take more than a change of personnel at the top to resolve the problems of the Malian state. My research on the Malian state post-independence reveals structural flaws dating from the end of the colonial period. These flaws make it nearly impossible for leaders to exercise control over national territory at a sustainable cost, without mortgaging the state to external partners.

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What will a new leader face? I analyzed more than 10,000 pages of diplomatic documents, combining this with interviews with elites to build up a picture of the evolution of the Malian state from independence in 1960 to the present day. This research suggests any new leader will inherit a country structurally unable to support itself on domestic revenue. That means the leadership will be forced to either reduce expenditures or seek financial support from abroad.

All of Mali’s leaders have faced this choice. Mali’s dependence on external donors relative to tax income undermines accountability to citizens. That Mali’s official deficit is 3.9 percent disguises the extent to which the state, from 1970 onward, has effectively subcontracted core functions to outsiders. For example, the cost of replacing all foreign security support, from France, the United Nations and European Union, would amount to 75 percent of current government revenue.

Mali is a mostly agricultural country

With limited infrastructure and no access to the sea, Mali has two major economic assets: its population and its position as a trade corridor across the Sahara Desert. But since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, foreign donors have tried to stop people from moving across Saharan borders, fearing terrorists will use those routes. This effort has nullified both of these advantages. Mali’s leaders have no choice but to accept the outside agenda — to reject it would risk losing most military funding, provoking further instability.

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This points to another challenge: Mali’s security sector is very large. Many Malian presidents have sought to reduce the size and power of the military, both to reduce risk of a coup and to free up resources for social programs like education and health care. But this is hard to do while facing an armed rebellion and with pressure from major foreign backers for “results.”

During the past decade, Mali doubled its military spending (as a percentage of GDP) and now allocates 21 percent of government income to security spending. This is significantly higher than the average for conflict-affected countries. Although Mali represents only 1.9 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, it accounted for 4.3 percent of defense spending in the region in 2019. Meanwhile, ordinary Malians suffer, both from the ineffectiveness of the military response and from the lack of funding for services that would improve their daily lives.

Why does Mali spend so much on its military?

Ironically, Mali had to build up its army to protect itself from France. Mali’s first decade after independence was marked by French economic and military destabilization efforts, particularly during a rebellion of the Tuareg northern nomadic peoples in 1962-1964. That early necessity has been a fiscal millstone ever since, draining funds and constantly threatening political leaders.

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Downsizing a large and powerful military can be a perilous process. In 60 years of independence, Mali has only seen one democratic transfer of power in 2002. Meanwhile, four successful coups have placed the military in power.

France is Mali’s economic backer of last resort, but the conditions attached to this support restrict Mali’s monetary policy and have contributed to economic stagnation. France paid little attention to the development of industry, higher education or broad access to international trade in Mali before independence, instead focusing much of its investment on Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.

Now, despite juridical independence Mali is still economically tied to France through the CFA Franc system, which critics argue is tilted in France’s interests. The supposed trade-off for lost economic sovereignty is France also backs former colonies militarily and did intervene in 2013 to reverse rebel gains in northern Mali. However, this intervention was largely necessitated by other French actions. The 2011 toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi by a NATO coalition and French support for Tuareg militias to return from fighting in Libya’s civil war escalated preexisting problems and contributed to the implosion of the Malian state in 2012, triggered by another coup.

What might a new Malian president face? Many analysts would probably call Mali’s situation unenviable, and one that might lead the leadership toward making policy choices much like those taken by Keïta. Once the dust has settled in Bamako, the underlying structural problems no doubt will remain. Without coming to terms with how the French post-imperial project has created and maintained weak and dependent states, and making real changes in these relationships, genuine progress is unlikely.

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Joe Gazeley is a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Edinburgh. In September, he also joins the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London as a doctoral fellow.