Africa’s Complex 2022 Elections – Africa Center for Strategic Studies

Presidential and Legislative, February 27

2022 will be a pivotal year in Mali’s efforts to restore democratic rule following the two coups led by Colonel Assimi Goïta in August 2020 and May 2021. The February 27 date for elections was set by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) during negotiations with the military junta to resume civilian rule in this expansive Sahelian country of 20 million people. Goïta, however, has grand ambitions for the military’s role in the Malian government and has made a point of rehabilitating the images of past disgraced military rulers such as Moussa Traoré and Amadou Haya Sanogo, who oversaw ruinous periods of Mali’s post-independence history. Mali, thus, is on course for a high-stakes standoff over vastly different visions of its governance trajectory.

“The security threat has only worsened since the military coup.”

Goïta can be expected to try to ignore the February 27 deadline for elections, and the junta has shown little interest in preparing for the transition. Instead, it has proposed a 5-year transition process that would culminate in 2026. This suggestion has been strongly rejected by the opposition coalition and ECOWAS, precipitating an escalation in sanctions on the junta including the closure of borders and limitations on financial transactions. If these measures are reinforced by international democratic actors, the junta will be further isolated, exposing its lack of legitimacy.

Key issues to watch in Mali, therefore, will be how ECOWAS elevates the costs on the junta for its intransigence and how independently managed elections will be enabled. ECOWAS’s earlier willingness to concede to the junta’s demands and timetables have been shown to be based on false hopes that the junta actually intended on facilitating a transition. The regional body’s stiffened resolve also signals its recognition that if it tolerates the junta in Mali, the norm of coups as a means of succession will be legitimized, inspiring further coups on the continent—a phenomenon that has already started to take shape.

Mali coup leaders meet with ECOWAS officials

ECOWAS officials meet with Mali coup leaders. (Photo: VOA)

The junta justified its coup as well as its proposed extended transition timeframe on the ongoing security threat posed by militant Islamist groups in the central and northern regions of the country. However, the security threat has only worsened since the military coup—with violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in Mali increasing by a third in 2021 over 2020. The coup leaders’ preoccupation with consolidating their seizure of power has come at the expense of securing at-risk communities.

In the interest of bolstering its hold on power, the junta has surreptitiously contracted to bring in 1,000 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group at the cost of $11 million per month to further shore up the junta’s position. (Given that Mali’s annual military expenditures are estimated to be around $580 million, the payments to Wagner amount to 23 percent of what Mali spends on defense). While presented as an extraordinary means of responding to a serious security threat, the track record of Wagner deployments in the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Syria, and Ukraine has been to advance Moscow’s interests and prop up their allies rather than enhance stability. These deals frequently also involve granting Wagner access to a country’s natural resources.

“Another critical lesson … is the fallacy of enabling military actors who have seized power extra constitutionally to lead the transition process back to democracy.”

The self-interested motives behind this deal seem all the more evident given the junta’s refusal to accept an additional 2,000 military and police forces (at no cost to Mali) as part of the 17,000 strong peacekeeping force of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The Wagner deal exposes the vulnerability a nation faces from an unelected and illegitimate leadership bargaining away elements of national sovereignty in its effort to cling to power. Such an outcome is even more unsavory given that a Russian-inspired disinformation campaign was instrumental in fomenting discontent with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and democratic processes in Mali the year leading up to the 2020 coup.

Among the many lessons for democratic development in Africa that can be drawn from Mali’s recent coups, two stand out.  One is the importance of strengthening independent institutions to foster the self-corrections that are the bread-and-butter of democratic systems. Many Malians initially justified the coup in 2020 (as they did in 2012) based on the alleged corruption and ineptitude of Keïta’s democratically elected government. Yet, these coups have only further pulled Mali away from a constitutionally based system, exposing citizens to the whims of the latest military actor who has seized power. By strengthening independent democratic institutions (such as the judiciary, electoral commission, and anticorruption bodies), Malians will have more effective means through which to respond to the inevitable governance shortcomings that emerge.

A man voting in Mali

A man voting in Bamako, Mali. (Photo: MINUSMA/Marco Dormino)

Another critical lesson from Mali (as well as other African countries that have experienced coups) is the fallacy of enabling military actors who have seized power extra constitutionally to lead the transition process back to democracy. These coup leaders have already demonstrated their disdain for democratic processes and therefore are least suited to reinstate them. Moreover, so long as they are recognized and have access to state resources, they have few incentives to do so. Removing the processes and timetables for democratic transitions from the purview of military actors and instead entrusting these to an independent, merit-based body is far more likely to lead to the desired restoration of a democratic system.

As Malians navigate a return to democracy in 2022, they have the advantage of experience. While Mali’s previous efforts at democratization may have been imperfect, these experiences provide valuable lessons as a starting point for the improvements to be fashioned and the resiliencies to be strengthened moving forward.

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