Maybe ECOWAS isn’t the solution to Mali’s political crisis

After last month’s “transition” to civilian rule, the military junta’s statements undermining the spirit of said transition, the subsequent arrests of key political, military, and business leaders, and this week’s attempted counter-coup in Mali, it occurred to me that perhaps ECOWAS isn’t capable of providing a solution to Mali’s political crisis. Sure, ECOWAS was able to put a civilian face on what essentially remains a military regime, but it is increasingly clear that Interim President Dioncounda Traoré and Interim Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra are the heads of the interim government, but the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDRE) is the neck.

But if ECOWAS is unable to solve the political crisis in Bamako (which is a necessary precondition for solving the crisis of territorial integrity in the north), what’s the next step? My international security bias came out when I tried to think through which international organizations might be capable of coercing the CNRDRE to return to the barracks. What about the African Union? No, they’re too busy with Somalia and the Sudans. What about the United Nations? No, they’re too busy with Syria et al. Then it occurred to me that because of my background, I might be thinking about it all wrong. What if the solution to Mali’s political crisis lies inside Mali – particularly within civil society? (This may be a no-brainer to most people, but again, my focus is security: death, destruction, world domination, etc).

Not knowing much about the chances of a domestic backlash to the CNRDRE leading to the military’s marginalization and the true transition to civilian rule, I posted the following question as a comment on Bruce Whitehouse’s post “Fears, foreigners, and falsehoods”:

One thing that’s starting to occur to me is that ECOWAS appears to have no teeth in its dealings with the CNRDRE. Does that mean that… it may ultimately fall to civil society to get them to return to the barracks? I can’t get a good sense of the balance of support for/opposition to the CNRDRE, but do you think there’s a threshold the junta will cross that would get the population to apply pressure on them?

I’ve copied Bruce’s response below because I think he highlights some important points:

For now I’d say the junta still has significant popular support at least in Bamako, strong enough for it to withstand pressure from both Malian civil society and ECOWAS. Many ordinary Bamakois have zero faith not only in their political class but in their political institutions too, which in their view have never served the people’s needs. Hence the idea of throwing out the whole state apparatus and starting over from scratch is something they find appealing. Especially after the events of this week, and given that nobody here supports an ECOWAS intervention, it won’t be easy to sideline Captain Sanogo in the weeks and months to come.

I do think, however, that there are two interrelated sources of pressure on the junta now from the population. One, Malians are starting to get the impression that junta leaders are uninterested in addressing pressing national problems, and are only concerned with shoring up their own power. Two, Malians are growing impatient with the junta’s lack of action in addressing Mali’s de facto partition. The army’s primary responsibility is to protect the nation’s territorial integrity, yet since early April it has been exclusively focused on protecting the junta and arresting its enemies. If these trends continue, the CNRDRE will find itself in trouble.

Therefore, if the CNRDRE continues to prioritize staying in control and Mali remains de facto partitioned, domestic resistance to the junta could emerge. However, the downside of this pathway is that we don’t know how long it will take for the junta to wear out its welcome in Bamako, or whether civil society would actually be more effective at pressuring the junta to stand down than ECOWAS has been to date. Regardless of these political issues getting resolved, the longer the government and military ignore the situation in the north, the more difficult it will be to reassemble what was once the Malian state.

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