When Mali was rocked by a power grab for the second time in a decade last month after the military deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, Hannah Armstrong wasn’t entirely surprised.

A senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, she witnessed a similar scenario play out before. As an ICWA fellow in West Africa in 2012 to 2014, she arrived in the Malian capital Bamako amid a coup against then-President Amadou Toumani Touré.

Throughout her fieldwork, Armstrong explored efforts by myriad actors in the Sahel region to improve governance and strengthen state institutions. Many were unsuccessful.

Now the Dakar-based researcher is watching the current turmoil unfold with a sense of déjà vu. “You really get a sense of how useless the past seven or eight years of investment and reform and efforts have been,” she said. Once considered a model democracy in the region, Mali is waging a counterterrorism campaign against Islamic insurgents that’s attracted global attention. Aided by French troops, the beleaguered military has struggled to keep extremists and other local rebels from wreaking havoc across the north.

That’s shifted local and international focus from the political arrangements necessary for building peace, Armstrong says, making key challenges like military and political reforms secondary priorities.



Not only does counterterrorism take precedence over other policy interventions, she adds, but in some cases fuels conflict by giving the government or its affiliated armed groups convenient cover to crack down on opponents under the aegis of fighting “terrorism.”

The result has been a weakened government poorly equipped to handle crises on numerous fronts. Poverty and youth unemployment have spiked while there’s no end in sight to the country’s episodic violence.

“There’s this prevailing assumption that this is a security issue—that you have to deal with the insecurity so that you can bring in the governance and the development,” Armstrong said. “That strategy has not held up at all.”

Now all eyes are on the recently installed provisional leader, ex-Defense Minister Bah Ndaw, and the civilian prime minister appointed last week, Moctar Ouane, as they steer Mali toward new elections and, many hope, a more stable future.

The installment of Ouane, a former diplomat and foreign minister, should be enough to compel the 15-member Economic Community of West African States to lift its sanctions on Bamako. But the difficult task of establishing lasting political order is only beginning.


Photo: Militia members arriving for training in Sévaré, Mali, 2016 (Katarina Höije, VOA, Wikimedia Commons)