While You Weren't Looking

Mali Looks for Path Back to Democracy After Coup

Proposals would see the ruling junta appoint a new leader for a two-year transition.

Supporters of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People) take part in a rally on Independence Square in Bamako, on Sept. 8, following a call for a gathering to support the role of the army in Mali's transition phase.
Supporters of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People) take part in a rally on Independence Square in Bamako, on Sept. 8, following a call for a gathering to support the role of the army in Mali's transition phase. MICHELE CATTANI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: a national consultation in Mali grappling with plans to transition back to civilian rule, the alleged forcible disappearance of the man who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, and how Trump helped to bring down the Robert Mueller of Latin America. 

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 Mali Seeks a Way Forward following Last Month’s Military Coup

A group of constitutional experts appointed by Mali’s junta have proposed that the country form a two-year transitional government led by a president chosen by the soldiers behind a military coup which toppled the country’s embattled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last month. Keita was ousted following months of street protests in Mali against unemployment, rising inequality, and the government’s inability to quash a spiraling Islamist insurgency.

Hours after the Aug. 18 coup, military leaders vowed to return the country to civilian leadership and hold elections in a “reasonable” time frame. The recommendations, which have not yet been approved, suggest that the new interim president be a “civil or military personality.” The selection of a military-linked figure would fuel concerns that the military will be slow to hand power back to civilian leaders.

The raft of measures were announced Friday, on the second day of a “national consultation” between political parties, unions, and representatives of civil society which seeks to forge a way forward in the wake of the coup.

International pressure. Both the African Union and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup and suspended Mali’s membership. Seeking to pressure the country’s military leaders to hand over power, ECOWAS set a deadline of Sept. 15 for the junta, which calls itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, to appoint a civilian to lead a transitional government. It’s unclear what steps will be taken if the demand is not met. The bloc imposed sanctions on Mali in the wake of the coup, closing borders and banning trade, and called for elections to be held within 12 months.

Political instability in Mali could jeopardize international efforts to curb rising violence in the Sahel, where intercommunal violence, organized crime, and extremist groups have forced more than 3 million people to flee their homes in one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in the world, according to the United Nations. In March, more than 150 people from the Fulani ethnic group were massacred in Ogossagou, a village in central Mali, by culprits believed to be hunters from the Dogon community.

It wasn’t always like this. Mali was once a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa. To understand where things went wrong and what could come next, read Foreign Policy’s guide to Mali by Kathryn Salam, which gathers some of our best reads on the country.

What We’re Following

Hotel Rwanda. The arrest of a Rwandan government critic who was the inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda was a forced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said this week. Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered more than 1,200 people in a hotel he managed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, is believed to have been detained on Aug. 27 while traveling in Dubai. Rusesabagina later emerged in police custody in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where he is accused of murder, terrorism, and financing rebels. “The fact that Rwanda did not pursue Rusesabagina through lawful extradition proceedings suggests the authorities do not believe their evidence or fair trial guarantees would stand up to scrutiny before an independent tribunal, and so opted to circumvent the rule of law,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Rusesabagina, a U.S. permanent resident, had not set foot in Rwanda for decades after fleeing the country in the wake of the genocide. He has been a vocal critic of the country’s strongman president, Paul Kagame, and in 2016 launched a campaign to try to oust him from power.

Chinese student visas. The United States this week revoked the visas of more than 1,000 students and researchers viewed as a risk to U.S. national security because of their supposed ties to the Chinese military. The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said earlier that the move was intended “to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research.” A State Department spokeswoman described those affected as “high-risk graduate students and research scholars,” but a spreadsheet circulated by students online includes some undergraduate students and others who seem to have tenuous connections to the Chinese military. “One of the things about the Chinese university system is that it’s not uncommon for people to graduate from, like … the Jiangxi Military Studies University with a degree in forestry or English literature. The military element is legacy in a *lot* of cases,” wrote Foreign Policy’s James Palmer on Twitter.

A mining blowup. The CEO of Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining company, has resigned under pressure from investors after the company destroyed a 46,000-year-old network of caves in Australia considered sacred by Aboriginal Australians. The Juukan Gorge caves, which sat atop large iron ore reserves, were blown up in May after a seven-year legal battle with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples. The caves had previously yielded artifacts that testified to tens of thousands of years of continuous human inhabitation. In August Rio Tinto announced that it would cut the bonuses of three executives—CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, head of iron ore operations Chris Salisbury, and corporate relations executive Simone Niven—over the decision. All three are now set to resign, a testament to the growing clout of the global movement for racial justice.

Keep an Eye On

 Unrest in Colombia. At least nine people have been killed in Colombia after the police killing of a taxi driver sparked riots in the capital, Bogotá, that quickly spread to other cities. Footage of Javier Ordoñez, who was accused of violating coronavirus social distancing rules, being pinned to the ground while police officers repeatedly fired a stun gun at him quickly went viral. He was later pronounced dead in hospital. Clashes in Bogotá between law enforcement and protesters overnight on Wednesday left more than 170 civilians and nearly 150 police officers injured. Last year Colombia was rocked by some of the largest anti-government protests in decades. Violence this week, which comes as the country was emerging from a six-month coronavirus lockdown, threatens to reignite social tensions.

The Qatar blockade. The United States’ top diplomat for middle eastern affairs, David Schenker, struck an optimistic tone on Wednesday when he told a virtual event hosted by the Brookings Institution that a breakthrough in negotiations to end a three-year blockade on Qatar was possible in a “matter of weeks.” “There’s not been a fundamental shift that … we’re going to push the door open right now. But in our talks we’re detecting a little bit more flexibility, so we’re hoping we can bring the sides closer together and end this … distraction,” Schenker said. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a boycott on Qatar in 2017, severing diplomatic and transport ties, accusing the Persian Gulf state of supporting terrorism, and demanding it align itself behind the Saudi bloc and close its Al Jazeera television station. Qatar has denied the allegations. Concerned that the rift has undermined the United States’ effort to build a united front against Iran, Washington has mediated negotiations to end the blockade, alongside Kuwait.

Ethiopia’s defiant election. Ethiopia’s restive northern region of Tigray held regional elections on Wednesday, in defiance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who postponed elections this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Abiy, who described the vote as “unconstitutional” and “illegal,” ruled out a military intervention, but any punitive action taken by the federal government could escalate tensions with the regional officials who accused Abiy of a power grab after he pushed a general election, set to be held in August, back to 2021. Tigrayans account for a small percentage of Ethiopia’s multiethnic population of 110 million, but for almost three decades had an outsized influence on the country’s politics. When reform-minded Abiy came to power in 2018, he promised to distribute power more evenly, diminishing the influence of the Tigrayans. An anti-corruption and security crackdown which began in 2018 and saw dozens of officials arrested, many of them Tigrayan, sparked fears of an ethnically motivated crackdown.

Foreign Policy Recommends

How Donald Trump took down the Robert Mueller of Latin America. In 2013 Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, took the helm of a groundbreaking International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an independent body established in 2006 to root out crime and corruption in the country after decades of civil war and military rule. The United States threw its clout and cash behind the body in the hopes that by addressing the root causes of instability in Central America, it would reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers who head to the United States

That was, until Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Political appointees within the Trump administration have worked to undermine the commission, which was delving into the dealings of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his family. In return, according to Velásquez, Morales is alleged to have offered Guatemala’s support for policies key to Trump’s reelection bid.

The Reveal podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting takes you from the United States to Guatemala as it unspools the gripping tale of Trump’s other quid pro quo. Listen here and on all major podcasting apps.

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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