Since independence in 1968, Mali has experienced four coups d’etat. Two of these happened in the past nine months — and they were both led by the same man. Despite having already ousted not one but two presidents, Assimi Goïta, a colonel in the Malian Armed Forces, is only 38 years old.
The most recent coup leaves this vast, landlocked west African country once again embroiled in political uncertainty, even as it continues to battle a long-running Islamist insurgency.
The first time Goïta rose to international attention was on the evening of 18 August 2020, when he appeared on state television to announce the arrest of then-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), under the banner of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People — a junta of disgruntled army officers who promised to deliver a brighter, more democratic and more prosperous future for Mali, following widespread popular protests against IBK’s government.
In the transitional government that followed, Goïta — a special forces commander renowned for his quiet, calm demeanour — appointed a close ally and fellow military officer, Bah N’Daw, as interim president. For himself, he created the position of vice-president, with direct responsibility for defence and security.
But relations between N’Daw and Goïta grew tense as the pair competed for influence. When the new president announced a surprise cabinet reshuffle earlier this month – dismissing several of the junta’s leading figures in the process — Goïta and his allies within the armed forces arrested President N’Daw and his civilian prime minister, Moctar Ouane. Both were detained until Thursday in the Kati military base just outside the capital Bamako, leaving Goïta in de facto control of the country.
The third eldest in a family of nine children, Goïta attended military schools, where his record was faultless. With specialisations in armoured weapons and cavalry, he graduated from the military academy and, still a teenager, was assigned to the 134th Reconnaissance Squadron in Gao in 2002.
As he rose through the ranks, he developed a reputation for bravery and rigour, leading several military operations before, during and after the beginning of the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. Known to inspire trust and loyalty within the ranks of the army, he is an effective man-manager, and when off-duty likes to read and play football.
His various commands have taken him across the country: he has battled terrorists and drug traffickers on the Algerian border; hunted down rebel leaders around Kidal and Timbuktu; and beefed up security in Bamako following the deadly attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in 2015. He also did a stint as a United Nations peacekeeper in Darfur, Sudan, where he won a medal for bravery.
During these years, Malian security forces were repeatedly implicated by rights groups and United Nations investigators in human rights abuses and war crimes, including arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions. Goïta has not been personally implicated in these alleged crimes.
In 2018, he was appointed commander of Mali’s notorious Battalion Autonomes des Forces Spéciales, the US-trained elite special forces unit — and it was from this position that he was able to organise and launch the first coup in August last year.
Although Goïta might be in charge for the moment, it is unclear how long he will be able to keep power. While there can be little doubt that he wants to remain president, he faces formidable opposition from the international community.
Both the Economic Community of West African States and the United States have demanded that the political transition be led by civilians, and the United States has followed this up by suspending military cooperation and threatening targeted sanctions.
That said, the language used publicly by the junta suggests that, this time around, they are more determined to keep control in the hands of the military.
On the soldiers’ side is thought to be the powerful National Union of Malian Workers, which had been on strike over a pay dispute with the deposed transitional government, and the M5-RFP, the political coalition that led the protests which preceded last year’s coup.
The M5-RFP, however, have publicly opposed Goïta’s appointment as president. But even if he doesn’t succeed in consolidating his power this time around, we can be certain that we have not heard the last from Colonel Assimi Goïta — and if he doesn’t pull it off this time then maybe the third coup will be the charm.