By Alexandra Lamarche,  senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International.

This week, images of Malians celebrating the ousting of an unpopular president have flooded news coverage of the country’s recent coup. But a stark fact belies the elation: Malians outside the capital are at risk. In fact, conditions are already getting worse. The transition has left a power vacuum, which armed groups are already competing to fill. Mali’s neighbors have shut their borders amid international condemnation of the takeover. And civilians’ access to basic goods and services will wane. They will be preyed on, forced to flee, and trapped within their own borders.

Mali’s humanitarian crisis is on the brink of a much darker chapter unless immediate action is taken to address these conditions.

On August 18, a mutiny of Malian soldiers detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé at a military base outside of the capital Bamako. Hours later, the president announced his resignation on national television. The coup follows two months of protests calling for his ousting. Malians opposed the president and prime minister accusing them of failing to stabilize the country, inconsistently implementing the country’s 2015 peace deal, and fueling its corrupt economy.  The international community mostly denies the legitimacy of the military take-over. But taking a tough line with the coup leaders is not enough. The humanitarian situation in Mali has been in a downward spiral over the last year. As of July 2020, the United Nations estimates that 6.8 million of Mali’s 20 million citizens require humanitarian assistance. This number more than doubled since early 2019. If political instability exacerbates these trend lines, numbers will skyrocket over the next few months. The protestors’ request has now been met. But what happens next is crucial.

The military junta, calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), is now scrambling to consolidate power in Bamako. Meanwhile, they’ve abandoned the rest of the country. Aid workers report that Malian forces were relocated from the country’s hot zones in the north and center to support the coup. Civilians are already being caught in the crossfire as armed groups move to expand the areas under their control. This nightmare is already unfolding in the central region of Gao.

Even with international support, the Malian armed forces have long struggled to maintain state authority in the north and more recently the center of the country where inter-communal and insurgent violence is on the rise. A United Nations Peacekeeping Mission, known as MINUSMA, deployed to Mali in 2013. The mission has a mandate to protect civilians in Central Mali, where a deadly insurgency frequently targets civilians and Blue Helmets alike. The situation facing MINUSMA may only get more chaotic as instability in the capitol undermines security throughout the country. But, if the right conditions are in place, the work of humanitarians can provide a lifeline for those impacted by the violence.

Citing concerns for regional stability, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has issued strong condemnations of the coup and closed off its shared borders. This move could block the displaced seeking refuge in neighboring lands. ECOWAS promises that restrictions will not impact the flow of medication, fuel and other necessary goods. However, similar exceptions proved ineffective in facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance, food and other essential items the during recent border closures to prevent the regional spread of COVID-19. If history repeats itself, this will further exacerbate resource scarcity and severely hinder provision of aid. The United Nations, humanitarian organizations and ECOWAS countries must immediately coordinate to allow asylum seekers, food, and essential goods through negotiated humanitarian corridors across borders. Otherwise, more Malians will join the 3 million who are already food insecure, or even in states of malnutrition.

As the situation deteriorates, the humanitarian architecture in Mali can sustain its work, and even increase its programs if given the right tools and resources. It is crucial that donors increase, or at the very least maintain, funding for the UN agencies and relief groups that continue to respond to the needs of citizens unprotected by their own government.

Mali’s future remains deeply uncertain. There are reports that the leaders of coup want an interim military government to run Mali for the next 3 years before transitioning to civilian rule – a proposal that ECOWAS and other international partners are likely to reject.  While the future of Mali’s politics and governance remains highly uncertain, one thing is clear: Mali’s citizens will suffer the immediate cost, and the world must try to lower this price.

 

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