The African Union’s suspension of Mali this week provided official, if belated, recognition that a democracy once heralded as a shining example in West Africa is on the ropes.

Strongman Colonel Assimi Goïta, who led the junta that seized power in a coup in August and then staged a second coup in May, last week made himself head of the transitional government, thus removing even the veneer of civilian control.

Goïta’s ascent caps a turbulent nine years for Mali. Since jihadis captured the north in 2012, the country has been the subject of relentless violence, despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops.

“Mali’s democracy has been broken for months, and the recent events don’t suggest it’s on the path to recovery,” said Ornella Moderan, the Bamako-based head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies. The second “coup . . . revealed the absolute power of the August 2020 junta, which has run the country despite the facade of a civilian transition”.

Goïta has said that free elections will go ahead as planned for February. But Moderan said “there are serious concerns about how realistic that is” given an already ambitious electoral timetable.

Colonel Assimi Goïta waves from his vehicle after returning from a meeting with Ecowas on Monday

Just a decade ago, Mali was held up as a paragon of democratic virtue, following the 1991 coup that overthrew dictator Moussa Traoré, 23 years after he seized power in his own putsch.

For the next 20 years, even as Mali suffered rebellions and inter-ethnic strife, its democracy largely held under two democratically elected presidents, leading the US Institute of Peace to hail its “record of democratisation” as “among the best in Africa” in 2006.

It was a sentiment that echoed conventional wisdom among journalists, analysts and diplomats at the time, turning Mali into a darling of the west. Between 1967 and 2013, aid to Mali totalled about 15 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with 3.75 per cent for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, according to a 2018 paper in the journal African Security.

But that rosy analysis was “always incomplete because it . . . missed what was happening under the surface, which was that Malian democracy and Malian politics was being built around clientelism, patronage networks and this kind of consensus politics”, said Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Mali remained one of the poorest countries in the world throughout the years it was held up as a poster child for democracy. It remains among the lowest-ranked countries on the UN’s Human Development Index today.

The underlying rot was exposed when Tuaregs in the north launched a rebellion in January 2012 and the military responded by overthrowing president Amadou Toumani Touré. The Tuareg groups took the north later that year, helped by an influx of weapons and fighters from the recently collapsed Libya, but were quickly overrun by the jihadi groups. This prompted an intervention by former colonial power France that continues with roughly 5,000 counterterror troops in the region today.

A French soldier searches a man during an area control operation in Ndaki, Mali, in 2019

Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was elected president in 2013, but his transactional style of governance, corrupt administration and institutional neglect helped set the stage for Goïta.

International response to the double coup makes clear how little enthusiasm there is for taking a stand with a country that is a key ally in the western fight against jihadism in the Sahel.

While west African regional bloc Ecowas has suspended Mali for the coup, it has not issued sanctions or closed borders. French president Emmanuel Macron slammed Goïta’s takeover as a “coup within a coup”, and threatened a troop pullout, but few believe France will actually withdraw.

Macron warned that if Mali’s military government engages in negotiations with the armed jihadi groups — a strategy widely popular in the country but not something Goïta has specifically advocated — he would consider pulling French troops. “Today, this temptation is present in Mali. But if it goes in that direction, I’ll pull out,” he told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

The sharp words and lack of action on Mali are in stark contrast to French reaction to a recent coup in Chad, whose capable army is also a key ally in the fight against jihadism. Chad’s military installed the 37-year-old son of its strongman president Idriss Déby after he was killed by rebels. Macron attended the authoritarian Déby’s state funeral while his government offered its tacit blessing for the military takeover in the name of “stability”, in the words of foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Paris later walked back those comments.

But the feebleness of the response along with that of Ecowas, the AU and others created a dangerous precedent, analysts said.

“Most of the international actors who would usually condemn power grabs by Mali’s military in the most virulent terms indulged the same in Chad,” said Moderan. “This . . . makes it difficult for the international community [to] take the moral high ground this time around in Mali.”