Malian soldiers drive through the streets of Bamako, Mali on August 19, 2020 (AFP)
BAMAKO, MALI: The soldiers in Mali who led the coup that has toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita promised on Wednesday to hold fresh elections to return the country to civilian rule, amid swift condemnation of their putsch across Africa and the international community.
The mutinous soldiers who staged Tuesday’s coup identified themselves as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People in an address on state broadcaster ORTM.
“With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness,” said spokesman Colonel Major Ismael Wague, announcing that Mali’s borders were closed and imposing a nighttime curfew from 9pm to 5am.
Wague said the committee will implement a transition to civil political rule with elections held in a “reasonable amount of time,” without specifying a timeline.
Mali, strategically located in the center of West Africa, has seen a dramatic increase in Islamic extremist violence this year, unsettling the population and neighboring countries where the insurgency has spread. A UN peacekeeping force of 15,600 troops and a French mission of more than 5,000 in the region have not succeeded in stopping the insurgents’ violence, and have become the targets for the attacks. Instability in Mali threatens the Sahel region, where the US also has about 1,400 troops, including special forces.
The UN quickly criticized the military takeover and the security council scheduled a closed meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali. The influential West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it was sending a high-level delegation to “ensure the immediate return to constitutional order.”
ECOWAS had previously sent mediators to try and negotiate a unity government but those talks fell apart when it became clear that the protesters would not accept less than Keita’s resignation.
The bloc condemned the overthrow of Keita, denied “any kind of legitimacy to the putschists,” and demanded sanctions against those who staged the coup and their partners and collaborators. In its statement, ECOWAS also said it would stop all economic, trade and financial flows and transactions between ECOWAS states and Mali.
The African Union also condemned the coup and called for a quick return to civilian rule.
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the military takeover and pledged full support to the ECOWAS mediation effort, but his office said he would not comment further until after the UN security council meeting on Wednesday.
The coup is a blow to France and to Macron, who has supported Keita and sought to improve relations with former colonies in Africa.
There was no immediate word on Keita’s future. The former president, first elected in 2013 with more than 77% of the vote, still had three years left in his second and final term.
News of his departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Bamako, and alarm by former colonial ruler France, and other allies and foreign nations.
Keita’s popularity had plummeted because of Mali’s deteriorating security situation and since June there have been anti-government protests calling for him to resign.
On Tuesday, mutinous soldiers forced his hand by surrounding his residence and firing shots into the air. Keita and the Prime Minister were soon detained and hours later he appeared on state broadcaster ORTM. A banner across the bottom of the television screen referred to him as the “outgoing president.”
“I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power,” Keita said. “I have decided to step down from office.”
He also announced that his government and the national assembly would be dissolved.
Keita, who tried to meet protesters’ demands through a series of concessions, has enjoyed broad support from France and other Western allies.
The deteriorating security situation for soldiers was among multiple issues playing a key role in the coup, Alexandre Raymakers, a senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy, said.
A contributing factor was late and low payments to army troops, he said. Wives of soldiers protested earlier this year over late salaries as soldiers’ lives were increasingly at risk from extremist attacks.
“Relations between the presidency and military have been deteriorating since the start of the year,” Raymakers said, especially as reports by rights groups have come out condemning extrajudicial killings by Mali’s military. Keita, in February, also made a forceful speech criticizing the overall conduct of the military in its counter insurgency efforts.
Despite several months of demonstrations in the streets calling for Keita’s ouster, Raymakers said it was “highly unlikely” that the opposition leaders knew about the coup ahead of time. Some of them may, however, later play a role in a civilian transitional government, he said.
“Popular support for the military coup will be conditional on the putschists establishing a clear path towards a return to civilian rule and addressing the population’s concerns about the deteriorating security situation and worsening socioeconomic conditions,” he said.
The developments on Tuesday bore a striking resemblance to Mali’s 2012 coup, originating from the very same military barracks in Kati. The previous coup unleashed years of chaos in Mali when the ensuing power vacuum allowed Islamic extremists to seize control of northern towns. Ultimately a French-led military operation ousted the jihadists, but they merely regrouped and expanded their reach during Keita’s presidency into central Mali.
The political vacuum now caused by Tuesday’s coup will reinforce the narrative pushed by Islamic extremists that the Malian state is inept, Raymakers said. The coup also will undermine trust between the military and its Western partners, he added.
Keita’s political downfall closely mirrored that of his predecessor: Amadou Toumani Toure was forced out of the presidency in 2012 after a series of punishing military defeats. That time, the attacks were carried out by ethnic Tuareg separatist rebels. This time, Mali’s military has sometimes seemed powerless to stop extremists linked to al-Qaida and IS.
The international committee of the Red Cross in Mali called for the needs of civilians not to be forgotten.
“The military coup in Mali comes on top of years of conflict and violence in the wider Sahel region that has trapped millions of people in crisis,” said the head of the delegation for ICRC in Mali, Klaus Spreyermann.
“People in northern and central Mali have lived for years in a vicious cycle of conflict and climate shocks that have driven them from their homes and destroyed their livelihoods. Their needs must not be forgotten.”