Mali’s president resigns after armed mutiny

An uprising from the rank and file of the army on Tuesday echoes a military coup in 2012

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Mali’s president announced his resignation late on Tuesday, only hours after armed soldiers seized him from his home in a dramatic power grab following months of protests demanding his removal.

The news of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators and alarm by former colonial ruler France, and other allies and foreign nations.

The UN Security Council scheduled a closed meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali, where there is a 15,600-strong international peacekeeping mission.

Speaking on national broadcaster ORTM before midnight, a distressed Mr Keita, wearing a mask amid the Covid-19 pandemic, said his resignation – three years before his final term was due to end – was effective immediately.

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,” Mr Keita said. “I have decided to step down from office.”

epa08611759 Malians cheer as Mali military enter the streets of Bamako, Mali, 18 August 2020. Mali military have seized Mali President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita in what appears to be a coup attempt.  EPA/HADAMA DIAKITE
Malians cheer as Mali military enters the streets of Bamako. EPA

He also announced that his government and the National Assembly would be dissolved, certain to further the country’s turmoil amid an eight-year insurgency and the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Keita, who was democratically elected in 2013 and re-elected five years later, was left with few choices after the mutinous soldiers seized weapons from the armoury in the garrison town of Kati and then advanced on the capital of Bamako. They took Prime Minister Boubou Cisse into custody along with the president.

There was no immediate comment on Wednesday from the troops, who hailed from the same military barracks where a coup was launched more than eight years ago, allowing the insurgency to take hold amid a power vacuum.

The political upheaval unfolded months after disputed legislative elections. And it also came as support for Mr Keita tumbled amid criticism of his government’s handling of the insurgency, which has engulfed a country once praised as a model of democracy in the region.

The military has taken a beating over the past year from ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups. A wave of deadly attacks in the north in 2019 prompted the government to close its most vulnerable outposts as part of a reorganisation aimed at stemming the losses.

BAMAKO, MALI - AUGUST 18: Crowds cheer as soldiers parade in vehicles along the Boulevard de l'Independance on August 18, 2020 in Bamako, Mali. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse have been taken captive by mutinying soldiers, according to multiple news reports. Their arrest was preceded by a takeover the Kati military camp, about 15km from Bamako.(Photo by John Kalapo/Getty Images)
Crowds cheer as soldiers parade in vehicles along the Boulevard de l'Independance on August 18, 2020 in Bamako, Mali. Getty Images

Tuesday’s developments were condemned by the African Union, the United States, and the regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which had been trying to mediate Mali’s political crisis. Former coloniser France as well as the United Nations, which has maintained a peacekeeping mission in Mali since 2013, also expressed alarm before Mr Keita’s speech.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sought “the immediate restoration of constitutional order and rule of law,” the world body's spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

But news of Mr Keita’s detention was celebrated throughout the capital by anti-government protesters, who first took to the streets in June to demanding president's resignation.

“All the Malian people are tired – we have had enough,” one demonstrator said.

The detention was a dramatic change of fortune for Mr Keita, who seven years earlier emerged from a field of more than two dozen candidates to win Mali’s first democratic post-coup election in a landslide with more than 77 per cent of the vote.

Regional mediators from ECOWAS, though, had failed in recent weeks to bridge the impasse between Mr Keita’s government and opposition leaders, creating mounting anxiety about another military-led change of power.

Then on Tuesday, soldiers in Kati took weapons from the armoury at the barracks and detained senior military officers. Anti-government protesters immediately cheered the soldiers’ actions, and some set fire to a building that belongs to Mali’s justice minister in the capital.

Mr Cisse urged the soldiers to put down their arms.

“There is no problem whose solution cannot be found through dialogue,” he said.

But the wheels already were in motion – armed men began detaining people in Bamako too, including the country’s finance minister, Abdoulaye Daffe.

Mr Keita, who tried to meet protesters’ demands through a series of concessions, has enjoyed broad support from France and other western allies. He was also thought to have widespread backing among high-ranking military officials, underscoring a divide between army leadership and unpredictable rank-and-file soldiers.

epa08611556 Malian military enter the residence of Mali President Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta in Bamako, Mali 18 August 2020. Mali military have seized Mali President Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta in what appears to be a coup attempt and taken him to a military house.  EPA/STR BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
Malian military enters the residence of the country's President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita in Bamako, on August 18, 2020. EPA

Tuesday marked a repeat of the events leading up to the 2012 coup, which unleashed years of chaos in Mali when the ensuing power vacuum allowed ISIS to seize control of northern towns. Ultimately a French-led military operation ejected the extremists, but they merely regrouped and expanded their reach during Mr Keita’s presidency into central Mali.

Mr Keita’s political downfall closely mirrors that of his predecessor: Amadou Toumani Toure was forced out of the presidency in 2012 after a series of 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 Qaeda and ISIS.

Back in 2012, the mutiny erupted at the Kati military camp as rank-and-file soldiers began rioting and then broke into the camp’s armoury. After grabbing weapons, they later headed for the seat of government under the leadership of Capt Amadou Haya Sanogo.

The soldier was later forced to hand over power to a civilian transitional government, which then organised the elections Mr Keita won.

Mediators this time around have urged Mr Keita to share power in a unity government. He even said he was open to redoing disputed legislative elections. But those overtures were swiftly rejected by opposition leaders who said they would not stop short of Mr Keita’s dismissal.