Mali coup soldiers take to airwaves, promise elections

Ousted Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita
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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Malian soldiers who forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign in a coup promised early Wednesday to organize new elections after their takeover was swiftly condemned by the international community.

In a statement carried overnight on state broadcaster ORTM, the mutinous soldiers who staged Tuesday’s coup identified themselves as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People led by Col. Maj. Ismael Wagué.

“With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness,” Wagué said, announcing that borders were closed and that a curfew was going into effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“We, the patriotic forces grouped together within the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, have decided to take our responsibilities before the people and before history,” he said, vowing to maintain the stability of the state and public services.

Wague said the committee will implement a transition to civil political rule with elections held in a “reasonable amount of time.” He reassured that all international agreements will still be respected and that international forces including the U.N. mission in Mali and G5 Sahel will remain in place “for the restoration of stability.”

There was no word on the future of the now former President Keita.

The news of Keita’s 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.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali, where the U.N. has a 15,600-strong peacekeeping mission.

The West African regional bloc ECOWAS said it was sending a high-level delegation to “ensure 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.

Keita, who was democratically elected in a 2013 landslide and re-elected five years later, still had three years left in his term. But his popularity had plummeted, and demonstrators began taking to the streets calling for his ouster in June.

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, certain to further the country’s turmoil amid an eight-year Islamic insurgency and the growing coronavirus pandemic.

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

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 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.

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 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.