Mali’s new military junta urged to release toppled president

This screenshot released by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) shows West African leaders participating by video conference call in the Extraordinary Summit of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government on the Socio-Political Situation in Mali Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. Across Africa and around the world, leaders have strongly condemned this week's coup in Mali, calling for an immediate return to civilian rule and the release of ex-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his prime minister, Boubou Cisse. (ECOWAS via AP)
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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Global leaders urged Mali’s ruling junta Thursday to release ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his prime minister, two days after a military coup that has sparked fears that Islamic extremists could once again gain ground amid the political upheaval.

The 75-year-old Keita and his prime minister were being held outside the capital at the Kati military barracks as the United Nations and France, Mali’s former colonizer, stepped up their calls for a return to civilian rule.

French President Emmanuel Macron again condemned the coup “against a president who was democratically elected by his people.”

“We asked for him to be released as quickly as possible, and for no violence to be committed. And secondly, for power to be returned to civilians as quickly as possible,” Macron said, speaking Thursday evening alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Regional mediators from the Economic Community of West African States, whose political negotiation efforts in recent weeks failed to meet opposition demands, again met by video conference. The bloc already has suspended Mali’s membership, closed its borders and promised other financial sanctions against the country.

French, U.N. and West African partners have spent the past seven years trying to stabilize Mali after a similar 2012 coup created a power vacuum that allowed jihadists to seize control of northern towns until a French-led military operation the following year.

“Mali has not only descended into political chaos, but also socioeconomic and security disaster with potential tragic consequences to Mali and the sub-region,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said.

Keita and the prime minister were detained by mutinous soldiers on Tuesday who surrounded the president’s private residence in Bamako and fired shots into the air. Under duress, Keita later announced his resignation on state television, saying he did not want any blood to be shed to keep him in power.

Analysts have said there were few signs that political opposition leaders were aware of the coup plot in advance, though they now stand to benefit through an opportunity to serve in the transitional government promised by the junta.

The opposition, known as the M5-RFP, announced it would hold a rally Friday in Bamako “to pay tribute to the Malian people for their heroic struggle.”

“The M5-RFP calls on ECOWAS, the African Union and the international community as a whole to better understand the situation in Mali — separate from the issue of sanctions — and to support the Malian people in their quest for peace, national reconciliation, true democracy and better living,” the opposition said in a statement.

Observers fear the political upheaval will allow Islamic extremists in Mali to expand their reach once again. After al-Qaida-linked militants took over the major towns in northern Mali, they implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law, including amputating hands for those accused of theft.

France, which maintains strong economic and political ties to Mali, later led the intervention to force therm from power.

But those jihadists have since regrouped and launched relentless attacks on the Malian military, as well as U.N. peacekeepers and regional forces trying to stabilize the volatile country. The extremists also have moved southward, inflaming tensions between ethnic groups in central Mali.

Goita, the new strongman, had been head of a special military unit based in central Mali. He also had taken part in the annual Flintlock training organized by the U.S. military to help Mali and other Sahel countries better fight extremists.

Marc-André Boisvert, a member of the U.N. panel of experts for Mali and an independent researcher on the Malian armed forces, said that was nothing unusual.

“Everybody in the armed forces who wants to become an officer and wants to progress needs foreign training,” he said.

This coup appeared well-organized by a group of officers with experience in the field, he said. There was quick communication, little to no bloodshed, and statements of reassurance directed at the international community.

“It was a really smooth and well-oiled machine,” he said.

Keita, the toppled president, had won the 2013 election in a landslide, emerging from a field of more than two dozen candidates to get more than 77% of the vote. He won reelection five years later, but his political fortunes have tumbled in the past year.

While Mali’s Islamic insurgency started before Keita took office, many felt his government did not do enough to end the violence. The extremists only expanded their reach, infiltrating the central part of the country where they inflamed tensions between ethnic groups. Attacks have dramatically increased over the past year.

Opposition to Keita’s government rose further after legislative elections earlier this year that dozens of candidates disputed. In a conciliatory gesture, Keita said he was open to holding the vote again in contested areas. But by June, demonstrators were taking to the streets en masse calling for his ouster.