ABUJA, Nigeria—The leaders of the coup that ousted Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita spent most of the year training in Russia before returning to boot out the democratically-elected leader at gunpoint, according to sources in the Malian military.
The rebels took control of Mali’s largest military base in Kati, just outside the capital, Bamako, on Tuesday before storming Keita’s official residence, seizing the president and forcing him to resign as leader of the West African nation..
Numerous media outlets, including the BBC, immediately reported that the coup was led by Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara, two army colonels who hold top positions at the Kati military base and who are reportedly very close friends. But there's something else both men have in common— they were trained by the military in Russia.
Two Malian military officials told The Daily Beast that both Diaw and Camara were in Russia before they returned to Mali to stage Tuesday's coup, confirming a local media report. The two officers are said to have departed Bamako for Moscow early in the year to attend military training sponsored by the Russian armed forces, they returned a little over a week before the coup was executed.
Sources in the Malian military told The Daily Beast that a number of senior officers suspect Diaw and Camara planned the coup from Russia and that both men had been in contact with others involved in the plot from their training base abroad. Rumors that some officers were contemplating a coup had begun to spread quietly in the military at the start of August, even before the two colonels returned home.
“A coup of this nature is not something you plan in a matter of days,” a lieutenant in the Malian army, who previously served in Kati, told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorised to speak.
“These two men spent a long time in Russia and within days of their return they executed a coup easily and successfully,” said the lieutenant, who did not partake in the plot. “That should tell you that they worked on this for a long time.”
It’s not yet clear if Diaw and Camara sought military assistance or cover from Russia, which has intervened in the election of a number of African leaders in recent years.
Some military officials aren't ruling out Russia’s direct involvement. “Maybe in terms of communication they got protection from the Russians," said the army lieutenant. "One will assume that the Russians would have been monitoring their communication lines since the officers were foreign military personnel staying in Russia."
Just before midday on Tuesday, soldiers loyal to Diaw, the second highest ranked administrator at the Kati military base, took control of the camp’s armory and began to arrest their superiors. Once they took control of the base, they headed to Bamako where they arrested President Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse and drove back to the base with the two men before forcing them to relinquish power.
At the time of the coup, Diaw, who is believed to be in his late 30s, was the deputy chief of the Kati military base, a position he is said to have held for more than a year. His role in Tuesday’s coup is likely to earn him an influential position in the junta.
Camara, the co-leader of the coup, previously headed the military academy of Kati. BBC Afrique, citing a local news outlet, reported that he was born in 1979. He was director of the Kati military academy for many years until January when he left the post to attend military training in Russia alongside Diaw. He returned to Bamako from Moscow over a week ago to begin a month-long leave period and, unknown to many, to execute a coup.
“There were just a few persons who knew they were back from their trip,” a Malian army colonel, who wasn't involved in the coup, told The Daily Beast. "[It was] mostly those close to them and who plotted the coup with the two officers [that knew they had returned from Russia]."
Russia has a reputation for swooping into African countries and hoping to reshape their politics for material gain; a candidate backed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian financier indicted in the U.S. for targeting the 2016 presidential election, has emerged as the president of Madagascar; a former Russian intelligence officer is now the top security adviser to the president of the Central African Republic; and the Kremlin has been caught interfering in the domestic politics of eight African countries through social media networks traced to entities tied to Prigozhin.
It's still not clear how the Malian coup plotters plan to lead the country they now rule as a military junta, or if they will be inviting any assistance from Moscow.
On Wednesday, Assimi Goita, a colonel in Mali's army announced that he had taken charge of the country and declared himself the head of the junta. Goita—one of the five soldiers who announced the coup on the state broadcaster ORTM—met with senior government officials whom he urged to immediately return to work.
“By making this intervention, we have put Mali first,” Goita explained to the officials, while trying to justify the forceful removal of Keita.
Before the coup, he was head of a special military unit based in central Mali and had taken part in the annual Flintlock training put together by the U.S. military to help countries in the Sahel region better tackle militants.
“Mali is in a sociopolitical and security crisis,” he said. “There is no more room for mistakes.”
Tuesday's mutiny could turn out to be an even bigger mistake. A similar coup in 2012, which began at the same Kati army base, created nationwide disharmony and political uncertainty. That allowed extremist groups to expand their reach in the north of Mali. Despite a French military intervention, which has slowed their advancement, these jihadists groups are still active in the region and may capitalise on the current leadership crisis to extend their jihad, it remains to be seen what the Kremlin makes of that threat.