ABUJA, Nigeria—The mutinying soldiers who seized Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from his residence in the capital, Bamako, and forced him to resign from office have promised to hold general elections within a "reasonable time." But the coup plotters, who first took control of the Kati military camp near the capital before arresting the Malian leader, risk throwing the fragile country into more chaos.
The last elections to take place in Mali ushered in the current crisis. Parliamentary elections that should have taken place in 2018 were postponed twice until they were finally held in March amid violence, insecurity and widespread allegations of electoral fraud. Opposition politicians, village heads and election observers were kidnapped before or during the polls, and polling stations were ransacked by thugs who threatened election officials.
In the weeks that followed, angry opposition politicians joined with prominent religious leaders to mobilize thousands of Malians to protest the outcome of elections after the country's Constitutional Court refused to overturn the results, which favored mostly loyalists to Keita.
Mali's challenges are still there, and whenever the country's new military rulers call for elections, the same problems that marred previous polls are likely going to arise.
The impoverished West African nation is facing a deep economic and security crisis which became worse in the last decade. Youth unemployment rose from 7 percent in 2013 to 15 percent this year. The poverty rate increased from 45 percent to nearly 50 percent in seven years. Mali's health care system is in extremely bad shape and the country had its worst ever displacement crisis in 2019. Much of the country's northern region is controlled by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
With growing insecurity, coupled with increasing political and ethnic divisions across the country, questions have been asked as to whether those who plotted the coup can conduct elections that would widely be seen as credible and fair. At the moment, not many think that can happen. After all, the mutiny is said to have been led by a very young soldier, Deputy Head of the Kati camp Col. Malick Diaw, who is being described as only 25 years old.
"The same military that has seized power has previously been accused of helping politicians rig elections by intimidating voters and forcing electoral officials to alter election results." Christian Anozie, a journalist and prominent West Africa political affairs analyst, told The Daily Beast. "Not many will trust them to conduct credible elections."
Tuesday's ouster of 75-year-old Keita effectively brought an end to months of mass protests against alleged election fraud, as well as widespread corruption and deteriorating security in the country. But it no doubt signals the beginning of an era of uncertainty.
There was wild jubilation on the streets of Bamako, the country's capital, following news of Keita's exit from office. The coup plotters appeared on state television and, calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, vowed to ensure that the fragile country returns to peace. "We are not holding onto power but we are holding onto the stability of the country," said Ismail Wague, Mali Air Force's deputy chief of staff who also announced the closure of the country's borders and a curfew effective from 9pm to 5am.
"With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness," said Wague. "This will allow us to organize within an agreed reasonable timeframe, general elections to equip Mali with strong institutions, which are able to better manage our everyday lives and restore confidence between the government and the governed."
For months beginning from the start of June, tens of thousands of Malians—including opposition politicians, trade unions, religious associations, civil society organizations and even police officers—protested on the streets against the government's poor response to the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment, corruption and the worsening violence brought by jihadists groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The protesters called themselves the June 5 Movement or M5_RFP and demanded the resignation of Keita.
Keita did make some concessions, including the dissolving the Constitutional Court, which the demonstrators had accused of overturning legislative election results for the purpose of installing the president's preferred candidates. But that didn't satisfy the protesters, who insisted Keita must leave office.
The Keita administration's response to the demonstrations further worsened the situation. A violent crackdown by security forces led to the death of close to a dozen people, deepening the call for his exit.
In the early hours of Wednesday, Keita, looking worn-out and wearing a surgical mask, announced he was immediately quitting office and dissolving his government and the National Assembly in a brief address on national broadcaster ORTM. His resignation came three years before his final term was due to expire.“If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?” Keita said.“I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power,” Keita said from a military base in Kati, near Bamako, where he and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse have been detained since Tuesday. “I have decided to step down from office.”
The June 5 Movement, which led two months of mass protests against the Keita government, has yet to officially comment on the president’s departure—but Nouhoum Togo, a spokesman for the group, appeared to endorse the president's sacking by telling the Reuters his removal was “not a military coup but a popular insurrection.”
As expected, the international community has condemned the mutiny. The United Nations, the European Union and the African Union have asked the coup plotters to reinstate the ousted president. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was sending a delegation that includes the region’s heads of states to Bamako later Wednesday to intervene on behalf of Keita. The UN Security Council has also scheduled a closed meeting later today to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali.
But in the capital, thousands have been celebrating the departure of Keita.“We are very happy because Mali has been liberated,” one demonstrator said. “All of the country has been waiting for this day.”
The coup bears a starck resemblance to Mali’s last military rebellion, in 2012, which took place when soldiers at the Kati army camp stormed the presidential palace in Bamako that March and overthrew the government of Amadou Toumani Touré. The political crisis that followed led to the fall of northern Mali to jihadists groups.
A military operation led by France ultimately defeated the militants, who later regrouped and stretched their insurgency into the central region of Mali by the time Keita was elected president in 2013.
Keita’s ouster may be good news for his very many opponents but those who’ve closely followed the political climate in Mali in the past decade warn that the latest development could throw the country into more chaos.
“The coup doesn’t solve the problem and may further escalate tension in the country,” said Anozie, the journalist and West Africa political analyst who is based in Nigeria. “Keita does have a huge following not just among ordinary citizens but also in the political class and if they decide to fight back, things may get really messy in Mali.”