Mali in turmoil after army detains president, prime minister

Army officers upset with a government reshuffle detained President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and took them to the Kati military camp 15 kilometres outside the capital Bamako.

Tuesday 25/05/2021
Malian police  takes position in Bamako as crowd protests the arrest of President Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane by military personnel in Bamako, May 25, 2021. (AP)

BAMAKO, MALI - Mali was in turmoil Tuesday after disgruntled army officers detained the president and the prime minister, sparking fears of a coup less than a year after the last military takeover in the impoverished west African nation.

The newest crisis to hit the vast country where jihadists control large swathes of territory sparked widespread international condemnation.

Army officers upset with a government reshuffle detained President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and took them to the Kati military camp 15 kilometres outside the capital Bamako, two senior officials who declined to be named told AFP.

Ndaw and Ouane were sworn in last September after the ruling military junta, under growing international pressure, agreed to hand over power to a civilian transitional government, a month after seizing power.

They were detained following a sensitive government reshuffle earlier on Monday that was designed to respond to growing criticism of the interim government.

The military kept the strategic portfolios it controlled during the previous administration in the reshuffle.

But two of the original coup leaders, defence minister Sadio Camara and security minister Colonel Modibo Kone, were replaced.

From the outset, the coup leaders and army officers have wielded significant influence over the government, casting doubts on a pledge to hold elections by early next year.

The reshuffle came at a time of growing political challenges in the capital Bamako and pressure to stick to the deadline for promised reforms.

– ‘Grave and serious’ –

Although speculation of a coup swirled around Bamako late on Monday, the city remained relatively calm.

Briefly reached by phone Monday before the line cut, Prime Minister Ouane told AFP that soldiers “came to get him”.

EU leaders condemned what they called the “kidnapping” of Mali’s civilian leadership, said EU Council president Charles Michel.

“What happened was grave and serious and we are ready to consider necessary measures,” he told reporters after a summit of the bloc’s 27 leaders, describing events as “the kidnapping of the president and the prime minister”.

Earlier, a joint statement by the United Nations, African Union, Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the United States condemned the arrests and called for Ndaw and Ouane’s “immediate and unconditional liberty”.

Later UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted a call for calm and urged the “unconditional release” of the leaders.

AU head Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, who is the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Tuesday called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the pair as he “strongly condemned any action that aims to destabilise Mali”.

– ‘Send a message’ –

Young military officers ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar  Keita in August last year after weeks of protests over perceived government corruption and his handling of Mali’s jihadist insurgency.

After the 15-nation West Africa bloc ECOWAS threatened sanctions, the military junta handed power to a caretaker government led by Ndaw and Ouane which pledged to reform the constitution and stage elections within 18 months.

The Keita coup leader Assimi Goita was appointed as vice-president of the caretaker administration and the interim president, Bah Ndaw, is a retired army officer.

Many have doubted whether the military-dominated government had the will, or the ability, to stage reforms on such a short timescale.

Among other problems, the vast nation faces a major logistical and security challenge, as swathes of territory are in the hands of jihadists.

Doubts remained despite the interim government last month pledging to hold a constitutional referendum on October 31, with elections to follow in February next year.

On May 14, amid growing popular anger, the government then said it would appoint a new “broad-based” cabinet.

An official at Mali’s interim presidency, who requested anonymity, said the reshuffle was designed to send a message that “respect for the transition deadline remains the priority”.

He also underscored the necessity of replacing the defence and security ministers.

“They are not emblematic figures of the junta,” the official said, referring to the newly-appointed replacement ministers.

In an example of mounting unease, the opposition M5 movement, which spearheaded protests against Keita in 2020, this month urged the dissolution of the interim government and demanded a “more legitimate” body.

But the M5 is divided. Two members of the Union for the Republic and Democracy party, part of the M5, were appointed interim ministers Monday.

A delegation from ECOWAS will visit Bamako on Tuesday, the joint statement said.

The military has not yet issued a statement about its actions. Bamako remained calm into Tuesday. Mali state TV only rebroadcast the official statement announcing the new government members. There are however reports that vice-president colonel Assimi Goita has pledged that elections will go ahead as planned next year.

There has been widespread concern the upheaval in Mali over the past year has further set back efforts to contain militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State groups.

Islamic extremists took control of major towns in northern Mali after the 2012 coup. Only a 2013 military intervention led by former colonial power France pushed extremists out of those towns. France and a UN force have continued to battle the extremist rebels, who operate in rural areas and regularly attack roads and cities. The UN is spending $1.2 billion a year on a peacekeeping mission.