The president of Mali has been detained by mutineering soldiers in the west African country that is at the centre of the fight against jihadism in the Sahel region.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has faced weeks of mass street protests calling for his removal, was detained along with prime minister Boubou Cisse and other senior civilian and military officials, according to a statement by the African Union. The effects of a military takeover threaten to further destabilise a country that has been battered by years of brutal extremist and communal violence.
In a statement on Twitter, Moussa Faki Mahamat, AU commission chairman, said he “energetically condemns” the arrests and “calls for their immediate release”.
“I firmly condemn any attempt at anti-constitutional change and call on the mutineers to stop all recourse to violence and respect for republican institutions,” he said.
Malian social media and WhatsApp were flooded with alleged footage of Mr Keita’s arrest or the looting of the justice minister’s house, and various aspects of the mutiny. But it remained unclear who its leaders were, what their demands were and who would govern in Mr Keita’s absence.
The events on Tuesday brought hundreds of people out to celebrate in the centre of the capital Bamako, where thousands have gathered in recent weeks to protest at Mr Keita’s handling of the economy, corruption, government neglect and his inability to take a grip on the spiralling violence that has made wide swaths of the country ungovernable.
“The #Mali government was widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective, and it failed to curb weeks of protests and years of insecurity across the country,” Judd Devermont, head of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Twitter. “The military, as it did in 1991 and 2012, stepped in.”
A spokesman for the M5-RFP coalition, which has organised the mass protests, told Reuters it supported the move, saying it was “not a military coup but a popular insurrection”.
The mutiny began at the Kati military base nine miles outside Bamako on Tuesday morning, the same base from which a coup was launched in 2012 that led to the deposing of then-president Amadou Toumani Toure. The resulting power vacuum is widely seen as having accelerated the jihadi takeover of northern Mali in 2012, prompting a French military intervention that crushed the insurgency.
But eight years later, France’s 5,000 troops, along with regional soldiers and a 14,000-troop UN peacekeeping force, have not been able to contain violence that has spread across a region the size of western Europe. France has led the fight, with support from western allies including the US and EU and the undertrained armies of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, among others.
West African regional bloc Ecowas, the US and France all also condemned the mutiny and urged the soldiers to stand down.
António Guterres, UN secretary-general, called on “all Malians to preserve the integrity of the country’s democratic institutions”, according to a spokesperson.
Mali has been at the centre of spiralling violence across the western Sahel, which has left thousands dead, millions displaced and large parts of the region in the hands of Islamic militants.
But, according to western officials as well as average Malians, Mr Keita, re-elected in 2018, has done little to address any of the systemic issues at the heart of spreading extremism: an absent government, rampant corruption and few jobs for Mali’s young and growing population.