The president of Mali announced that he was stepping down and dissolving his government and parliament because he wanted “no blood to be spilled to keep me in power”. It was, seemingly, a sacrifice to stop a country already enmeshed in strife from descending into further chaos.
But, in reality, Ibrahim Boubecar Keita had very limited options. He and the prime minister, Boubou Cisse, and a number of other members of the cabinet were being held captive after a military coup. He acknowledged that “certain elements of our armed forces want to end this through their intervention,” adding, “Do I really have a choice?”
Keita’s departure may avert an immediate outbreak of fresh violence, at least in the capital, Bamako. But there are deep and bitter divisions in Mali that are not going to be resolved just by the televised resignation of the 75-year-old president.
The military are dissatisfied about pay and conditions as well as the long and continuing conflict with Islamist extremists. There have been protest marches, with public anger about corruption, disputed legislative elections and the mismanagement of an economy that has also been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
There are echoes of what is taking place now in the events of eight years ago, when there was another army mutiny – starting at the same camp, Kati. Amadou Toumani Toure, the then president, was forced to resign after a series of victories by an alliance of jihadis and Tuareg separatists.
The rebel forces, some affiliated to al-Qaeda, took over most of the state, including Timbuktu in the north, and threatened to seize Bamako, before French and allied African forces intervened in Operation Serval with 4,000 troops, helicopter gunships and artillery. They saved the capital, and recovered much of the territory in a relatively swift campaign.
The jihadi threat has continued, however, with some of the groups now affiliated to Isis. At the same time, Tuareg separatists and tribal militias – an alphabet soup of acronyms – control swathes of the rest of the country, fighting the government, French and UN forces.
The UN Security Council was set to meet on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. The UN peacekeeping mission, Minusma, with personnel numbering about 15,000, has just had its mandate renewed. The US had objected to the annual cost of $1.2bn (£900m), leading to disagreements with the French. Washington has said it will review the decision next year, but Donald Trump may well be gone by then; if there is a return to multilateralism under a Biden administration, the mission has been seen as likely to continue. The UK, which has contributed helicopters to the mission, is also sending 250 troops to join the international force later this year.
What happens to the international presence will depend on what now unfolds on the ground. Mali is also the base for French-led operations against an Islamist insurgency across a swathe of Sahel states. The French government has condemned the coup, with its foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, urging soldiers to return to barracks, a call echoed by the United Nations and the African Union. J Peter Pham, the US envoy for the Sahel region, tweeted that the US was “opposed to all extra-constitutional changes of government”.
The coup has been led by two commanders, General Sadio Camara, and Colonel Malick Diaw, the deputy head of the Kati camp. The rebel officers claim they will now put together a transition process, with elections taking place within a “reasonable time”.
A new opposition coalition, led by conservative imam Mahmoud Dicko, had rejected offers from President Keita of forming a unity government. After initial silence following the army intervention, a spokesman for the group declared that what happened was “not a military coup but a popular insurrection”.
The mood among some in Bamako was one of satisfaction that Keita had gone, but also apprehension of what the future may bring. Moussa Doumbia, a 28-year-old unemployed teacher who had taken part in the recent demonstrations, said: “We are all tired of the corruption and the way we have to live, with no jobs, people going hungry and the rich benefiting from corruption.
“But we are a bit afraid of what happens now,” he said. “We want safety and stability; we don’t want the situation like last time when those extremists took over the country.”
The jihadis imposed a vicious and intolerant rule in the areas they occupied in 2012, with beheadings, mutilations, rapes and arbitrary imprisonment. Many of Mali’s historic shrines and monuments, some of them part of Unesco world heritage sites, were destroyed, and literary artefacts – including invaluable manuscripts in Timbuktu – were burned.
A reminder of those dark times is due at the International Criminal Court in The Hague later this month when the trial resumes of Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz, allegedly a member of the group Ansar Dine and leader of a force of religious police.
Al Hassan has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and sexual enslavement. He was, it is claimed, complicit in brutal sentences given by a court to those convicted of political and non-political offences, including the severing of limbs, and marrying off hundreds of girls and young women, often as “rewards” to jihadi fighters. The charge of forced marriage is the first time that a prosecution has been brought at the court over an alleged gender-based crime.