Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resigned late on Tuesday, hours after mutinying soldiers seized him from his home following months of mass protests against alleged corruption and worsening security in the West African country.
The news of Keita’s departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators, while leaders of the military coup said they would enact a political transition and stage elections within a “reasonable time”.
Keita announced his decision to step down in a brief address on national broadcaster ORTM at around midnight. Looking tired and wearing a surgical mask, the 75-year-old said his resignation – three years before his final term was due to end – was effective immediately.
He also declared the dissolution of his government and the National Assembly.
“If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?” Keita said from a military base in Kati outside the capital Bamako where he and his Prime Minister Boubou Cisse had been detained earlier in the day.
“I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power,” he said. “I have decided to step down from office.”
“We are not holding on to power, but we are holding on to the stability of the country,” said Ismail Wague, Mali Air Force’s deputy chief of staff.
“This will allow us to organise within an agreed reasonable time frame, 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.”
There was no immediate comment from Mali’s opposition leaders, but earlier on Tuesday, the M5-RFP coalition behind the mass protests signalled support for the mutineers’ action, with spokesman Nouhoum Togo telling Reuters news agency it was “not a military coup but a popular insurrection”.
‘Malian people are tired’
The United Nations, France and others had also condemned Keita’s detention, but in the capital, anti-government protesters who first took to the streets back in June to demand the president’s resignation cheered the soldiers’ actions.
“All the Malian people are tired – we have had enough,” one demonstrator said.
Mohamed Ag Hamaleck, a Bamako-based journalist, told Al Jazeera there was both excitement and apprehension in the capital following Keita’s announcement.
“We don’t know who’s in charge. Since the president resigned on national television, but we don’t have any other news,” he told Al Jazeera prior to the announcement by the coup leaders. “We don’t have a government, we don’t have a national assembly.”
The political upheaval unfolded months after disputed legislative elections and came as support for Keita tumbled amid criticism of his government’s handling of a spiralling security situation in the northern and central regions that have entangled regional and international governments, as well as a United Nations mission.
The downfall of Keita, who was first elected in 2013 and returned to office five years later, closely mirrors that of his predecessor. Amadou Toumani Toure was forced out of the presidency in a coup in 2012 after a series of punishing military defeats. That time, the attacks were carried out by ethnic Tuareg separatist rebels.
The 2012 coup, which also erupted at the same Kati military camp, hastened the fall of Mali’s north to armed groups, some of them linked to al-Qaeda. Ultimately a French-led military operation ousted the fighters, but they merely regrouped and expanded their reach into central Mali during Keita’s presidency. And at times, Mali’s military has seemed powerless to stop the fighters, some of them now also affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).
The violence, in which the armed groups have stoked ethnic tensions while jockeying for power, has spilt into the neighbouring countries of Niger and Burkina Faso, destabilising the wider Sahel region and creating a massive humanitarian crisis.
Also in March, unidentified gunmen abducted Mali’s main opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse, as he campaigned in the country’s volatile centre. He has not been heard from since.
As the tensions mounted, anxiety has also grown in Mali in recent weeks about another military-led change of power in Mali, particularly after regional mediators from ECOWAS failed to bridge the impasse between Keita’s government and opposition leaders.
Keita tried to meet protesters’ demands through a series of concessions, and even said he was open to redoing disputed legislative elections. But those overtures were swiftly rejected by opposition leaders who said they would not stop short of Keita’s resignation.
Then on Tuesday, soldiers in Kati took weapons from the armoury at the barracks and detained senior military officers. Anti-government protesters immediately cheered the soldiers’ actions and some set fire to a building that belongs to Mali’s justice minister in the capital.
Cisse urged the soldiers to put down their arms.
“There is no problem whose solution cannot be found through dialogue,” he said in a statement.
William Lawrence, professor of political science at the American University in the United States, expressed concern over the potential for more chaos in Mali.
“Mali has three overlapping sets of problems,” he told Al Jazeera. “There’s a severe political crisis that grew out of the botched March 2020 elections. There’s a severe economic crisis, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s a severe security crisis which has led to the arrest of one of the major opposition leaders, held by terrorists in the North. There is lots of grievances about the failure to contain terrorism, but also the actions of the military against civilians.”
And while the opposition was united in their demand for Keita’s resignation, “there is not very much consensus on what to do next or who should represent Malians,” Lawrence said.
Tuesday’s developments were condemned by the African Union, the United States, and the regional bloc ECOWAS. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sought “the immediate restoration of constitutional order and rule of law,” according to his spokesman.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union, said he “energetically” condemned Keita and Cisse’s arrest and called “for their immediate liberation”.
ECOWAS denounced “the overthrow by putschist soldiers of the democratically elected government” and ordered the closing of regional borders with Mali as well as the suspension of all financial flows between Mali and its 15 members states.
The UN Security Council scheduled a closed meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali, where the UN has a 15,600-strong peacekeeping mission.