Mali opposition plans coup ‘victory’ rally despite regional backlash

Mali’s opposition movement plans a mass “victory” rally on Friday to celebrate the military coup that ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita even as a high-level west African delegation arrives in Bamako in an attempt to broker a compromise that would reinstall him.

This week’s coup in the country at the centre of the fight against jihadism in the Sahel has been widely condemned by the African Union, west African regional bloc Ecowas, and western allies including France and the US.

While the US and the UN have criticised the president’s overthrow, the Ecowas heads of states have taken a particularly strong stance on the ousting of one of their number.

Ecowas has imposed sanctions, cut off financial flows and, like the AU, suspended Mali’s membership, while sending a delegation led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. Before this week’s events, Ecowas had tried to mediate between Mr Keita, widely known as IBK, and the opposition.

On Thursday. the opposition groups that had organised mass rallies calling for Mr Keita’s resignation all summer defiantly threw their weight behind the military coup.

“If [Ecowas] want to come, they can come but we are not going to move,” Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a leader of the opposition M5-RFP coalition, told reporters on Thursday. “We are going to cross Ecowas’s red line.”

Ecowas leaders take part in a video conference call to discuss the situation in Mali © ECOWAS/AP
Members of the opposition M5-RFP coalition hold a press conference in Bamako © STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In his statement following an extraordinary heads of state meeting on Thursday, Niger president Mahamadou Issoufou, the acting head of the bloc, called for boosting its standby military force in response.

Ayisha Osori, executive director of the Open Society Initiative in west Africa, said the coup was “bad for Ecowas and the role it is supposed to play”. “Ecowas is fast losing legitimacy as a useful, impartial arbiter and mediator,” she said. “It signals a possible review of its terms of reference and operating framework.”

By contrast, France’s condemnation of the coup has been softer. France had found in Mr Keita a supportive ally in its intervention in the region, which began in 2013 when the former colonial ruler sent troops to crush an Islamist insurgency that had captured Mali’s vast north and has drawn complaints of neocolonialism.

French president Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called for Mr Keita’s quick release, but his demand for a swift transition to civilian rule notably did not include a call for the president’s reinstatement.

It suggested that Mr Macron saw “no point in expending political capital on something that would have scant prospect of being realised [and would] pour fuel on anti-French sentiment in Mali,” Seán Smith, Bamako-based peacekeeping researcher with the Center of Civilians in Conflict, wrote on Twitter.

France has maintained a 5,000-troop presence in the region, which is simultaneously seen as essential to stability and inadequate to address the deep social, economic, governance and developmental deficiencies driving the violence. French armed forces minister Florence Parly wrote on Twitter on Thursday that its Operation Barkhane, which the Malian junta has signalled support of, “continue to carry out their mission”.

The military junta — calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People and led by Col Assimi Goîta, who commanded an elite special forces unit — on Thursday released a transitional plan that promises elections in April. The transition will be governed by a part-military but majority-civilian council.

Mr Keita had been the subject of weeks of mass protests against what critics said was his inept, corrupt, neglectful governance of the country of 19m. There had been speculation about how much the imam who had emerged as the face of the protests — Mahmoud Dicko — would play in the transitional government, but on Thursday he declared that, with Mr Keita’s resignation, his work was “finished” and he would return to religious studies.

Mali is at the centre of spiralling violence in the western Sahel, which has killed thousands and displaced millions. Nearly 2,000 people have been killed in Mali in the first seven months, deadlier than any full year since the crisis began in 2012, according to data collected by analyst José Luengo-Cabrera.

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