Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resigned on Tuesday and dissolved parliament hours after mutinying soldiers detained him at gunpoint, plunging a country already facing a jihadist insurgency and mass protests deeper into crisis.
Looking tired and wearing a surgical mask, Keita resigned in a brief address broadcast on state television hours after troops seized him along with Prime Minister Boubou Cisse and other top officials.
“If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?” he said from a military base in Kati outside the capital Bamako where he had been detained earlier in the day.
“I want no blood to be spilled to keep me in power,” he said.
It was not immediately clear who was leading the revolt, who would govern in Keita’s absence or what the mutineers wanted.
Images posted earlier on social media said to be taken at the Kati garrison showed Keita and Cisse surrounded by armed soldiers. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the videos.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Bamako since June calling for Keita to resign over what they say are his failures to address worsening security and corruption.
France and other international powers as well as the African Union denounced the mutiny, fearful that the fall of Keita could further destabilise the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.
The soldiers took up arms in the garrison town of Kati and detained senior military officers, sparking fears of a coup after several months of anti-government demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation. Witnesses later said soldiers had surrounded Keita’s private residence.
Boubou Doucoure, who works as Cisse’s director of communications, confirmed the pair had been detained and had been driven in armoured vehicles to the army base in the town of Kati, about 15 kilometres (9 miles) away.
Mali’s state broadcaster ORTM went off-line briefly before coming back on air in the early evening with pre-recorded programming.
The soldiers later moved freely through the streets of Bamako, making it clear that they were in control of the capital city.
Protesters gathered in central Bamako in a show of support for the mutinous soldiers.
The M5-RFP opposition coalition, which has been one of the forces behind mass protests calling for Keita to resign, denied that a coup was in progress. A spokesman said the president’s detention was “not a military coup but a popular insurrection”.
“IBK (Keita) did not want to listen to his people. We even proposed an alternative but he responded with killings,” Nouhoum Togo, a spokesman for M5-RFP, told Reuters, referring to Keita by his initials.
Keita, who was democratically elected, has broad support from former colonial power France and other Western allies.
But the M5-RFP opposition along with the June 5 Movement – so named after the date of its first protest – have been marshaling deep-seated anger over a dire economy, perceived government corruption and Mali’s continuing battle against the unrest sown by regional jihadist groups.
Earlier in the day an officer at Mali’s ministry of internal security, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, described the chaotic scenes.
“Officials are being arrested – it’s total confusion.”
In the capital Bamako, government workers fled their offices as armed men began detaining officials, including the country’s Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe.
Prime Minister Cisse had earlier in the day called for dialogue with the soldiers. “The government is calling for calm and makes itself available … to engage in fraternal dialogue in order to remove all misunderstandings,” he said in a statement.
The prime minister also admitted that the soldiers may have “legitimate frustrations”.
Concerns for regional stability
The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on the events on Wednesday. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Malians to protect their democratic institutions and called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Mali’s president.
The EU also condemned the “attempted coup” in Mali. “The European Union condemns the attempted coup d’état under way in Mali and rejects all unconstitutional change,” the bloc’s diplomatic chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement.
The African Union also denounced the arrests of the Malian leadership.
“I forcefully condemn the arrest of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Prime Minister and other members of the Malian government, and call for their immediate release,” the chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said in a tweet in French.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been in touch with regional leaders and has called for mediation, the Élysée presidential palace said in a statement.
The United States said it was opposed to any change of government in Mali, where French troops and UN peacekeepers have been working to stabilise the country amid an Islamic insurgency that took hold after a 2012 coup.
“The US is opposed to all unconstitutional changes of government whether in the streets or by security forces,” tweeted J. Peter Pham, the State Department’s special envoy for the Sahel region.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which has been mediating Mali’s current political crisis, urged the soldiers to return to their barracks.
Echoes of the 2012 coup
The unrest erupted Tuesday at the very same military barracks where the country’s 2012 coup originated. The overthrow unleashed years of chaos in Mali when the ensuing power vacuum allowed Islamic extremists to seize control of northern towns.
After a request from Mali, a French-led military operation dubbed Operation Serval launched in January 2013 ousted the jihadists. But they eventually regrouped and have expanded their reach during Keita’s presidency.
Keita has faced growing criticism of how his government has handled the relentless Islamic insurgency engulfing the country, which was once praised as a model of democracy in the region. The military faced a wave of particularly deadly attacks in the north last year, prompting the government to close its most vulnerable outposts as part of a reorganisation aimed at stemming military losses.