Mali strongman ousts transitional leaders as France warns of sanctions

Assimi Goita, who headed a junta which seized power less than 10 months ago, said that transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane had been stripped of their powers, and he promised elections in 2022.

Mali interim Vice President Assimi Goita. Picture: AFP

BAMAKO - Mali's strongman on Tuesday pushed out leaders tasked with steering the return to civilian rule following a coup, as former colonial power France warned it could lead a charge to impose sanctions against the regime.

Assimi Goita, who headed a junta which seized power less than 10 months ago, said that transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane had been stripped of their powers, and he promised elections in 2022.

The detention of the pair - likened by French President Emmanuel Macron to a second coup - marked the latest crisis to hit a state burdened by poverty and a brutal jihadist insurgency.

Ndaw and Ouane have been heading an interim government that was installed in September under the threat of regional sanctions, with the declared aim of restoring full civilian rule within 18 months.

But in a move that sparked widespread diplomatic anger, the pair were detained on Monday by army officers disgruntled by a government reshuffle.

In a statement read on public television, Goita said Ndaw and Ouane had been stripped of their duties for seeking to "sabotage" the transition, which would "proceed as normal."

"The scheduled elections will be held in 2022," he said.

Monday's government reshuffle, designed to respond to growing criticism of the interim government, saw the military keep the strategic portfolios it controlled during the previous administration.

But two other coup leaders - ex-defence minister Sadio Camara and ex-security minister Colonel Modibo Kone - were replaced.

Colonel Goita, who holds the rank of vice president in the transitional government, accused Ndaw and Ouane of failing to consult him on the reshuffle.

"This kind of step testifies to the clear desire of the transitional president and prime minister to seek to breach the transitional charter," he said, describing this as a "demonstrable intent to sabotage the transition".

The transitional charter, a document largely drawn up by the colonels, sets down principles for underpinning Mali's return to civilian rule.

MOUNTING ANGER

Macron, whose country has committed more than 5,000 troops in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, condemned the arrest of Ndaw and Ouane as a "coup d'etat in an unacceptable coup d'etat."

"We are ready in the coming hours to take targeted sanctions" against those responsible, Macron said after a European Union summit.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament in Paris that France had called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis.

On Monday, the United Nations, African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the EU and United States issued a rare joint statement, attacking the detention and demanding the pair be released.

That demand was echoed on Tuesday by Britain and Germany.

A senior Malian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Ndaw and Ouane had been taken to the Kati military camp near Bamako and "are fine."

"They spent the night in good conditions. The president saw his doctor," the source said.

A veteran ECOWAS mediator in Mali's long-running crisis, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, arrived in the capital Bamako in mid-afternoon.

BREWING CRISIS

Young military officers ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18 after weeks of demonstrations over perceived government corruption and his handling of the jihadist insurgency.

ECOWAS, a 15-nation regional bloc, threatened sanctions, prompting the junta to hand power to a caretaker government that pledged to reform the constitution.

Goita was appointed as vice president of the caretaker administration, and the president, Ndaw, is a retired army officer.

But many have doubted whether the military-dominated government had the will - or the ability - to stage reforms on a short timescale.

"What we are experiencing today is the logical outcome of the flaws at the start of the transition," when the junta sidelined civil society in the formation of the new government, said sociologist Brema Ely Dicko.

PUBLIC DISCONTENT

Monday's reshuffle came amid signs of discontent among the public, which had initially hailed the army for bringing down Keita.

The opposition M5 movement urged dissolving the interim government and demanded a "more legitimate" body.

On 14 May, the government said it would appoint a new "broad-based" cabinet.

In the streets of Bamako, life seemed to continue as normal on Tuesday despite the ouster of Ndaw and Ouane, and many people interviewed by AFP said they were resigned to events.

Tahirou Bah, a civil society activist, attacked "putschist colonels.... (who) fight to the death for power" at a time when "80% of our country is under the control of terrorists, drug traffickers and bandits of every kind."

But, he said, many people simply focused on day-to-day living - "This is survival for many Malians."

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