DAKAR, Senegal – Mutinous soldiers arrested Mali’s president on Tuesday after storming the West African country’s capital, where protesters filled the streets demanding new leadership at a time of rising extremism and economic turmoil.
The head of the African Union Commission and West African leaders condemned the uprising, calling for the swift release of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, as well as the nation’s prime minister and other top officials.
The 15-country regional bloc known as ECOWAS urged the military to “return to their positions without delay” after a day of chaos in Bamako. Soldiers barricaded roads, torched government buildings and fired bullets into the air. The national television went silent. Rumors swirled on social media as citizens asked: Is this really happening?
Tens of thousands of Malians have flooded the West African nation’s capital in recent months, accusing Keïta of botching the response to a fast-spreading Islamist insurgency while allowing the nation’s economy to crumble.
The coronavirus pandemic further fanned frustrations after state lockdowns pushed many people out of school and work.
Another wave of demonstrators hit Bamako on Tuesday, cheering for soldiers who drove by in tactical vehicles. Men in military fatigues sat in the backs of pickup trucks, grinning and waving their guns.
“They have IBK!” people can be heard shouting in videos of the scene, invoking the president’s initials.
Earlier in the day, Malian Prime Minister Boubou Cissé acknowledged the “legitimate causes” of his countrymen’s anger and invited the soldiers to talk.
“There is no problem that cannot be solved with dialogue,” he said in a statement.
The American and French embassies warned their citizens in Mali to stay home.
“The United States opposes any extra-constitutional change of government, whether by those on the streets or by the defense and security forces,” tweeted J. Peter Pham, the U.S. special envoy to the Sahel.
France “condemns with the utmost firmness this serious event,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian tweeted Tuesday.
Malian soldiers also detained the president of the National Assembly and the finance minister, according to local journalists. Troops closed public squares. Photos circulating on WhatsApp showed the justice minister’s house ablaze.
“There is a mutiny, but we do not know what it means yet,” said Mohamed Salaha, a news editor in Bamako. “Everyone is being told to stay inside. Everything is closed.”
Protesters surrounded Bamako’s independence monument throughout the afternoon, many carrying signs that read, “Adieu, IBK.”
In the crowd was Ibrahim Dembele, a 31-year-old pot maker, who covered his face with a black scarf to protect against the coronavirus.
“We heard soldiers are rising up against the president,” he said, “and we will stay here until he resigns.”
The chaos bore resemblance to Mali’s last military rebellion, in 2012, which also started with reports of unrest at the Kati army camp about eight miles north of Bamako.
Soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the capital that March, then declared they had overthrown the government of Amadou Toumani Touré.
International outrage followed. The African Union suspended Mali until “constitutional order” returned. Keïta, who was elected in 2013 and again in 2018, vowed to restore peace.
Yet tensions have mounted as the nation grapples with fighters loyal to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The militants emerged eight years ago in the country’s north and have since spilled over the border into Burkina Faso and Niger.
Hundreds of West African soldiers have died in the conflict, which has killed thousands of civilians and rendered much of Mali’s countryside uninhabitable.
Five Malian infantrymen died this month when suspected terrorists ambushed a military convoy in the central region.
Protesters – led by an influential conservative imam, Mahmoud Dicko – have invoked the bloodshed as they have filled the streets of normally peaceful Bamako since June, slamming what they call a weak security strategy beset by corruption. They accuse Keïta of rigging parliamentary elections in favor of his preferred candidates.
The protesters have also taken issue with the army’s heavy-handed responses in rural communities, which, they say, have led to the deaths of innocent villagers. The president’s office has said such incidents are under investigation.
Dicko’s June 5 Movement will not stop protesting until Keïta resigns, demonstrators have said. Tuesday’s arrest appears to be the kind of climax regional leaders had sought to avoid.
Several West African heads of state traveled to Bamako this summer to hold peace talks with both parties, including the presidents of Senegal, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria.
The heads of state said they aimed to restore stability. A leadership vacuum in Mali, analysts say, could cause the nation’s extremism problem to spill over into coastal nations as yet untouched by violent insurgencies.
The conflict in Mali has transformed life in Burkina Faso and Niger, which have endured regular attacks in recent years.
Violence in the Sahel region, which runs below the Sahara Desert, threatens to grow without strong governance from its leaders, said W. Gyude Moore, a Liberian former official focused on corruption and fragile governments at the Center for Global Development in Washington.
A coup in Mali could be devastating for its neighbors, which already struggle with porous borders and inadequate defense funding.
“The fragility across the Sahel is something that frightens every leader in the region,” Moore said. “If one country falls, that instability spreads to others like a contagion.”
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The Washington Post’s Mamadou Tapily in Bamako contributed to this report.