The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first coup d’etat of the coronavirus era

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

Even amid a pandemic, it didn’t take long to overthrow Mali’s government. Protests had been rumbling across the West African nation for weeks, and on Tuesday chaos broke out in the capital, Bamako, with soldiers barricading roads and gunshots booming.

A little after midnight on Wednesday, just hours after being taken into custody by mutinous soldiers, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta donned a face mask and announced he would resign. “I do not wish for blood to be shed anymore so I can maintain power,” Keïta said in a televised address to the nation.

This may be the first coup d’etat of the novel coronavirus era. But it is not the first time public anger has taken down a government during the pandemic, and it may not be the last. In Lebanon, the prime minister resigned this month after a huge blast that destroyed much of Beirut.

Belarusan protesters, meanwhile, are still trying to oust their own leader after disputed election results.

The core tensions that forced Keïta from office in Mali are not new, nor are they directly related to the coronavirus — anger about corruption and the fight against terrorism has persisted for years. But the pandemic that spread across the world this spring may have accelerated tensions past the point of no return.

It’s a similar story in other nations. This has been a summer of protests around the world, despite the pandemic. U.S. marches after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a global movement against racism.

In Belarus, huge crowds rejected the Aug. 9 election in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed he won more than 80 percent of the vote. In Thailand, students have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power after a 2014 coup and won disputed elections last year.

Years of economic insecurity and political chaos had prompted huge protests in Lebanon well before the coronavirus, but it took the death of more than 100 people and the devastation of the capital city in an enormous explosion before protesters stormed government buildings and demanded, “Resign or hang.”

The seeds of Mali’s coup were planted years before the virus’s spread. Mali has been racked by insurgency and instability for the better part of a decade. Keïta arrived in office after a coup in 2012. Though he won presidential elections in 2013 and again in 2018, public disillusionment was growing.

During the seven years he led the country, Keïta’s critics increasingly argued he had botched the long and draining fight against religious extremists with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Others had pointed to allegations of corruption within the political elite linked to the president and his party.

Then the coronavirus arrived. So far, the estimated spread of the virus within Mali is limited compared to some nations — there have been 2,666 confirmed cases, including 125 deaths, in a country of 19 million, according to the latest government figures.

But the pandemic added fuel to political and economic turmoil. Keïta’s government had moved ahead with plans for a parliamentary election in March despite a strict, virus-mandated lockdown. And the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of the main opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse, remained unresolved.

Election monitors suggested that turnout in the second round of the election on April 20 was less than 24 percent. Mali’s Constitutional Court later overturned the results and Keïta’s newly elected government quit after a massacre by a vigilante group shocked the nation, leaving the country in a state of political limbo.

Lockdown restrictions first imposed in March led to further economic devastation in what was already one of the poorest countries in the world. But the virus didn’t stop a surge in radical Islamist and insurgent violence in the country, despite the presence of around 4,500 French troops and many more United Nations peacekeepers — several of whom have died of covid-19 themselves.

Mali’s new military leaders have pledged a speedy return to normalcy. “We can restore this country to its former greatness,” Col. Maj. Ismael Wagué said in a televised address. Coup leaders say elections will be held in a “reasonable time” and they were not planning to give up the fight against insurgents and extremists.

But the abrupt nature of the coup has prompted global condemnation from bodies such as the African Union and the European Union, and allies near and far.

France, a key security partner, was among the first nations to condemn the coup, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States sought the “restoration of constitutional government.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has demanded the immediate release of Keïta and other former leaders.

Both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (UEOMA) indefinitely suspended Mali’s participation. In a statement released Wednesday, UEOMA raised the prospect of international sanctions for the “Malian military putschists” who led the coup.

Mali plays a big role in the region as well as in the global fight against extremism. Its large land mass and location in the Sahel, just below the Sahara desert, make it a link between West Africa and North Africa. Lately, radical Islamist violence had crept into neighboring countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.

France, a former colonial power, sent troops to Mali in 2012 to help combat extremists who had taken over towns in the country’s north. Those forces have been there for seven years in what has been dubbed its own “Forever War.” The United States also has a small military presence in Mali, mostly to provide training and intelligence.

The protesters in Mali who sought Keïta’s ouster hoped for a better economic future and an end to the conflicts that have engulfed the country for years. But the coup that ousted the president may thwart both those aims in the short term.

Analysts are warning that the coup could hurt the gold trade that Mali’s economy relies on in ways that the coronavirus has not. France may balk at working with those who ousted a key ally, while U.S. law prohibits aid to governments formed after military coups.

Mali’s coronavirus coup could also provide harsh lessons for other nations in political turmoil. The pandemic has exposed the inequalities of societies and the failure of governments. But if it has made it easier to tear down the corrupt regimes of old, it still isn’t any easier to put something new in their place.

Read more:

How the Democrats are shifting on Israel

The crisis in Belarus echoes in Trump’s America

A win for Trump’s Middle East agenda is followed by defeat