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Mali’s acting vice president ousts leaders in second coup d’etat

Col. Assimi Goïta, second from left, prepares for a meeting between Malian military leaders and an international delegation Aug. 22 in an effort to restore order after a military coup in Bamako. (Annie Risemberg/AFP/Getty Images)

DAKAR, Senegal — The acting vice president of Mali, Col. Assimi Goïta, said he wrested power from the West African country’s interim president and prime minister Tuesday, carrying out the nation’s second coup d’etat in nine months.

The move came less than a day after soldiers arrested interim president Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane at their homes in the capital, Bamako, and took them to an army base, provoking swift condemnation from global authorities.

Goïta, one of the military officers who led last year’s overthrow, said the men had unveiled a new government without his input — without two members of the junta that toppled Mali’s previous government — and had therefore violated the country’s transition agreement.

Mali coup opens power vacuum as Islamist insurgency expands in West Africa

“The vice president of the transition saw himself obligated to act to preserve the transitional charter and defend the republic,” Goïta said in a statement. Not intervening, he added, would trigger “instability with immeasurable consequences.”

The uncertainty over who is in charge of Mali adds to a security threat that West African leaders have long sought to contain. An Islamist insurgency that began in the nation’s north eight years ago has spread to neighbors, engulfing the region in conflict.

A unified front is needed to strike back, said Moussa Mara, a former Malian prime minister.

“The seizure of power by force must be fought — it must be denounced,” he said Tuesday, as Malians waited for updates on state television. “We must close the period of attacks in order to gain or keep power.”

N’Daw and Ouane remained at a military base on the outskirts of Bamako.

A spokesman for the junta who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly denied reports that the leaders were still being held against their will, saying the men were all “working together” to reach a solution.

The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations swiftly denounced what officials cast as unjust arrests, calling for the release of N’Daw and Ouane. So did U.S. officials and French President Emmanuel Macron, who threatened sanctions against the “putschists” and described the event as a “coup d’etat within a coup d’etat.”

The previous Malian president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, resigned on state television in August in the custody of mutinous soldiers. His predecessor, too, had also been ousted in a 2012 rebellion and brought to the same military base where N’Daw and Ouane are detained.

That toppling almost a decade ago gave extremists loyal to al-Qaeda a power void to exploit, said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which tracks unrest in Mali. Leaders at the time had clashed over how to manage armed separatists, which gave militants room to gain strength and partner with fighters loyal to al-Qaeda.

“Mali has been the epicenter of the crisis since the beginning,” Nsaibia said, “and the weak link.”

Violence from the insurgency spilled into bordering countries, where vast swaths of countryside have become battlefields.

The violence killed more than 6,200 people last year in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, according to ACLED data. Mali’s casualties in 2020 — more than 2,800 — constituted the nation’s deadliest year of conflict on record.

As militants carried out massacres in the country’s rural center and northward, protesters filled the streets of Bamako, demanding Keïta’s exit. They accused him of corruption and botching the response to the insurgency, vowing to keep demonstrating until the president stepped down.

Goïta — who received military training in the United States — capitalized on that unpopularity when he declared himself in charge of Mali last year.

He and the other junta leaders had agreed to work with regional authorities to restore a civilian-led government. That process was supposed to take 18 months.

Seeing it derailed is a setback, said Modibo Kadjoké, a politician in Bamako.

“In 60 years of independence, we have already experienced four coups d’etat,” he said. “We are living a crisis in our country, and that has been true for a long time.”

Mali was still shaking off the fallout of last year’s mutiny when it was plunged into chaos again this week. The United States announced that it would halt military assistance to Mali in August, and trade restrictions on commercial items and financial flows hurt the economy, which was already struggling.

West African leaders lifted the punishing sanctions in October, citing the appointment of N’Daw, who was technically a civilian. He retired from the military about a decade ago.

Yet N’Daw and the interim prime minister clashed with Goïta’s approach, according to two Western diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations, and approved a set of new ministers without telling him.

“This has been brewing,” said J. Peter Pham, U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region of Africa during Mali’s last coup. “For one party to change the terms — of course you’ll get a negative reaction. These guys, having just staged a coup, having been tucked into a civilian-led transition, aren’t just going to say thank you and go away when you dismiss them.”

On Tuesday, Goïta urged Malians in his statement to “go about their business freely.”

But that was hard for Malick Traore, a 26-year-old IT specialist in Bamako. Stress from years of unrest had worn him down. He doubted Goïta’s assertion that an election planned for next March would still take place.

“From what I see,” he said, “I lose hope even faster.”

By midday, he could hear the sounds of people gathering downtown. Maybe there would be more protests.

Many of his neighbors had celebrated when the military officers toppled the last government. Now they were on his Facebook feed, complaining about Mali’s leadership again.

“We don’t trust you anymore,” someone wrote.

Borso Tall in Dakar contributed to this report.