The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Military officer who toppled two presidents in Mali is in charge of the country, aide says

Col. Assimi Goïta, left, and retired Col. Maj. Bah N'Daw are sworn in on Sept. 25 after an August coup that ousted Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from the presidency. (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

DAKAR, Senegal — The military officer who led the ouster of two Malian presidents in the past nine months is in charge of the West African country until a new leader is named or an election takes place next year, one of his aides said Thursday.

Col. Assimi Goïta oversaw the arrest of the nation’s acting civilian leader and prime minister this week, citing security concerns, and seized control in the face of a global outcry, as well as threats of sanctions from Mali’s closest allies. “Colonel Goïta is taking care of day-to-day business for the time-being,” said his adviser, Commander Baba Cisse, as the nation of 20 million entered its second day without a clear leader.

Former interim president Bah N’Daw and prime minister Moctar Ouane officially resigned Wednesday while in military custody at an army base north of the capital, Bamako. They were released from detention under unclear terms early Thursday after the African Union, regional authorities and Western partners — including the United States — called for their swift release.

N’Daw and Ouane had been tasked with steering Mali back toward democracy after mutinous soldiers overthrew the government in August. But the military official acting as vice president, Goïta, accused them of sabotaging the transition when they unveiled a new Cabinet Monday without his input.

Leaving the civilian leaders at the helm, Goïta said in a statement, would provoke “instability with immeasurable consequences.” A succession process has yet to be clarified, but his aide, Cisse, said the military is waiting for Mali’s high court to weigh in. He declined to elaborate on a timeline.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the toppling a “coup d’etat within a coup d’etat,” and the U.S. State Department threatened further cuts to millions of dollars of security assistance annually sent to Mali. “The United States will also consider targeted measures against political and military leaders who impede Mali’s civilian-led transition to democratic governance,” the State Department said in a statement Wednesday.

The country is grappling with an Islamist insurgency that began in the nation’s north nearly a decade ago. Violence killed more than 6,200 people last year in Mali and its neighbors, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Mali’s death toll in 2020 — more than 2,800 — constituted the nation’s deadliest year of the conflict.

Militants dominate much of the Malian countryside. They’ve forced villagers to pay taxes and billed themselves as an alternative to a government that is focused on life in Bamako. “This new crisis is a step further in the direction of the state being absent,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, project director for the Sahel at the International Crisis Group, which tracks conflict in the region. “Everyone seems obsessed with what is going on in Bamako, and that is another indication for the people in the countryside that the state is not coming back.”

West African leaders traveled to the capital this week to negotiate with the junta — a last-ditch effort to keep the civilians in power — but Goïta hasn’t budged. A new election is planned for March 2022. The previous president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, resigned on state television last year after mutinous soldiers arrested him and took him to the same army base in Kati. (He, too, had succeeded a leader toppled by the military in 2012.)

Officers last year capitalized on weeks of anti-Keïta protests. Demonstrators accused the leader of corruption and botching the country’s response to the extremists, among other grievances.

Under international pressure, Goïta, the 2020 coup leader, appointed a civilian to the top role — although that civilian, 70-year-old N’Daw, had retired from a decades-long career in the military. The transition structure fell apart after N’Daw and the interim prime minister established a new Cabinet that removed two officers who had played key roles in overthrowing the Keïta government.

As Goïta rose through the Malian army’s ranks, eventually overseeing efforts to quash extremism roiling the country’s center, he received extensive training from the United States and other Western allies, including France and Germany. The colonel had partnered for years with U.S. Special Operations forces focused on fighting militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

He attended a seminar at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, according to the Pentagon, and spoke regularly with U.S. troops, officers familiar with those conversations told The Washington Post last year.

“By making this intervention, we have put Mali first,” he said on state television after taking charge of the country. “Mali is in a sociopolitical and security crisis. There is no more room for mistakes.”

Mali’s security troubles deepened after the fall of the Libyan government in 2011, researchers say, when mercenaries who had served Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi streamed into Mali with automatic weapons. The flow of arms coincided with a separatist uprising of nomadic Tuaregs, who forged an alliance with al-Qaeda fighters seeking fresh territory. The Islamist militants overran major cities in the north before French forces beat them back in 2013. Then they regrouped and scattered across the region, setting off a wave of locally grown extremist insurgencies.

France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, has about 5,100 troops in West Africa — the most of any foreign ally — while about 1,100 U.S. service members are based in the region, mostly in neighboring Niger. The European power condemned the coup this week “with the greatest firmness,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Parliament in Paris.

Read more:

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

Mali’s president resigns hours after mutinous soldiers arrest him