Mutinous soldiers arrested Mali 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 Mali 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, Mali 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 European power “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 rebuild peace.