BAMAKO, Mali — Hundreds of people marched in the streets of Mali’s capital to celebrate the ouster of the former president, who was overthrown by a military coup earlier this week.
The people that gathered Friday in Bamako’s central Independence Square are mainly supporters of Mali’s opposition coalition who had demonstrated since June for Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to step down from power.
The coalition, known as M5-RFP, wasn’t behind Tuesday’s coup d’etat, but they issued a statement expressing support of the downfall of the government and endorsing the junta’s plan to return the country to civilian rule.
“The M5-RFP welcomes the resignation of President Ibrahima Boubacar Keïta, the dissolution of the National Assembly and the government,” said the statement.
The M5-RFP, however, says it “remains deeply attached to democracy … and will undertake all initiatives so that Mali can initiate a real overhaul of its political and governance system, through the opening of a republican transition,” and the development of a roadmap to civilian rule.
It said that it would work with the military junta currently running the country, known as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, and other members of Mali’s society to agree on a transition.
The opposition demonstration Friday comes after the junta’s spokesman said they are seeking a transitional president to return the country civilian rule.
The spokesman for the junta, Ismael Wague, told The Associated Press late Thursday that the newly formed junta will meet with political parties and civil society groups to determine the duration and composition of the transition.
The opposition’s march came as West African leaders escalated pressure on the junta and urged them to restore Keita to power.
Wague said the 75-year-old Keita was only being held at army barracks for his own protection. He denied that the president had been ousted and said his resignation was voluntary.
“The president of the republic resigned on his own after making an analysis of the country’s situation,” Wague said. “For us, this is a civil transition, not a military one, and the president of the transition must reach a consensus among the forces of the nation.”
The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, has called for the creation of a standby regional military force for possible intervention in Mali, saying Keita must be allowed to serve out the three years left in his term after this week’s “coup attempt.”
ECOWAS leaders, after an urgent summit meeting on Thursday, warned that Mali’s junta was responsible for the safety of Keita and all other detained government officials.
U.N. human rights officials were able to meet overnight with Keita and others being held by the junta since Tuesday, according to Guillaume Ngefa, the Mali representative for the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights. He gave no further details on the meeting, nor on the condition of the detainees.
He said Mali’s Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe, has been released.
A distressed Keita, wearing a mask amid the COVID-19 pandemic, resigned on national broadcaster ORTM on Tuesday just before midnight and three years before his final term was to end.
“If today, it pleases certain elements of the military to decide this should end with their intervention…I must submit to it. I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power.”
The regional bloc said it would soon send a delegation to Bamako to try to help restore constitutional order. The ECOWAS leaders have already suspended Mali’s membership, closed its borders with the country, and said that financial sanctions would be imposed against the junta leaders.
The United Nations and France have also urged a return to constitutional order in Mali, amid fears that Islamic extremists could once again gain ground amid the political upheaval, derailing more than seven years of effort to stabilize the country.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly, speaking in Paris on Friday, said the coup has not stopped the work of French and Malian military forces in counterterrorism operations.
While firmly condemning the coup, she said the French-led Barkhane military operation “is continuing,” and France is working with European and regional forces “to find a solution to this grave crisis.”
“The Malian army forces are continuing to work since Tuesday” on counterterrorism operations, notably in the region where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet and where Barkhane has been active. “Their commitment hasn’t stopped,” she said.
“It is important that we continue our combat against terrorism in the region,” for the security of the Sahel and of Europe, she said. “We will continue our fight against terrorism, which is far from being completed.”
French and U.N. soldiers patrolled the streets in Mali’s northern city of Gao on Friday, where there was worry of more chaos. The U.N. has a mission of 15,600 soldiers in Mali and France has about 5,000 troops in its Operation Barkhane, both to try to stabilize the country amid increasing attacks from Islamic extremists.
Mali had a similar coup in 2012 which created a power vacuum that allowed jihadists to seize control of key northern cities until a French-led military operation pushed the rebels out of the urban centers the following year.
Observers fear Mali’s current political upheaval will give extremists another chance to expand their reach. Wague, the junta spokesman, said the new military rulers were doing everything possible to be sure that was not the case.
After extremists allied to al-Qaida took over the major centers in northern Mali, they implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law, including amputating hands for those accused of theft.
Since being pushed out of the northern cities, the jihadists have regrouped in rural areas and launched relentless attacks on the Malian military, as well as the U.N., French and regional forces in the country. The extremists have moved south, inflaming tensions between ethnic groups in central Mali.
While Mali’s Islamic insurgency started before Keita took office, many felt his government did not do enough to end the violence.
Nicolas Mora, who is in charge of aid to Mali at the French Development Agency (AFD), the government’s foreign aid arm, said it’s too early to know the exact scale of the impact on aid to Mali.
France currently has 600 million euros worth of aid projects under way in Mali that the government’s foreign aid agency hopes to continue, with 150 million of that going to the poorest “most sensitive” areas of northern Mali, he said.
“We remain prudent about projects that were directly contracted with the Malian state, even if we don’t see a major reason to suspend them,” he said.
For the projects contracted directly with aid groups, he said, “we have decided to likely pursue them” despite the coup. However, he remained cautious, saying the agency’s actions are “subject to political decisions, because we are under the authority of the French state.”