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World News

Mali president Keita vowed to end coups. Now he's been toppled too

DAKAR (Reuters) - A month after becoming president of Mali in 2013, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared that the days of mutinous soldiers undermining the power of government in the capital Bamako were over.

FILE PHOTO: Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita poses for a picture during the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania June 30, 2020. Ludovic Marin /Pool via REUTERS

“Kati will no longer scare Bamako,” he said, referring to the Kati military base outside the capital where a mutiny the previous year had toppled then-President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Seven years later, Keita, 75, has suffered a similar fate.

He was overthrown on Tuesday by a military coup that began with a mutiny in Kati. Within hours, the putschists, firing shots in the air, drove into town, detained Keita, took him to Kati and forced him to resign and dissolve parliament.

Despite lofty promises to root out the problems that led to his predecessor’s demise - a security crisis caused by insurgents in the north and public perceptions of high-level corruption - those same factors proved Keita’s undoing.

Disputed legislative elections in April and an anaemic economy further fuelled public anger, drawing tens of thousands of people on to the streets of Bamako in recent weeks to demand his resignation.

Keita, widely known by his initials IBK, won re-election two years ago and his ruling coalition enjoyed a healthy majority in parliament.

But that masked the depth of popular dissatisfaction, said Ibrahim Maiga, a Mali-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

“He wasn’t able to understand quickly enough the anger that cut across the entire society,” said Maiga. “He didn’t fully appreciate the strong demand for change in the country.”

Keita came to office with a reputation for firmness forged as a prime minister in the 1990s when he took a hard line with striking trade unions. But from the start he was unable to get a handle on the security crisis in northern Mali.

French forces had intervened in January 2013 to drive back al Qaeda-linked jihadists who had hijacked an ethnic Tuareg rebellion to seize the northern two-thirds of the country.

Keita’s government struggled to assert control over Tuareg militias that continued to push for autonomy.

The jihadists regrouped, inflicting heavy losses on Malian soldiers and civilians while extending their presence into central Mali and neighbouring countries.

Attacks by the jihadists - some with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State - stoked tit-for-tat clashes between rival herding and farming communities that have eclipsed the violence by militants, claiming hundreds of lives this year alone.

CORRUPTION

Keita, who usually wears white flowing robes and has a tendency to slur his words, won a crushing election victory in August, 2013, with over 77% of the vote, and vowed to take on corruption.

Junior military officers said widespread anger over graft under Toure was one of the triggers of their March 2012 coup.

“Let me be clear. There is no question of sharing out the cake. I have not promised that and it will not happen,” Keita said, vowing to put an end to political patronage.

Keita enjoyed strong international support, especially from former colonial master France, who poured money and troops into Mali.

But his government quickly found itself mired in allegations of fraud and waste related to the purchase of a $40 million presidential jet and inflated spending on military supplies that led the International Monetary Fund to briefly delay aid.

“In time of massive foreign military presence, there are opportunities for massive corruption,” said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian diplomat and former U.N. special representative in West Africa.

Accusations of cronyism focused on Keita’s son, Karim, over his lavish lifestyle and position as chairman of parliament’s powerful defence and security committee.

In a televised statement early on Wednesday, a spokesman for the putschists denounced the “political clientelism and family management of state affairs” under Keita.

Videos shared on social media after Keita was detained show revellers splashing in the pool in Karim’s Bamako residence.

Keita and his son always denied allegations of impropriety.

The mass protests began in early June, spearheaded by a charismatic Muslim cleric, Mahmoud Dicko, who had supported Keita in the 2013 election but quickly soured on him.

During demonstrations in July, security forces opened fire, killing at least 14 people and hardening opposition demands that Keita resign.

He offered a series of concessions to the coalition of political opponents, religious leaders and civil society activists leading the protests, but they were rejected.

As word of Keita’s detention spread in Bamako on Tuesday, thousands of people filled the streets, cheering soldiers as they sped through in military vehicles, firing rounds of celebratory gunfire into the air.

“IBK did not want to listen to his people,” said Nouhoum Togo, a spokesman for the M5-RFP coalition that has led the protests. “He thought that France ... or the international community could save him.”

Reporting by Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and David Lewis in London; Editing by Bate Felix and Mike Collett-White

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