Malian soldiers upset with a government reshuffle took the president and prime minister to an army camp outside the capital Monday, officials said, raising fears of a second coup within a year in the crisis-stricken country.
President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane lead an interim government that was installed after a putsch in August under the threat of regional sanctions.
Coup leaders and army officers wielded significant influence over the government, however, casting doubt on a pledge to hold elections by early next year.
Two senior officials, who declined to be named, told AFP that soldiers had taken Ndaw and Ouane to the Kati military camp on the outskirts of the capital Bamako.
Their detention followed a sensitive government reshuffle on Monday afternoon, which was designed to respond to growing criticism of the interim government.
The military kept the strategic portfolios it controlled during the previous administration in the reshuffle.
But two coup leaders — ex-defence minister Sadio Camara and ex-security minister Colonel Modibo Kone — were replaced.
The reshuffle also came at a time of growing political challenges in the capital Bamako, and pressure to stick to the deadline for promised reforms.
Unconfirmed rumours of a potential coup were swirling around Bamako on Monday evening, but the city remained relatively calm.
Briefly reached by phone before the line cut, Prime Minister Ouane told AFP that soldiers “came to get him”.
The United Nations’ mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, called for calm in a tweet, and urged the immediate release of Ndaw and Ouane.
“Those who hold them will have to answer for their actions,” the UN said.
‘Send a message’
Young military officers ousted Keita on August 18 after weeks of protests concerning perceived government corruption and his handling of Mali’s jihadist insurgency.
After the 15-nation West Africa bloc ECOWAS threatened sanctions, the military junta handed power to a caretaker government that pledged to reform the constitution and stage elections within 18 months.
Coup leader Assimi Goita was appointed as vice president of the caretaker administration, and the interim president, Bah Ndaw, is a retired army officer.
Many have doubted whether the military-dominated government has the will, or the ability, to stage reforms on a short timescale.
Among other problems, the vast nation faces a major logistical and security challenge, as swathes of territory are in the hands of jihadists.
Doubts remained despite the interim government last month pledging to hold a constitutional referendum on October 31, with elections to follow in February next year.
On May 14, amid growing anger, the government then said it would appoint a new “broad-based” cabinet.
An official at Mali’s interim presidency, who requested anonymity, said the reshuffle was designed to send a message that “respect for the transition deadline remains the priority”.
He also underscored the necessity of replacing the defence and security ministers.
“They are not emblematic figures of the junta,” the official said, referring to the newly appointed ministers.
In an example of mounting unease, the opposition M5 movement — which spearheaded protests against Keita in 2020 — this month urged dissolving the interim government and demanded a “more legitimate” body.
But the M5 is divided. Two members of the Union for the Republic and Democracy party, for example, were appointed interim ministers Monday. The party is part of the M5.
Civil disputes in Mali are also adding to the pressure created by political feuding.
The country’s largest union, UNTM, called a second week of strikes Monday after pay negotiations with the interim government collapsed.