Soldiers who overthrew Mali’s president in a coup d’etat that drew international condemnation pledged on Wednesday to restore stability and oversee a transition to elections within a “reasonable” period.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resigned and dissolved parliament late on Tuesday, hours after the coup leaders detained him at gunpoint, plunging a country already facing an armed movement against it as well as mass opposition protests deeper into crisis.
Colonel-Major Ismael Wague – a spokesman for the coup-makers calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People – said they acted to prevent Mali from falling further into chaos.
“The social and political tension has undermined the proper functioning of the country for quite a while,” said Wague, flanked by soldiers.
“Mali descends into chaos day by day [with] anarchy and insecurity because of the fault of the people in charge of its destiny. Real democracy doesn’t go with complacency, nor weakness of the state authority, which must guarantee freedom and security of the people.”
There was no word on the future of Keita, 75.
No casualties were reported during the military takeover. Borders were closed and a curfew will go into effect from 9pm to 5am.
Wague said all international agreements will still be respected and international forces, including the UN mission in Mali and G5 Sahel, will remain in place “for the restoration of stability”.
The coup leaders also remain “committed to the Algiers process” – a 2015 peace agreement between the Malian government and armed groups in the north of the country, Wague said.
The takeover was quickly condemned by Mali’s regional and international partners, who fear Keita’s fall could further destabilise the former French colony and West Africa’s entire Sahel region.
West Africa’s 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, on Tuesday suspended Mali from its institutions and closed its member states’ borders with Mali.
Having previously warned it would no longer tolerate military takeovers in the region, the bloc plans to send a high-level delegation to Mali to ensure a return to constitutional democracy.
Meanwhile, chairman of the African Union and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday condemned the “unconstitutional change of government” in Mali and demanded its detained politicians be freed.
The UN Security Council will be briefed on Mali behind closed doors on Wednesday at the request of France and Niger, diplomats said. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday had called for the immediate release of Keita and other detainees.
The French military has been silent since the coup began, refusing to comment on what its troops in Mali are doing as the crisis plays out.
The French government has not publicly commented since Keita’s resignation. Earlier on Tuesday, it had condemned the “attempted mutiny” while President Emmanuel Macron discussed the unfolding situation with Keita and the leaders of Niger, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
The coup is seen a blow to France and Macron, who has supported Keita and sought to improve relations with former colonies in Africa.
On Wednesday, China said it opposed regime change by force while EU leaders called for the release of those held.
“We call for the immediate freeing of prisoners, and for a return to the state of law,” said EU Council chief Charles Michel after a video summit of the bloc’s 27 leaders.
The coup coincided with opposition plans to resume protests against Keita.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets under the umbrella of the so-called June 5 Movement (M5-RFP) to demand the president’s regisnation, accusing him of allowing Mali’s economy to collapse and of mishandling a spiralling security situation that has rendered vast swaths of Mali ungovernable.
At least 14 protesters and bystanders were killed during three days of unrest last month in Bamako, allegedly as a result of gunfire by security forces, according to rights groups.
In his speech, Wague invited Mali’s civil society and political movements to join them to create conditions for a political transition.
“We are not keen on power, but we are keen on the stability of the country, which will allow us to organise general elections to allow Mali to equip itself with strong institutions within the reasonable time limit.”
Soya Djigue, member of the M5-RFP’s strategic committee, said the opposition coalition was not aware of the actions of the soldiers.
“From the very beginning, we have been very clear; we wanted the president to resign peacefully and democratically, so we didn’t take part in this. We learnt about it on TV like everybody else,” he told Al Jazeera.
Djigue said the committee was expected to convene soon to discuss the situation and the next steps.
“It’s too early for us to say whether they [soldiers] will respect their words or not, but I can guarantee you that we will fight, just like before with the previous regime, to ensure that poverty and bad governance will be a thing of history,” he added.
Late on Tuesday, anti-government protesters had poured into a central square in Bamako to cheer on the coup-makers as they drove through in military vehicles.
The capital was far quieter on Wednesday, with few civilians on the streets and most shops closed after overnight looting.
Videos circulating on social media showed people running through luxury compounds in the city, including properties identified as belonging to Justice Minister Kassoum Tapo and Keita’s son, Karim.
Landlocked Mali has struggled to regain stability since the Tuareg uprising in 2012, which was hijacked by fighters linked to al-Qaeda, and a subsequent coup under the leadership of Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who was later forced to hand over power to a civilian transitional government.
At a 2013 election, Keita won a landslide victory promising to bring peace and stability and to fight corruption. He got re-elected for a second five-year term in 2018.