Bamako, Mali: Mali’s prime minister resigned on state television early Tuesday, hours after soldiers who led a recent coup burst into his home and arrested him, in the latest sign of the volatile political situation in this once-stable West African nation.
Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra addressed the nation, saying: “Our country is living through a period of crisis. Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace. “It’s for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, 11 December, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali,” he said.
Diarra appeared on TV at 4 a.m. local time dressed in a dark suit, his forehead glistening with sweat, his expression somber. A police officer and an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press confirmed that the 60-year-old Diarra had been arrested at his private residence at around 10 p.m. Monday by soldiers loyal to Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the leader of the country’s recent coup.
Diarra was getting ready to leave the country for Paris and the plane that was due to take him was already taxiing at the airport. It’s unclear if the trip to France was planned, or if Diarra had gotten wind of the pending arrest and was trying to flee.
The security officials said the prime minister was forced into a car and driven to the Kati military camp, the sprawling military base where the 21 March coup was launched under the orders of Sanogo. For several weeks, tension has been mounting between the officers who led the coup and Diarra, the civilian prime minister they were forced to appoint when they handed back power to a transitional government.
The police officer, who was on duty Monday night at Bamako’s international airport preparing for Diarra’s departure for Paris, said group linked to the junta stormed the airport. “The plane that was to take the prime minister to France was on the point of departure,” said the officer. “It was stopped by people from the group Yerewoloton who invaded the airport. The people from Yerewoloton are still at the airport as we speak, searching cars.”
Yerewoloton is a violent citizen’s movement, which is believed to be backed by the junta. In May, they broke through the security cordon at the presidential palace. Once inside, they beat up the newly appointed interim president, 70-year-old Dioncounda Traore. The beating of Traore brought immediate international condemnation and it was after the 21 May incident that coup leader Sanogo was forced to retreat from public life. He has kept a low profile in recent months, emerging only occasionally to criticize a military plan by the nations neighboring Mali, which want to send 3,300 troops to take back Mali’s north from armed Islamist groups.
Diarra, an astrophysicist who previously led one of NASA’s Mars exploration programs, was initially seen as in step with Sanogo. Critics lambasted him for frequently driving to the Kati barracks to see the coup leader, apparently to seek his advice long after Sanogo was supposed to have handed power to civilians.
In recent weeks though, Diarra has appeared to be taking stances that sometimes conflict with Sanogo. Last weekend for example, Diarra helped organized a demonstration calling for a United Nations-backed military intervention to take back Mali’s north, which fell to Islamic extremists in the chaos following the coup.
On Monday at the United Nations, France circulated a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the deployment of an African-led force to oust Al-Qaeda-linked militants who seized Mali’s northern half. The United States, however, wants the troops to be trained first for desert warfare, UN diplomats said.
Experts on Mali have voiced skepticism over the military intervention, specifically because the plan initially put forward by the African Union gives a central role to the Malian military, which is still in the hands of Sanogo.
African diplomats who were involved in the negotiations with Sanogo earlier this year, leading to the creation of Diarra’s transitional government, say the coup leader does not want foreign forces on Malian soil because it would dilute his power.
A spokesman for Sanogo’s junta reached early Tuesday said that Diarra was trying to flee to Paris. He said the soldiers arrested him because Diarra was “creating a blockage.” “For several days now, Cheikh Modibo Diarra has mobilized his supporters and boycotted the national conference (currently being held to discuss Mali’s future),” said the spokesman Bacary Mariko. “And now he says he’s going to Paris for medical tests at the American hospital in Paris because he claims he is suffering from pneumonia. But we know better and realize that he is trying to flee in order to go and create a blockage in the Mali situation,” he said. He explained further: “For several months now, Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and the (interim) president of the republic have not been getting along. And Cheikh Modibo Diarra also doesn’t get along with Capt. Sanogo. It’s the reason why Mali’s army has taken things into their own hands and told Cheikh Modibo Diarra to resign for the good of Mali.” Diarra’s demeanor, including his strained expression and the background against which he made the declaration, all suggest that the prime minister resigned under duress, and possibly made the declaration at the military barracks, rather than at the headquarters of the ORTM, the state broadcaster. The backdrop against which he spoke looked like a bare wall, rather than the professional studio of the national television station.
Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for West Africa Corinne Dufka condemned the military’s intervention in the nascent transitional government, saying it fits with the pattern of abuse perpetrated by the soldiers ever since the coup eight months ago. “This is the latest in a string of abuses perpetrated by soldiers loyal to Sanogo. They’ve arrested, beaten and intimidated journalists; tortured and disappeared military rivals; and now, apparently, arbitrarily detained the prime minister. None of these incidents have been investigated and those responsible appear to have been emboldened by the shameful lack of accountability,” said Dufka.