MALI’S prime minister was forced to resign in the early hours of yesterday morning by soldiers who staged a coup in March, complicating international efforts to help push Islamists from the country’s north.
Once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been mired in crisis since ethnic Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters seized the northern two-thirds of the arid nation in the wake of the coup.
Although the soldiers handed over to a civilian president and prime minister under international pressure, they have remained powerful.
Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned as prime minister hours after he was arrested trying to leave the country for former colonial power France. He was taken to the ex-junta’s headquarters at a barracks in Kati, just outside the capital, Bamako.
“I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, hereby resign with my entire government,” a nervous-looking Mr Diarra, his forehead glistening with sweat, said in a short statement broadcast on state TV early yesterday.
Mr Diarra, a former Nasa scientist and Microsoft chief for Africa, was made prime minister in April.
At the moment of his arrest, the ageing leader was getting ready to leave for a medical trip to Paris, said a police officer on duty at the airport at the time.
He said: “The plane that was to take the prime minister to France was on the point of departure. It was stopped by people from the Yerewoloton group who invaded the airport.” The group is believed to be backed by coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo.
Fearing Mali has become a haven for terrorism and organised crime, West African leaders have signed off on a plan to send 3,300 soldiers to Mali to revamp its army and then support operations to retake the north.
However, Mr Diarra’s forced resignation was a clear indication that those behind the coup maintain considerable control, which could discourage international partners from backing the plan until civilian rule is strengthened.
France called for a new government to be formed quickly.
Bakary Mariko, a spokesman for the former junta, said: “This is not a coup. The president is still in place but the prime minister was no longer working in the interests of the country.”
Mr Mariko accused Diarra of recording two speeches, the contents of which were not disclosed, and of urging his supporters to disrupt talks on the political crisis this week.
Mr Mariko later told French TV channel France 24 the prime minister had failed in the two missions of liberating the north and the organising free and transparent elections, saying: “Since he was appointed he has not acted as a man of duty.”
Coup leader Capt Sanogo has been repeatedly accused of meddling in politics since he stepped down. His official task was to oversee reforms of Mali’s army.
A senior west African diplomat said: “Sanogo is pulling at the strings. Until we have a real transitional government in place, we will keep having these problems.”
France is keenest to see military action to tackle the Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM. But the United States and the United Nations have expressed concern, saying the plan lacks detail. However, the US warned on Monday that Mali was “one of the potentially most explosive corners of the world”.
Some of Mali’s politicians support the idea of a foreign-backed military operation while others say they need only financial and logistical support.
Mr Diarra was made prime minister when the junta officially handed power back to civilians. The son-in-law of Moussa Traore, an ex-Malian coup leader and president, he appeared to have good ties with the military.
However, tensions became particularly acute in recent weeks, with analysts saying that Mr Diarra – a relative newcomer to Malian politics after spending many years abroad – seemed keen to establish a political base ahead of any future elections.