Thousands crowded into Mali’s capital Friday in a raucous show of support for the military junta that forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's resignation and the government’s disbanding earlier this week.
Demonstrators in Bamako – some raising banners touting the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, the junta’s name for itself – also denounced the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for condemning the coup and for closing Mali’s borders to neighbors in the regional bloc’s 14 other member nations.
The military junta’s leaders said Friday they have reopened air and land borders.
Keita and at least a dozen other officials were seized Tuesday by military personnel and taken to an army officers’ training facility in the town of Kati, about 15 kilometers from the capital. Keita, who announced his resignation late that evening on national television, has been transferred back to the capital, where he has been placed under house arrest. The 75-year-old deposed leader has been allowed to meet with his personal physician, his relatives and with officials of the U.N. mission in Mali.
The United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and many others in the international community have condemned Keita’s overthrow.
Junta leaders met Friday in Kati with members of the former majority Rally for Mali party, who also denounced the coup but said they were ready to discuss next steps. Junta leaders also have met with civil society groups.
Colonel Assimi Goita has emerged as the junta’s leader. On Friday, the Pentagon acknowledged that Goita previously has participated in training with U.S. Africa Command and its special forces as part of multinational efforts to counter violent extremism in the region.
But the Pentagon also condemned the mutiny, which it said runs counter to the training it has provided.
“Colonel Goita and many other Malians have participated in Flintlock training exercises focused on countering violent extremist organizations, the rule of law in armed conflict, professionalism, and the primacy of civilian authority,” Colonel Christopher P. Karns, spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, said in an email to VOA.
“U.S. Africa Command has had a partnership and engaged with the Malian armed forces to confront violent extremism in the Sahel, a common interest and mutual concern.
“An act of mutiny in Mali is strongly condemned,” Karns continued. “It is an act that is inconsistent with the legitimate role of the military in free societies and everything that is taught in the U.S. military and its training.”
An ECOWAS mission led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is expected in Bamako for meetings Saturday. The delegation will include Niger’s foreign minister and the ECOWAS commission’s chair.
“We’ll welcome the ECOWAS,” one of the military leaders, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told VOA. “We are members of the ECOWAS and it is important to discuss with our brothers.”
The junta leaders have promised to hold elections within nine months.
“This gives an assurance that they’re not here to remain in power,” said Yeah Samake, a leader of the Malian opposition coalition known as the Movement of June 5-Reassembly of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP).
Samake said he was encouraged by their plan for a transition team in which the military would hold six of 24 seats and then would be forming a unity government.
“They are working with the people,” Samake said.
The opposition leader said he considers the coup “a turning point from corruption, from ill governance, to a more efficient leadership,” but he cautioned the junta leaders to stay true to their pledge to cede control.
“The people of Mali are going to remain mobilized and vigilant, making sure that the power belongs to the people – and that power is for the well-being and the welfare of the people of Mali.”
A more pessimistic view comes from John Campbell, who served twice as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now is a senior fellow for African policy studies with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“A way to think about the coup is that it essentially occurred in the political class. Mali has been run for a long time by a political class and the military, and the two interpenetrate,” Campbell told VOA. “So, it was not a coup against those that have been running the country, but rather more or less among those that have been running the country.”
Despite the celebratory nature of Friday’s demonstration in Bamako, the coup likely “won’t mean very much in terms of addressing the fundamental problems that Mali faces,” Campbell said, elaborating on a recent blog post.
Mali confronts sizeable challenges, with half of its 19 million people living in poverty. It also faces deep ethnic divisions and threats from Islamist jihadists in the country’s north.
VOA’s Pentagon correspondent, Carla Babb, contributed to this report, which originated with the Bambara service in VOA French to Africa. Other contributors are English to Africa’s Peter Clottey and Adam Phillips, and the Somali service’s Harun Maruf.