Mali’s president has named a longtime public servant as the country’s new prime minister, hours after the position’s former occupant was arrested and forced to resign by the soldiers behind a spring coup.
The presidential decree read on state television said Django Sissoko, the republic’s ombudsman and a former administrator of the presidential palace, is the new premier.
Ex-Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, dressed in a dark suit and his forehead glistening with sweat, appeared on state television at 4 a.m. to announce his resignation, hours after soldiers stormed his house and forced him into their vehicle.
“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,” he said on television. “It’s for this reason that I, Cheikh Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government on this day, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. I apologize before the entire population of Mali.”
The prime minister’s ouster comes as the United Nations considers backing a military intervention in Mali, a once-stable country now in constant turmoil. The development raises questions about the viability of the operation, which would use the country’s military in an attempt to take back Mali’s north from Islamic extremists.
The 60-year-old Diarra is an astrophysicist who previously led NASA’s Mars exploration education program. He is now under house arrest, said a spokesman for the junta, Bakary Mariko. The government remains technically under the control of the interim president, but in a further sign of how confused the situation remains, the nation’s constitutional leader has not made a statement since the premier’s forced resignation.
The shake-up in Bamako is already looking like it may endanger plans for the military intervention. The African Union is proposing sending several thousand African troops to help the Malian military take back the north, which fell to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in the chaos that followed the March 21 coup.
The military’s constant meddling in state affairs has concerned the international community. And many worry that supporting the operation will simply further arm and embolden the very officers responsible for Mali’s current state. The junta leaders have already been implicated in atrocities including the sexual torture of their opponents.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned Tuesday that Mr. Diarra’s forced resignation makes Western countries wary of getting involved in a military incursion – even one which officials have insisted will not include Western troops.
“One thing is clear: Our offers of help come with the condition that the process of restoring constitutional order in Mali be conducted credibly,” Mr. Westerwelle said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Mr. Diarra’s arrest a setback for Mali’s efforts to reinstate constitutional rule. “We need Sanogo and his brothers-in-arms to stay out of politics,” Ms. Nuland told reporters, referring to coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo.
Already the United States and France are at odds on the best way forward. France’s diplomats at the UN pushing for a quick intervention in order to expel the extremists, while the U.S. is arguing for a more gradual approach, starting with negotiations.
The now-ousted prime minister was arrested late Monday by the military at his home, forced into a car and driven to the Kati military camp, the sprawling base where the March 21 coup was launched. Two security officials, including a police officer and an intelligence agent, confirmed that Capt. Sanogo had ordered the prime minister’s arrest.
At the moment of his arrest, the aging leader was getting ready to leave for the airport for a medical trip to Paris, said the police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
“The plane that was to take the prime minister to France was on the point of departure,” said the policeman, who was on duty at the airport. “It was stopped by people from the Yerewoloton group who invaded the airport,” he said.
Yerewoloton is a group of civilians believed to be backed by Capt. Sanogo who have carried out violent actions on the military’s behalf. This same group in May invaded the presidential palace, as soldiers looked on, and beat the country’s interim president Dioncounda Traore, until he lost consciousness.
That incident increased international pressure on Mali’s junta. Capt. Sanogo signed a lengthy accord agreeing to step down and retreated from public life. But even so, the signs have long suggested that the military still calls the shots in Bamako.
Junta spokesman Bakary Mariko acknowledged that soldiers allied with Capt. Sanogo detained the prime minister and have him under house arrest. Mr. Mariko said Mr. Diarra was “not getting along” with either the interim president or Capt. Sanogo.
“He says he’s going to Paris for medical tests ... but we know better and realize that he is trying to flee in order to go and create a blockage in the Mali situation ....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,” Mr. Mariko said.
Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for West Africa, Corinne Dufka, condemned the military’s intervention, saying it fits with the pattern of abuse by the soldiers ever since the coup eight months ago.
“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,” Ms. Dufka said.
Mr. Diarra was initially seen as in-step with Capt. Sanogo. Critics lambasted him for frequently driving to the Kati barracks to see the coup leader, long after Capt. Sanogo was supposed to have handed power to civilians. In recent weeks though, Mr. Diarra has taken stances that sometimes conflict with Capt. Sanogo.
Bamako remained calm on Tuesday, despite waking up to what is being called a “mini-coup.” People went about their daily lives, but with a sense of deep disappointment in this nation, which was once held up as a model democracy in Africa.
“I really am struggling to understand – so if the prime minister is not doing his job properly, it’s up to the junta to come and arrest him?” said Aboubacrine Assadek Ag Hamahady, a university professor. “Based on what law, on what legal text can the junta justify this arrest?”