Back in January, before the rebellion began in the north and before the coup in Bamako, Mali was looking ahead to presidential elections scheduled for April (since cancelled). There were, as I and others saw it, four main candidates: former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (runner-up in the 2007 presidential elections, former cabinet minister Soumaila Cisse (runner-up in the 2002 presidential elections), former prime minister Mobidbo Sidibe (.pdf), and president of the National Assembly Dioncounda Traore.
When the military junta agreed to the installation of an interim civilian president, they chose Traore as the interim president. Traore has been charged with heavy tasks, chief among them organizing new elections in as short a time-frame as forty days.
Traore’s appointment, given that he was a leading presidential contender, raised questions about the neutrality of the interim government within the political field. Commentators like Dr. Bruce Whitehouse have also argued that the junta has not, itself, left the field.
Now a wave of arrests has further called the interim government’s political neutrality into question. Military spokesmen have said the arrests were made in the interest of national security, but many perceive political motivations at work. Among those arrested are the (once and future?) presidential aspirants Sidibe and Cisse, who were taken into custody Tuesday. Whitehouse provides more detail on the arrests. As Whitehouse points out, both men have been previously targeted by the junta since the coup, Sidibe perhaps because of his ties to ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure, and Cisse for reasons that are less clear. Keita, the fourth of the candidates named above, has not been arrested. He released a statement (French) condemning the arrests and calling them “a serious attack on the process of returning to a constitutional existence.”
Whitehouse mentions reports that Traore was not informed of the arrests in advance. In my view the arrests still have the potential to severely damage Traore’s political image. I have not heard a statement from Traore as to whether he will continue to run for president now that the elections – under his watch – are being reorganized. Perhaps he will not run, as there could be strong expectations in place that he refrain from doing so given his current position. If he does run, the arrests of his competitors will stand out even more strongly. But even if he doesn’t run, the arrests seem to have already tainted perceptions of his government among political elites and among ordinary citizens, many of whom are apparently outraged by the arrests.
Assembled outside the hotel where Traoré continues to stay since his April 12th inauguration, members of political parties’ youth organizations shouted “Liberate, liberate” and held signs saying, “Military to the front lines, power to civilians.” Scores of soldiers and riot police stood nearby.
Malians say they are shocked and outraged at Tuesday’s pre-dawn arrests of at least seven people, including former prime ministers Modibo Sidibé and Soumaïla Cissé, deposed defense minister Sadio Gassama, as well as bank executives and the head of police.
The arrests and the protests only add to the tense climate and the severe challenges the transitional government faces as it attempts to reorient the country and clarify who is in charge in Mali.
[UPDATE]: The junta releases the prisoners.