Assimi Goita: Mali’s army commander who seized power twice

The military commander who grabbed power in the Sahel state for the second time this year has been inaugurated as interim president.

Colonel Assimi Goita, the junta leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) which overthrew Mali''s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita attends the meeting with Economic Commun
Few have confidence in Goita's motivations or his ultimate goals [File: Moussa Kalapo/Reuters]

Mali’s military leader Colonel Assimi Goita, who orchestrated his second coup in nine months, has been sworn in as the transitional president despite international condemnation of May’s power grab.

Goita, who served as Mali’s vice president under transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, seized power late last month after accusing them of failing to consult him about a cabinet reshuffle that would have replaced the defence and security ministers – both military officers.

The transitional government led by Ndaw and Ouane was installed in the wake of the first coup in August.

They were forced to resign after their arrest. They have since been released.

“The vice president of the transition saw himself obligated to act to preserve the transitional charter and defend the republic,” Goita said in a  statement after the coup.

Goita, 37, a former special forces commander who has shunned the limelight since arriving on Mali’s political scene, remains an enigma.

Few have confidence in his motivations or his ultimate goals.

Once a relative unknown, Goita burst onto the political stage on August 18, 2020, when he launched a coup against elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, after weeks of mass protests over perceived corruption and Keita’s failure to end Mali’s armed rebellion.

Cutting a martial figure in fatigues with a khaki shemagh scarf around his neck, Goita has been seen in public since then but has rarely spoken. “We no longer have the right to make mistakes,” Goita had said in a public address following the August coup.

The son of a former director of Mali’s military police, Goita studied at the country’s main military school.

In 2002, he went to Mali’s desert north for training and was subsequently based in the northern cities of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, Menaka and Tessalit.

Goita also saw action during the 2012 Tuareg armed rebellion.

Mali has since struggled to quell the brutal armed unrest, which has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands of more.

A colonel who requested anonymity said Goita is not concerned about how people see him.

“He’s a man of action, we saw him in the north,” he said.

The nominally civilian government

Threatened by international sanctions after launching the August coup, Goita’s military council handed power to the caretaker government headed by President Ndaw and Prime Minister Ouane.

The nominally civilian government was meant to reform the constitution and hold elections within 18 months.

But Goita himself became the interim vice president, and the military retained significant clout.

Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said the government was part of a “much larger system designed to ensure the ex-junta’s control of the state apparatus”.

Goita, though mostly out of the public eye, quickly became the point of contact for foreign governments under the interim government. He would insist on Mali’s commitment to the fight against armed rebels, and on returning civilian rule.

Leaders of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union suspended Mali’s membership while former colonial power France suspend its cooperation with the military in the wake of the coup, putting diplomatic pressure on Goita.

The 37-year-old leader has promised to hold presidential and legislative elections in February next year as announced following the August 2020 coup.

As Goita prepares to cement his position in Mali, constitutional expert Mamady Sissoko said his investiture could hardly be regarded as legal.

“We are faced by a show of force and this [taking the oath of office] should not be,” Sissoko said.

Source: News Agencies