Mali’s Endless Crisis: Army Soldiers Force Out Prime Minister

Malian soldiers forced the nation’s Prime Minister to resign late Monday night, complicating the West’s plans for a military intervention

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Frank Franklin II / AP

Mali Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 26, 2012.

Update: Mali’s President has named Django Sissoko, the republic’s ombudsman and a former public administrator, the new Prime Minister, according to reports.

Malian soldiers forced the nation’s Prime Minister to resign late Monday night after he tried to board a flight to Paris from his northwest African country. The move hugely complicates the West’s plans for a military intervention to wrest control of Northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked groups who have seized the territory and deepens the country’s already pronounced political crisis.

In a scene of high drama, soldiers surrounded Cheikh Modibo Diarra at the airport in the capital Bamako, shuffled him into a car and drove him to a nearby military base, according to an Associated Press report from the city. Then at 4 a.m., Diarra appeared on state-run television. Sweating and dressed in a dark suit, he announced that he and his government were resigning. “Our country is living through a period of crisis,” he said. “Men and women who are worried about the future of our nation are hoping for peace,” he said.

(MORE: Will the world go to war to save Mali?)

Indeed, Malians have watched stunned as their peaceful country has spiraled into political chaos since March, when a coup installed a junta in Bamako. In the power vacuum left by the coup, militias like the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine, as well as ethnic Tuareg rebel factions, seized control of the remote desert territory in northern Mali—about two-thirds of the country—effectively slicing Mali into two separate countries. In the sparsely-populated North, Islamic militants have enforced a rigid form of Shar’ia law in a number of cities, leading more than 150,000 people to flee. In Bamako, the military operated in an awkward tripartite power structure with sitting President Dioncounda Traore and Diarra, who was at the helm of a transitional government. Diarra’s arrest late Monday made it clear that the military leaders held the true power. Military spokesman Bacary Mariko told reporters on Tuesday that he suspected Diarra had been attempting to flee Mali, and that he was “not getting along” with the country’s current president; observers suggest Diarra, who was never elected, may have eyed supplanting Traore.

For both Western and regional officials—many of whom converged in Marrakesh on Tuesday for emergency talks on Syria—the latest instability in Mali brings a new wrinkle in their plans to oust the North’s militants. In this city, better known for its ancient red-walled quarters with its snake charmers and tourists, than for geopolitical summitry, Western and African officials huddled on Tuesday to discuss events in Mali, more than 1,300 miles away.

(MORE: Mali and the future of Western military interventions.)

For weeks U.S. and E.U. officials have grown alarmed by the prospect of a vast swath of territory controlled by leaders with close affinities to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, seeing the potential for a base for terrorists just a short distance from Europe. That, they say, could be a disaster for the West. “It is urgent to find a solution. If not, al-Qaeda will take the lead,” Morocco’s Deputy Foreign Minister Youssef Amrani said in an interview with TIME here on Tuesday. “We’ve been warning for five years about the growing importance of al-Qaeda in Mali and in the region, and no one believed us.”

Now that importance is clear. Less clear, though, is how to oust the militants and reunify Mali, which until now was a key U.S. ally in the region. In a meeting in New York on Monday, Morocco, which is the current rotating president of the U.N. Security Council, suggested a joint military and political plan, in which African countries would train Malian soldiers to join an invasion force against the Islamic groups up North, while France and U.S. militaries will likely give military advice and technical help. Despite Diarra’s arrest on Tuesday, E.U. foreign affairs spokesman Michael Mann told reporters in Brussels that European leaders were not revising their plans to train Mali’s military to invade the North. Though the plan had been worked out during previous international meetings in Africa, the Security Council’s continued backing of the operation deepens the prospects of international involvement.

Still, Western leaders are clearly loath to back an invasion force on behalf of a country with such a dysfunctional political climate. On Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that Western help was conditional on “restoring constitutional order in Mali.” That, he said, “is a very decisive criterion for our involvement.”

(MORE: Why Islamists are wrecking Timbuktu.)

In the end, there is no certainty that an invasion of northern Mali will work. Even once a force is trained and ready to move North, says Morocco’s deputy foreign minister Amrani, the operation could fail to crush the militants if it is not accompanied by a significant injection of financial aid into the poor, remote desert areas, whose nomadic tribes have for decades complained of discrimination and neglect. “We cannot solve all these issues through military means,” he says. “We need to have economic development.”