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Mali’s Assimi Goita: special ops commander turned strongman

Sworn in as Mali’s interim president on Monday after a second coup, Colonel Assimi Goita is an enigmatic special forces commander who in less than a year has risen from obscurity to undisputed leader. Few people can say with confidence that they know the motivations of this publicity-shy figure, or even sketch his ultimate goals.Goita burst onto the political stage on August 18 2020 at the age of 37 when he led a coup by young army officers against elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.The putsch followed weeks of mass protests over perceived corruption and Keita’s failure to end Mali’s brutal jihadist insurgency. “We no longer have the right to make mistakes,” Goita said at the time, cutting a martial figure in fatigues with a khaki shemagh scarf around his neck.Goita remained in the shadows in the following months, making appearances but rarely speaking in public.But his prime role was underscored last month when he ousted the two civilians who had been appointed under international pressure to steer Mali back to democratic rule by February 2020.On Monday, the colonel, dressed in full military regalia, took the presidential oath and promised to stand by Mali’s commitments.- Man of action -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 saw action during the 2012 Tuareg independence rebellion, which was quickly commandeered by jihadists. Mali has since struggled to quell their brutal insurgency, which has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.A colonel who requested anonymity said that Goita isn’t bothered by how people see him. “He’s a man of action — we saw him in the north,” he said. – ‘Son of the nation’ -Threatened by international sanctions after the August coup, Goita’s junta handed power to a caretaker government headed by Bah Ndaw as interim president, with Moctar Ouane, prime minister.The nominally civilian government was meant to reform the constitution and stage 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 (ISS) in South Africa, 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. He would insist on Mali’s commitment to the fight against jihadists, and on returning civilian rule.Last month the army deposed Ndaw and Ouane after a government reshuffle that would have replaced the defence and security ministers, two colonels who took part in the August coup.Brema Ely Dicko, a Bamako-based sociologist, said that removing the two putschists from the caretaker government was seen as “an affront”.Baba Cisse, an advisor to Goita, said soon after that the military officer had acted as a soldier.He was a “son of the nation who guaranteed stability,” Cisse said.Goita, during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, pledged to uphold Mali’s international commitments and stage elections in February next year.

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