On 7 January, the 46 Ivorian soldiers that had been detained since 10 July in Bamako left Mali at around 5pm (local time), bringing an end to the interminable political-diplomatic soap opera. After a stopover in Lomé, they arrived at Félix Houphouët-Boigny airport in Abidjan, shortly before midnight, and were greeted by their relatives.
They were welcomed off the plane by Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara. “Now that this crisis is behind us, we can resume normal relations with the brother country of Mali, which needs us and which we also need,” he said.
Stopover in Togo
General Lassina Doumbia, the Ivorian army’s chief of staff, had been sent to Bamako with a delegation to pick up his 46 men, who had been detained for six months.
As was the case for the three female soldiers released on 3 September, they stopped over in Togo, which had been acting as a mediator in this complex case, where they were welcomed by Togo’s President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé and Téné Birahima Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire’s defence minister and President Ouattara’s brother. Birahima Ouattara then accompanied them back to Côte d’Ivoire.
On Saturday morning, Gnassingbé praised on social media “the availability and spirit of dialogue of Mali and Côte d’Ivoire’s heads of state, who have contributed to this happy outcome.”
Assimi Goïta and the ‘promotion of good governance’
These soldiers, who Abidjan presented as being part of the logistical support operations for the UN Mission in Mali (Minusma), but who Bamako sees as “mercenaries”, were sentenced on 30 December by the Malian judiciary to 20 years in prison and fined 2m CFA francs each.
They had been found guilty of “attacking and plotting against the government and undermining the state’s external security”, and “possessing, carrying and transporting weapons and munitions of war […] with the aim of disturbing public order by intimidation or terror”.
The three female soldiers were sentenced to death in absentia and fined 10m CFA francs each. Less than a week after this very heavy verdict was handed down, Mali’s transitional government finally announced on 6 January that President Assimi Goïta had decided to pardon the Ivorian soldiers “with full remission of sentence”. This measure, according to a government statement, “symbolises Assimi Goïta’s wish to promote good governance”.
The first signs of détente between the two West African neighbours were visible in mid-December when an Ivorian delegation led by Birahima Ouattara visited Bamako for the first time since the affair had begun. Mali and Côte d’Ivoire signed a memorandum of understanding.
On 4 December, Gnassingbé in turn went to Bamako to meet with Goïta, and then to Abidjan to see President Ouattara. This short working visit had strengthened hopes for a rapid release.
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