Mali talks founder on transition to civilian rule

Aug. 24, 2020

Talks between West African envoys and Mali’s new military rulers on Monday failed to yield an agreement on how the country should return to civilian rule after last week’s coup, negotiators said.

Separately, both sides said ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita — whose return to office had initially been demanded by the regional bloc ECOWAS — no longer wished to govern.

Deadlock on the key issue of civilian transition emerged after the fledgling junta denied it wanted a three-year handover period overseen by a soldier.

The new junta’s spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wague, told reporters that “there were discussions on both sides, given that at this stage nothing has been set down, nothing has been decided, and that as far as we are concerned, the final architecture of the transition will be discussed and defined by us”.

The chief ECOWAS envoy, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan said: “We have agreed on a number of issues, but there are some issues that we have not agreed. So on those issues we told the military officers the thinking of ECOWAS and we asked them to go and review.”

– Keita ‘never wants to return’ –

The August 18 coup has shocked Mali’s neighbours, who fear that a fragile state battling jihadism and an economic slump may slide into chaos.

ECOWAS — the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States — sent a high-level delegation to Bamako on Saturday to press its demands for the “immediate return to constitutional order”.

ECOWAS has stood by Keita and called for him to be restored to office, but this issue seems to have elapsed.

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He told the envoys that he no longer wanted to return as president, both sides said.

Jonathan said Monday that the 75-year-old former leader told him “he was not forced to resign but he has resigned and he is not interested in governance again. He wants a good transition so that the country will go back to a democratically-elected government”.

The junta’s spokesman Wague shared a similar account of Keita’s position: “He said that for him it’s over, he never wants to return to power again, he resigned voluntarily, without pressure.”

Keita’s current whereabouts remain unclear, with rumours swirling that he may leave Mali with the ECOWAS mission.

The junta has agreed to allow him to leave the country “whenever he wants” for medical examinations, and ECOWAS has guaranteed his return to the country, said Wague.

– Transition period –

On Sunday, an ECOWAS source said the junta “wants a three-year transition to review the foundations of the Malian state.”

“This transition will be directed by a body led by a soldier, who will also be head of state,” the source said, adding that the government “will also be predominantly composed of soldiers”.

This account was confirmed by a junta official, who told AFP that “the three-year transition would have a military president and a government mostly composed of soldiers”.

But later Monday Niger’s Foreign Minister Kalla Ankourao, a member of the ECOWAS mission, said the junta had dropped that demand to two years. However even this period was too long, he added.

After taking power on August 18, the junta had pledged elections would be held within a “reasonable” timeframe.

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– Borders closed –

The African bloc’s leaders are to confer on Wednesday as to how to proceed, mindful of Mali’s last coup in 2012, which led to a regional revolt that metastasised into a jihadist insurgency.

Niger’s Ankourao stressed the need for compromise.

“Everyone has already taken a step and we have said that we will give some time, 24 hours, 48 hours, to both sides and we are keeping in touch to sort this out,” he told AFP.

They have already decided to close landlocked Mali’s borders and issued threats to impose sanctions against the coup leaders.

“It is the people who will suffer much more from sanctions,” said Wague, the junta’s spokesman.

The bloc has already intervened in several crises in West Africa, including The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Keita was elected in 2013 after running a campaign in which he pitched himself as a unifying force in a fractured country.

He was re-elected for a second term in 2018 but failed to make headway against the jihadists, and the ethnic unrest they ignited in the centre of the country further damaged an already sickly economy.

An outcry over the results of long-delayed legislative elections in April cemented his unpopular reputation, and in June a protest movement was born aimed at forcing him to resign.