Mali must return to civilian rule immediately and hold elections within 12 months, West African countries demanded Friday in a virtual meeting attended by President Muhammadu Buhari, as they considered sanctions over a military coup that toppled the country’s president.
The demands were spelt out after the new junta released ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, seized in the August 18 coup, but also apparently granted their new chief the powers of head of state.
The coup shocked Mali’s West African neighbours and ally France, heightening worries over instability in a country already struggling with an Islamist insurgency, ethnic violence and economic stagnation.
After a video summit, the 15-nation Economic Community of West Africa State called on the junta “to initiate a civil transition immediately” and the “rapid establishment of a government to (…) prepare the legislative and presidential elections within 12 months.”
In a closing statement, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who chairs ECOWAS, said sanctions would be “gradually lifted depending on the implementation” of the bloc’s requests.
ECOWAS closed its borders with Mali after the coup, banning trade and financial flows as it demanded the release of Keita and other detained officials.
Keita, 75, was elected in 2013 as a unifying figure in a fractured country and was returned in 2018 for a second five-year term.
But his popularity crashed as he failed to counter the raging jihadist insurgency and brake Mali’s downward economic spiral.
After an escalating series of mass protests, young army officers mutinied on August 18, seizing Keita and other leaders and declaring they now governed the country.
They have called the junta the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), led by a 37-year-old colonel, Assimi Goita.
Friday’s video summit came after a three-day ECOWAS visit last week ended without a timetable for a return to civilian rule.
Keita was released on the eve of the summit and Issoufou claimed he had told the ECOWAS envoys “that he resigned quite freely, convinced that this decision was necessary for peace and stability in Mali.”
Meanwhile, Algeria’s Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum separately met with the junta on Friday — the first representative of a foreign government to do so.
Algeria hosted peace talks between Bamako and armed groups in 2015, and Boukadoum called Friday for elections that “respect the constitutional order”.
– Handover issue –
Within hours of taking control, the junta promised to enact a political transition and stage elections within a “reasonable time.”
According to the chief ECOWAS envoy, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, the coup leaders wanted a three-year handover period, which was rejected by the ECOWAS team.
On Friday, the group called for a civilian leader and said: “No military structure should be above the transition president.”
But the meeting came as a new document published on the Malian government’s Official Journal said the CNSP head had been effectively invested with the powers of head of state.
The junta has yet to comment on the document.
– Jihadist warning –
In other remarks, Issoufou lashed the Malian military for launching the coup when the country was in the throes of an eight-year-old jihadist insurgency.
Thousands of lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and swathes of the country have been abandoned to armed Islamists by the state.
The junta “is refusing to return to the barracks at a time when, more than ever, the army is required to focus on its traditional mission,” Issoufou said.
He warned that the jihadists sought to “exploit the current institutional void” — a scenario that happened after Mali’s last coup in 2008.
Mali’s influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, a key player in the mass opposition protests that led to Keita’s ouster, said Friday that the new military rulers did not have “carte blanche”.
“We will not give a blank cheque to anyone to run this country, that’s over,” he said.
“We led the fight,” he said. “People have died and the soldiers who have completed (this fight) must keep their word.”