Intense negotiations at two Bamako institutions have yielded a settlement in recent days to Mali's political crisis. But do Malians believe their incoming interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, can put their country back on track?
A line of black Mercedes cars snakes outside a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako while inside the air-conditioned lobby clutches of military men in camouflage uniforms huddle in discreet corners, holding hushed conversations with ranks of African diplomats.
Discussions done, the dignitaries and military deputies march tight-lipped to their waiting cars before they're off in a convoy of screeching sirens, to a military base on the outskirts of Bamako.
The political action in this West African capital is moving at a rapid clip these days, after diplomats from the regional West African ECOWAS bloc negotiated a power handover deal with Mali's military coup leaders last week.
The ousted president, Amadou Toumani Touré, has resigned, the incoming interim president is back from a brief exile, the coup leader has stepped aside, and everybody who's anybody is jostling to get a slice of the new political pie.
It's all happening between Bamako's Azalai Hotel Salam -- a dun-coloured structure in the heart of this dusty city -- and the military junta's headquarters at Kati outside town.
All eyes are now trained on Dioncounda Traoré, the country's National Assembly chief, who will serve as transitional president of a unity government until elections are held under Article 36 of the country's constitution.
The 70-year-old veteran Malian politician arrived in Bamako on Saturday from neighbouring Burkina Faso, where he happened to be on the night of March 21, when disgruntled soldiers ousted Mali's democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré.
Shortly before leaving Burkina Faso, Traore told reporters at the airport that he was "leaving for Mali with my heart full of hope. My country has known enormous difficulties, but I am leaving with the hope the people of Mali will come together to face this adversity head on."
A high-stakes mission
For Traoré, the stakes could not be higher. Mali today is effectively a divided country, despite the repeatedly heated declarations in Bamako about the unity and indivisibility of the nation.
The government lost control of northern Mali when Tuareg rebel fighters, in an uneasy alliance with Islamist groups, exploited the post-coup power vacuum in Bamako to seize control of a region the size of France.
For over a week, northern Mali has been effectively isolated, with international human rights groups warning that the region is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
Northern Malians displaced by the recent rebel advance have made urgent appeals for a humanitarian corridor to be set up amid reports of fighting between rival rebel groups, some of them believed to be linked to al Qaeda's northern branch, AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
The Malian army is weak, underfunded, unprofessional, and disgruntled. They have also had a taste of power, and now have to reconcile to another civilian boss in the presidential palace.
Inheriting a non-state
Politicians are known to complain about the problems they have inherited, but most political inheritances pale in comparison to the ones Traoré confronts.
“What can we do about the situation in northern Mali?” asks Abdou Abdoulaye Sidibi the local deputy of Gao, a northern region that fell from government control after the coup. “We cannot negotiate with the rebels to provide a humanitarian corridor, because there is no state, there are no representatives to negotiate. The Malian army is disorganized, there's nothing they can do. In fact, there is no army. We have officials who are willing to do things, but we have no state. We urgently need a transitional government.”
Sitting in the Salam hotel lobby, on the sidelines of Monday morning's closed-door discussions, Sidibi seems a helpless man, unable to save his region.
But, nevertheless, the 58-year-old deputy says he has faith in the country's incoming transitional president.
“He will take the lead,” said Sidibi. “I have confidence in Dioncounda Traoré because I am from the ADEMA-PASJ (Alliance for Democracy in Mali-African Party for Solidarity and Justice) and he was our candidate for the presidential election, so we think he's capable of doing the job.”
As head of the ADEMA-PASJ party, Traoré was a candidate for the presidential election, originally scheduled for April 29, before the military coup.
Enormous red campaign posters featuring the bespectacled, lightly bearded candidate are still plastered across the city.
Sidibi, though, is a party man and he supports his party's man. On the streets of Bamako, the reactions to Traore's appointment range from enthusiastic to indifferent.
“He's an experienced man, a familiar figure, he has held several posts and he is the leader of the biggest party. He can do the job,” says Boubacar Diallo, a 58-year-old businessman.
Standing besides him, Aicha Cissé, an activist, smiles indulgently, but obviously does not share Diallo's unequivocal enthusiasm for the incoming president.
“We'll see,” she says diplomatically. “He's changed his job -- now it's a different responsibility, different expectations. We'll see if he can meet them.”
The insider with a hefty political resume
Indeed, Traore has changed his job several times in the course of an eventful political career.
Besides being the ADEMA-PASJ party chief, Traoré's political resume includes stints as the country's former foreign minister. He also served in the civil service and defense ministries.
A mathematician by training, Traoré previously headed the Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ADP), an umbrella organisation of parties that backed ousted President Toure's re-election in 2007.
But it is his track record as a political insider that has turned into a handicap in an impoverished, corruption-riddled nation deeply disenchanted with its politicians.
During his last months in office, Touré enjoyed little popular support after his failure to halt the rebellion in the north, and Traore's support for the ousted president has not earned him brownie points among ordinary Malians.
As Malian recording artist Ras Bathily put it, “It's not a question of this man goes and that man comes. Today, we don't have faith in any politician.”
But at least some Malians are willing to give Traoré a chance. “The constitution demands that if a president cannot serve his term, the head of the National Assembly must take over. It's the constitutional order and I support it,” said Amadou Moussa Coulibaly, a 28-year-old Malian student. “As for Traore, I know him, I know who he is. I'm not willing to say black or white whether he will succeed in doing the job or not. But we should give him the chance."
Date created : 2012-04-10