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Crisis-hit Mali swears in transitional president

Marking an end to a brief period of military rule, parliamentary speaker Dioncounda Traoré was sworn in as Mali's interim president on Thursday. He faces a number of challenges in steering the country toward reunification.

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, FRANCE 24 special correspondent reporting from Bamako, Mali

Three weeks after a military coup triggered a series of crises in Mali, including Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants dividing the country in two by seizing its northern region, a veteran politician was sworn in as interim president Thursday.

Dioncounda Traoré, 70, head of the country's National Assembly, assumed the role under the terms of a power handover deal negotiated last week by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc.

Traoré takes the reins of the impoverished country from a military regime that ousted democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22. Traoré is set to serve as transitional president of a unity government until elections are held under constitutional rule.

Over a week of rapid political developments, and nudged by ECOWAS, both Touré and junta head Captain Amadou Sanogo formally resigned, paving the way for Thursday's swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Court in the capital, Bamako.

A former labour activist and foreign minister, Traoré takes command of a country in a deep malaise.

For over half a century, Mali's national motto has proudly proclaimed Un but, un pays, une foi, or “One goal, one country, one faith”.

But the unity of the sprawling, sparsely populated West African nation went into disarray after Tuareg rebel fighters, in an uneasy alliance with a variety of Islamist groups including some linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, exploited the post-coup power vacuum and took control of a region the size of France.

As international human rights groups warned that northern Mali was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, one of the rebel groups, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, unilaterally declared the north's independence.

Hopes for 'the beginning of the end'

In a stark reminder of the mounting public anger over the north's security and humanitarian crises, thousands gathered at a Bamako stadium Wednesday to denounce the secession and declare their solidarity with an undivided Mali.

The demonstration was organised by an association known as the Collective of Northern Mali Citizens and included several Malians with families trapped in the rebel-controlled Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu regions.

“I've come to support this movement since I am from the north and my family is still in Gao,” said Ali Maiga, 21, a student at a Bamako university. “I've come because I believe Mali is one united country, and I want us all to live together as one nation.”

Maiga said he hoped that Thursday's swearing in ceremony would mark “the beginning of the end” of Mali's recent crises. “We need to give with Dioncounda Traoré a chance,” he said. “I'm happy he's being sworn in as the interim president because it marks a return to constitutional rule.”

Too much of a political insider?

A mathematician by training, Traoré was educated in Mali, Algeria, France and the Soviet Union and belongs to a generation of African politicians that witnessed the “Big Man” autocrats fall to democratic movements.

As a trade union activist, he was jailed several times by the regime of Moussa Traoré, who was Mali's president for 23 years before he was ousted in a 1991 coup. (There is no familial relation between the two men.)

Touré let that coup and immediately handed over power to civilians. More than a decade later, he was elected president in 2002.

Traoré backed Touré's re-election big in 2007, when he was head of the Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ADP), an umbrella organisation of parties.

A veteran insider who has served in numerous political positions, Traoré announced his candidacy for the 2012 presidential election, originally scheduled for April 29, before the military coup derailed the election.

Enormous red campaign posters featuring the bespectacled, lightly-bearded candidate are still plastered across the city.

But his track record as a political insider has become a handicap in a nation deeply disenchanted with the corruption of its politicians.

“No, no, I don't have any faith in Dioncounda Traoré,” says Ibrahim Maiga, a 58-year-old French literature professor, as he fanned himself in the stifling hot stadium Wednesday. “He's not a man of the people. He's from the same jungle of people that led this country to this state of chaos. I have no confidence in him, I don't believe he has the capacity to govern this country.”

Mission near-impossible

As interim president, Traoré is charged with overseeing elections within 40 days, a mission most experts believe is almost impossible.

His most immediate responsibility is to appoint a prime minister, who will be charged with reunifying the nation.

In Bamako political circles, the rumor mills are churning out likely candidates amid anxieties that Captain Sanogo may not prove so committed to the democratic path after all.

Many observers believe the critical defense ministry portfolio will go to a member of Sanogo's clique.

Given the junta's failure to tackle the country's most pressing security problem, that does not bode well for Mali or for its new interim president.

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