West African leaders meet in Mali in bid to ease country’s political crisis
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West African leaders gathered in Bamako on Thursday in a fresh push to end an escalating political crisis in the fragile state of Mali amid fears it could undermine a regional fight against Islamist militants.
In an exceptional one-day summit, the presidents of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Niger were meeting with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and leaders of a protest movement clamouring for his resignation.
The unrest deeply worries Mali's neighbours and allies, who fear a country bloodied by a jihadist insurgency could slide into chaos.
A small group of demonstrators gathered outside the airport where Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, Senegal's Macky Sall, Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou and Ghana's Nana Akufo-Addo were set to arrive for the summit.
"We're here to demand IBK's resignation and ensure our comrades who have been killed are not forgotten," said Yaya Sylla, a young protester, using the acronym by which Mali's leader is known.
The opposition umbrella group, "Movement of 5 June – Rally of Patriotic Forces" (M5-RPF), named after the date anti-government protests began, has tapped into deep anger over Keita's perceived failure to tackle the dire economy, corruption and the eight-year jihadist revolt.
At least 14 protesters were killed this month in clashes with the police, according to the UN.
The M5-RFP, whose figurehead is Saudi-trained Muslim cleric Mahmoud Dicko, has said it will not quit until Keita steps down, raising concerns in neighbouring countries of a protracted crisis.
"M5-RFP demands the resignation of Keita or the satisfaction of our demands," which include the establishment of a committee of inquiry into civilian deaths and a transitional government, the group's spokesman Nouhoum Togo told reporters on Thursday.
'The curtain will fall'
The summit comes on the heels of a five-day mediation mission from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which ended on Sunday without reconciling the two sides.
"It is this Thursday that the last act is played, the curtain will fall," said a Malian opposition politician who declined to be named.
The West African leaders will weigh on proposed solutions that have been crafted in behind-the-scenes talks between the president and opposition this week.
Keita, who came to power in 2013, has come under increasing pressure to end Mali's long-running jihadist conflict.
The impoverished nation of around 20 million people has been struggling to contain an insurgency that first emerged in the north in 2012 before spreading to its centre, as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes.
But much of the current tension was sparked in April, when the constitutional court tossed out 31 results from the parliamentary elections, benefiting Keita's party and sparking protests.
Tensions then ratcheted up into a crisis on July 10 when an anti-Keita rally organised by the M5-RFP movement turned violent.
Protesters blocked bridges in Bamako, stormed the premises of the state broadcaster and attacked the parliament.
Seeking a way out, ECOWAS mediators suggested forming a new unity government including opposition members and appointing new constitutional court judges who could potentially re-examine disputed election results.
But Mali's opposition movement has repeatedly rejected any outcome that did not involve Keita's departure.
Despite the apparent failure of the ECOWAS mediators, the president's camp and opposition figures have quietly been talking all week and the M5-RFP notably suspended protests ahead of the forthcoming Eid festival.
Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist at the University of Bamako, suggested the opposition may be prepared to accept Prime Minister Boubou Cisse's resignation instead of Keita's.
"The M5-RFP is obliged to keep up the pressure to at least get something," he said.
A European diplomat in Bamako who declined to be named said that the opposition may have overplayed its hand in demanding Keita's departure.
"Nobody wants to open the door to a period of political instability in Mali, which remains the epicentre of the Sahel security crisis," he added.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
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