Diplomats and other observers have warned of the hurdles to a quick resolution of the political crisis in Mali as a delegation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Saturday met with the coup leaders and the ousted president Ibrahim Keita.
The delegation arrived in the country’s capital, Bamako, for talks aimed at engendering Mali’s quick restoration of democracy through the release and reinstatement of Mr Keita.
The delegation was led by Goodluck Jonathan, a former Nigerian President who had previously led mediation talks with the opposition coalition whose call for the resignation of Mr Keita had preceded the coup.
Mutinous soldiers on Tuesday arrested Mr Keita and forced him to resign from power at gunpoint. He has since been held at Kati military base outside of Bamako where the mutiny first began.
The coup was condemned by the international community but celebrated by many in the country after months of political unrest.
The talks on Saturday between the ECOWAS delegation and the junta were set for 90 minutes, according to a provisional schedule from ECOWAS, but lasted for only 20 minutes, an ECOWAS source told Al Jazeera.
According to Al Jazeera, the meeting was held in Mali’s defence ministry where ECOWAS mediators in face masks sat at a long table opposite military government leader, Assimi Goita, who wore a desert camouflage uniform and was flanked by military officers in berets and fatigues.
Although ECOWAS and the coup leaders, who call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), have yet to comment, Mr Jonathan told the AFP that negotiations were going well.
He said he was “very hopeful” on where the mediation mission was heading to.
Also commenting on the condition of the detained president, Mr Jonathan said Mr Keita was alright.
“We saw him, he’s very fine,” he said.
ECOWAS and other countries and international organisations had immediately condemned the coup but are now meditating to end the political crisis in a country already battling an insurgency.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was among those who had expressed fear that the crisis could set off unrest in the entire region.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how Mr Buhari called for measures to deescalate the situation in Mali and to restore democracy.
“The events in Mali are great setbacks for regional diplomacy, with grave consequences for the peace and security of West Africa. It is time for the unconstitutional ‘authority’ in Mali to act responsibly and ensure restoration of constitutional order, peace and stability,” the Nigerian leader said.
Like Mali, Nigeria is struggling to fend off a decade-long Boko-Haram insurgency in its northern region amidst other security challenges in the south.
A Nigerian political scientist and former vice-chancellor of Adekunle Ajasin University, Femi Mimiko, said the situation in Mali is a security challenge to the Sahel region stretching up to Nigeria.
“Mali is virtually the weakest link in the Sahel security ring. The situation is quite fragile and if it is not carefully managed, the radical Islamists that were beaten back with France’s direct intervention in 2012 may overwhelm the military; and come to dominate the terrain.
“This would pose a greater challenge to the security of the region, stretching even up till Nigeria,” Mr Mimiko told PREMIUM TIMES.
Keita’s reinstatement under question
While the Malians mutineers have promised to hand over power to a transitional government which would conduct elections within a “reasonable” period, ECOWAS wants the ousted president reinstated immediately.
The presidents of Ivory Coast and Guinea are among those pushing for a tougher response from ECOWAS in ensuring Mr Keita’s reinstatement.
The regional bloc has already suspended Mali’s membership and halted financial inflows into the country.
According to Al Jazeera, one ECOWAS source said the presidents of both countries are also facing violent public protests to their third-term bids and want the bloc to show it will not allow power grabs in its own backyard.
“They cannot tolerate this taking place. They are taking it very personally. It is on their doorstep and they think they are next,” another diplomat told Al Jazeera.
Mr Keita was ousted after months of mass demonstrations against what many considered as an inept rule, mired in corruption allegations and failure to defeat a ravaging insurgency.
Therefore, the call for his reinstatement has infuriated the Malian opposition which had taken to streets to celebrate his overthrow on Friday.
Ahead of the ECOWAS delegation’s visit, a diplomat told Reuters that reinstating Mr Keita should be left out of its discussion with the junta.
“Reinstating IBK (Ibrahim Keita) is out of the question. The only thing they (the delegation) can achieve is the transition. Under the rules of ECOWAS. ECOWAS should midwife the transition,” he said.
Mr Mimiko also advised the regional bloc and other partners to focus on seeing Mali through a transition to a democratic order in the country.
“Beyond the open condemnation of the military junta, therefore, Nigeria, ECOWAS, and AU should explore some backchannel platforms to robustly engage the new military government, with a view to getting it committed to immediate transition to a new civil democratic order.
“This has to involve France too, undoubtedly the most critical force in Mali and across the Sahel. Time is also of the essence in all of these,” he said.