West African leaders have kicked off an extraordinary summit to propose measures to help resolve an escalating political crisis in Mali.
The virtual meeting of the 15-member ECOWAS regional bloc on Monday comes days after unprecedented mediation efforts by the presidents of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal in Mali’s capital, Bamako, failed to end the impasse.
For weeks, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has been locked in a tense standoff with an opposition protest coalition known as the June 5 Movement that has been demanding his resignation.
After the daylong talks on Thursday, influential Muslim leader and protest mobiliser Ibrahim Dicko told journalists that no progress had been made.
“Nothing has moved for the movement,” he said.
For his part, Mahamadou Issoufou, Nigerien president and current ECOWAS chair, told reporters: “We have decided that we will report back to all the heads of state during an extraordinary meeting on Monday, July 27.
“ECOWAS will take strong measures that will contribute to the resolutions of the crisis.”
Led by Dicko under the umbrella of the June 5 Movement, a disparate alliance of political, social and civil society groups, tens of thousands of people have in recent weeks poured onto the streets of Bamako to demand Keita’s resignation.
Although dissatisfaction over the country’s economic woes, corruption and worsening security situation has been simmering for a while, the trigger for the current crisis was a decision by the Constitutional Court in April to overturn the results of parliamentary polls for 31 seats, in a move that saw candidates with Keita’s party get re-elected.
The protests turned violent earlier this month when three days of clashes between security forces and protesters killed 11 people. Several opposition leaders were also briefly detained.
An ECOWAS mission days before the Bamako visit of the five West African leaders proposed setting up a government of national unity that would include members of the opposition and civil society groups. It also suggested, among others, the appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Court, which had already been “de facto” dissolved by Keita in a bid to calm unrest.
But the proposals were rejected by the June 5 Movement, with protest leaders insisting that Keita must go and calling for accountability for the killings in the June 10-12 protests.
Regional leaders are eager to avoid further instability in Mali, a country of some 20 million people that has been plagued by a conflict that began in 2012 and has since spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
According to the United Nations, attacks grew fivefold between 2016 and 2020, with 4,000 people killed in the three countries last year, up from about 770 in 2016. The fighting has also forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and led to the closure of thousands of schools.
In central Mali, a multitude of armed groups has been jockeying for control while exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
The presence of thousands of foreign troops has failed to stem the violence, while allegations of abuses and extrajudicial killings by Malian forces have perpetuated deep-rooted mistrust and enmity in parts of the country with little government presence otherwise.
“The [regional] security concerns are real,” Demba Moussa Dembele, president of the Dakar-based African Forum on Alternatives, told Al Jazeera.
“If the crisis lingers on, Mali is likely to descend into chaos, which will affect the morale of the military and weaken its fight against the terrorist groups. In that case, there is a risk that neighbouring countries, like Senegal and Guinea, will be affected, which in turn will affect other countries.”
But the Institute for Security Studies think-tank warned on Thursday that there was an “unfavourable prejudice” towards the regional leaders amid suspicions they were protecting their own narrow interests.
“The search for solutions will have to take into account the need to improve the daily lives of Malians,” the think-tank said.