West African leaders on high-stakes mission to end Mali standoff

West African leaders have arrived in Bamako on a high-stakes mission aimed at defusing Mali’s weeks-long political crisis that has raised concerns of further instability in a country grappling with multiple crises, including an escalating conflict.

The visit on Thursday by the presidents of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal comes days after a mediation mission by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS failed to break the deadlock.

The foreign leaders are expected to meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and key figures of the opposition coalition behind the protests, known as the June 5 Movement.

“It will be difficult to rebuff presidents who come to help bring back peace and stability to your country,” said researcher Demba Moussa Dembele, president of the Dakar-based African Forum on Alternatives.

“The government and the opposition would likely avoid being blamed if the mission were to fail,” Dembele said.

Mobilised by influential Muslim leader Ibrahim Dicko, tens of thousands of opposition protesters 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 spark 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 left 11 people dead. Several opposition leaders were also briefly detained.

An ECOWAS mission last week, led by Goodluck Jonathan, former Nigerian president, 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.

“The gap is currently wide between the demands of the parties – especially the June 5 Movement and what the government is ready to concede,” said Ousmane Diallo, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.

Dembele said forcing Keita to step down could be seen as “unconstitutional”, warning it could result in Mali’s international isolation.

In recent weeks, a number of Western diplomats and groups have also been meeting opposition leaders and government officials in an attempt to find a solution.

While a level of calmness has now been restored – the June 5 Movement on Tuesday pledged not to call protests for 10 days, until the forthcoming Eid religious festival – “the situation remains tense and could spill over beyond Bamako, to Kati, Gao and Timbuktu”, Diallo said.

“Beyond the possibility of Mali sliding further into crisis if a middle ground between the parties is not found, the credibility of the ECOWAS mediation itself is also at stake.”

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