West African delegation 'very hopeful' after meeting Mali junta

Monday August 24 2020

Former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan (2nd-R) arrives at Bamako airport on August 22, 2020 before a meeting between Malian military leaders and an Ecowas delegation. PHOTO | AFP



A West African delegation visiting Mali to push for a speedy return to civilian rule following a coup said it was "very hopeful" on Saturday after meeting with the country's military junta and the president it ousted.

The head of the delegation from the regional Ecowas bloc, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, said that detained Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was doing relatively well.

"We saw him, he's very fine," said Jonathan, who had earlier met for half an hour with the soldiers who seized power on Tuesday, including new strongman Colonel Assimi Goita.

Jonathan told AFP that negotiations were going well and he was "very hopeful".

Rebel soldiers seized Keita and other leaders after a mutiny on Tuesday, dealing another deep blow to a country already struggling with a brutal Islamist insurgency and widespread public discontent over its government.


Reinstate Keita

Mali's neighbours have called for Keita to be reinstated, saying the purpose of the delegation's visit was to help "ensure the immediate return of constitutional order".

Ecowas Commission chief Jean-Claude Kassi Brou said late Saturday that the talks took place in a "very open atmosphere and we felt a real desire to move forward".

"We hope to be able to finalise everything by Monday," he added.

Ismael Wague, spokesman for the junta which calls itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, also said the negotiations were going "very well".

Good impression

A source close to the junta said the Ecowas envoys had made a "good impression".

"We understand that heads of state, like Ivory Coast's Alassane Ouattara, are working for an easing of tensions, for a peaceful solution, even if they have firmly condemned our seizing power. We are open to discussion," the source told AFP.

The envoys also visited the Kati military base outside the capital Bamako where the coup began and which has become a new centre of power, the source said.

President Keita has been held at the base since the coup, along with prime minister Boubou Cisse and other high-ranking government figures.

Thousands of jubilant Malians took to the streets of Bamako on Friday to celebrate the toppling of Keita, who was re-elected in 2018 but became the focus of widespread discontent.

The rally, originally organised as an anti-Keita protest by a loose coalition that has led months of mass rallies against him, was recast to "celebrate the victory of the Malian people".

"I am overjoyed! We won," said Mariam Cisse, 38.

Rally dispersed

But it was a different story on Saturday, when several dozen people who tried to rally in Bamako were dispersed by police.

"We are here this morning to show that we do not agree with the coup. But people attacked us with stones, then the police took advantage of this aggression to disperse our supporters," said Abdoul Niang, an activist of a pro-Keita party.

There has been international pressure to restore order, the United States on Friday suspending military aid to Mali, with no further training or support of the country's armed forces.

The Ecowas delegation will meet with the ambassadors in Mali of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – on Sunday morning, according to the programme seen by AFP.

Keita won election in a landslide in 2013, presenting himself as a unifying figure in a fractured country, and was re-elected in 2018 for another five-year term.

But he failed to make headway against the jihadist revolt that has left swathes of the country in the hands of armed Islamists and ignited ethnic violence in the country's volatile centre.

Thousands of UN and French troops, along with soldiers from five Sahel countries, have been deployed to try to stem the bloodshed.

In a sign of the continuing challenge facing the country, four soldiers were killed Saturday by an explosive device in the centre of the country.

The Ecowas visit with Keita comes after the UN's peacekeeping mission in Mali said a human rights team gained access to the ousted president and other detainees on Thursday.

Tired but relaxed

While Keita and Cisse have no television, radio or phone, other detainees are in a training centre, where they are sleeping on mattresses and have a TV, according to witnesses to the visit.

The 75-year-old ousted president "looked tired but relaxed" they said.

A junta member said the coup leaders had released former economy minister Abdoulaye Daffe and Sabane Mahalmoudou, Keita's private secretary, calling the move "proof that we respect human rights".

Tuesday's coup was the second in eight years, and has heightened concern over regional stability as its jihadist insurgency now threatens neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.