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Africa - Mali Crisis

West African bloc Ecowas faces credibility test in ending Mali standoff

A crowd of people cheer Malian army soldiers at the Independence Square after a mutiny, in Bamako, Mali August 18, 2020.
A crowd of people cheer Malian army soldiers at the Independence Square after a mutiny, in Bamako, Mali August 18, 2020. © REUTERS/Moussa Kalapo

West African leaders from regional bloc Ecowas kick off a high-stakes mission to Mali on Saturday in a bid to reverse Tuesday's military coup. Member heads of state want ousted leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to be reinstated, but Malians have cheered his resignation. It is the latest sign of the widening schism between the bloc and civilians.

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A delicate balancing act lies ahead for the Ecowas delegation as it tries to restore constitutional order to Mali, while at the same time acknowledging the public's desire for change.

The architect of that mission is former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

He was the mediator between ousted leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and an opposition coalition, known as the June 5 Movement, during last month's talks that failed to end the deadlock.

FILE PHOTO: Former Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan speaks to the media next to an observer in Monrovia, Liberia  December 26, 2017
FILE PHOTO: Former Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan speaks to the media next to an observer in Monrovia, Liberia December 26, 2017 REUTERS - Thierry Gouegnon

Jonathan has said he hopes Saturday "to help the search for solutions" after this week's coup, and will be flanked by the president of the Ecowas Commission, Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, and Niger's foreign minister, Kalla Ankourao.

A junta official told AFP that the envoys would be received "with pleasure... it is important to talk to our brothers."

However, chances of a breakthrough appear slim reckon analysts, largely due to a misunderstanding between Ecowas and ordinary Malians.

Crossing red line

"The mediation by Ecowas has been ongoing, they've met with all different stakeholders but they have not integrated at all the claims of civil society and opposition parties," says Sten Hagberg, a professor in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Those claims include an end to escalating corruption, the embezzlement of public funds and access to education. Demands, which in Hagberg's view, have been largely ignored.

"None of this has been integrated in the mediation attempts, because the stepping down of the president is a red line they cannot cross," he told RFI.

The 15-member bloc is composed of leaders who are also facing demands for reform in their own countries, and who fear that Mali's collapse could set a precedent in the region.

MALI-Can Ecowas be a voice for the Malian people?-Sten Hagberg, professor at Uppsala University

In the cases of Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, their presidents have altered the rules to allow them to stay in power beyond their mandated terms.

"Many people in Mali and elsewhere in West Africa say that Ecowas is almost like a labour union of presidents," continues Hagberg.

The coup in Mali has put Ecowas' reputation as a champion of democracy to the test.

"People are saying we need an Ecowas of West African peoples not of presidents," he said.

Paying high price

While Malians have expressed widespread support for the military coup, it has been met with almost universal condemnation abroad.

This paradox can be explained by the country's security crisis, which has spilled over into neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.

"The security crisis in Mali since 2011-2012 has led to a situation whereby for the international community, the stability of Mali is key," says the Uppsala University professor, referring to fears that Mali's conflict is driving illegal migration to Europe.

"But on the other hand who is paying the price? It's the Malian people. There are no schools that have opened in months if not years. The public health service is not working. Even the army has been lacking military equipment and these are the people who are fighting terrorist groups."

For Hagberg, the international community has "invested everything in Keita" for the price of stability.

It is a price that Malians are no longer willing to pay.

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