Mali’s military government has begun talks with opposition groups on its promised transition to civilian rule after mounting pressure in recent weeks to yield power.
The military government’s leaders, who overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a coup in August, pledged to step down after an undefined transition period, but the putsch prompted Mali’s neighbours and former colonial ruler France to demand a swift transfer of power to civilian rule, with fears the crisis could affect other states in the region.
The talks in Bamako on Saturday were to be held under the military government chief, Assimi Goita, but he was not present, a military source told AFP news agency.
“Since August 18, we are charting a new history for our country,” Malick Diaw, the military government’s number two, told the opening session.
Saturday’s summit was originally planned for last weekend but was called off at the last minute after a quarrel between the military and the June 5 Movement (M5-RFP), which spearheaded the protests that led to the toppling of Keita.
Less than an hour after the opening ceremony began, supporters of the M5-RFP coalition began to protest, accusing the military government of excluding them from most working groups.
Supporters of M5-RFP in the conference hall shouted down the moderator onstage, bringing proceedings to a halt.
“This smells rotten,” Moussa Ouattara, an M5-RFP supporter, told AFP. “The CNSP is in all the groups but the M5-RFP is only in one group,” he said, referring to the National Committee for the Salvation of the People.
The moderator later announced that the M5-RFP would be able to participate in all the working groups, which calmed the coalition’s supporters and allowed the event to resume.
The M5-RFP voiced enthusiastic support for the coup but sharply criticised the military government last week after it was not invited to preliminary consultations about the transition.
The talks, which are also being held in regional capitals across Mali, are scheduled to continue on Sunday and then resume again late next week.
The 15-nation regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had imposed sanctions and closed borders to Mali as part of efforts to press the military government, the CNSP, into handing over power quickly.
Influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, a key player in the mass opposition protests that led to Keita’s removal, has insisted that the military government does not have “carte blanche”.
“We will not give a blank cheque to anyone to run this country, that’s over,” he said.
“We led the fight. People have died and the soldiers who have completed [this fight] must keep their word.”
Mali’s security situation deteriorated in the lead-up to the country’s fourth coup since it became an independent nation 60 years ago.
The ill-equipped army has the tough task of securing an area two-and-a-half times the size of France from different armed groups.
At least 10 Malian soldiers were killed in an overnight ambush in a central region near the Mauritanian border where armed groups are rampant, security and local sources said on Friday.
It was the third time Malian security forces have suffered heavy losses since the military took power.