Mali’s presidency tasked a stripped-down cabinet on Monday with working to form a unity government in the crisis-stricken nation, after pressure from other West African leaders.
The presidency said the new ministers would negotiate with “concerned parties”, adding that it was acting on the wishes of regional grouping ECOWAS, which had proposed a unity government earlier this month and reaffirmed the plan during a summit held by videolink on Monday.
However, a protest movement has caused ructions after it rallied crowds in demanding the removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The group has also previously rejected the ECOWAS plan.
Keita, in power since 2013, faces huge challenges not least an eight-year jihadist revolt and a slumping economy.
But the current protests were sparked in April, when the Constitutional Court tossed out the results from 31 constituencies in an earlier parliamentary election a ruling that benefitted Keita’s party.
Tensions then ratcheted up into a full-blown crisis on July 10 when an anti-Keita rally organised by the June 5 Movement, a loose coalition of opposition groups and religious leaders, turned bloody.
Eleven people died in clashes with security forces over several days — the worst bout of political unrest Mali has seen in years.
– Opposition rejection –
The heads of the 15-nation ECOWAS earlier said they supported Ketia and called for opposition leaders to join the unity government, threatening sanctions on anyone who stood in the way of resolving the crisis.
The UN Security Council endorsed the effort of ECOWAS and voiced “deep concern” over the crisis.
Security Council powers “urged the Malian parties to act on these recommendations without delay in order to resolve the tensions,” a statement said.
According to the presidency’s announcement, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse will keep his job and oversee a government including six ministries.
One member of the new cabinet — economy minister Abdoulaye Daffe — is considered to be close to imam Mahmoud Dicko, the figurehead of the protest coalition.
But Saudi-trained Dicko has already dismissed the ECOWAS plan, saying last week: “I would prefer to die as a martyr rather than die as a traitor.
“The young people who lost their lives (in the protests) did not lose them for nothing.”
– Dialogue plea –
Addressing the disputed election, Monday’s ECOWAS summit called for the immediate resignation of the 31 MPs and demanded new by-elections in their constituencies.
President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, who also currently heads ECOWAS, urged Malians to reject violence and to continue speaking.
ECOWAS urged the June 5 Movement — leading the protests — to participate in the talks, in a “spirit of patriotism”.
Successive rallies against Keita since last month rattled the 75-year-old’s grip on power, as he was already facing increasing pressure to end Mali’s jihadist conflict.
On July 10, the third major demonstration turned into three days of deadly unrest in Bamako, leaving at least 11 people dead in the worst civil unrest in the capital since 2012.
The June 5 movement said a truce would hold until July 31, but some younger members of the disparate union announced they would resume protests after August 3 — once again calling for Mali’s leader to resign.
The impoverished nation of 20 million has lost thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, despite the presence of French and UN troops.
And violence continues outside of the capital, with the death on Thursday of a French soldier during an anti-jihadist operation.
Mali is a member of ECOWAS, which has intervened in several crises in West Africa, including in The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.