Mali’s military rulers have launched a three-day “national consultation” with political parties, unions and members of civil society groups, facing questions at home and pressure from abroad over their plans for returning the country to civilian rule.
About 500 people were expected to attend Thursday’s forum taking place at a conference centre in the capital, Bamako.
The talks mark the second round of discussions between the officers who last month overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and civilian representatives, many of whom had campaigned fiercely for him to step down during weeks of protests against the country’s economic woes and spiralling security crisis.
At stake is how the military government intends to make good on its promise, made just hours after the August 18 coup, to restore civilian governance and stage elections within a “reasonable” timeframe.
Approximately 100 supporters of the M5-RFP, the anti-Keita alliance which led the protests against him, clashed with police at the entrance to the conference centre, delaying the start of Thursday’s talks.
Early jubilation among many Malians over Keita’s exit has been superseded by questions and also divisions about the speed of the handover and the military’s role in the transition period.
Mali’s neighbours have watched with concern, fearing that the country at the heart of the fight against armed groups in the Sahel region could further slide into chaos.
The years-long violence plaguing Mali, in which armed groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have stoked ethnic tensions while jockeying for power, has also spilled into the neighbouring countries of Niger and Burkina Faso, destabilising the wider region and creating an enormous humanitarian crisis.
Fighters killed three Malian soldiers and destroyed two vehicles in an attack near Alatona, Segou region, in central Mali on Wednesday, according to reports citing military officials.
The military government initially talked of a three-year transition, corresponding to the time left in Keita’s second five-year mandate that would be overseen by a soldier.
In contrast, the 15-nation regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has set a hard line, closing borders, banning trade with Mali and insisting that the handover last 12 months maximum.
In the run-up to the talks, the bloc said Mali’s civilian transition president and prime minister “must be appointed no later than September 15”.
A committee of about 20 lawyers, researchers and academics has drawn up a draft “road map” resulting from a first round of talks on Saturday.
This document will be put to the forum “for amendment, improvement and enrichment”, its chair, Fatoumata Dembele Diarra, told AFP news agency.