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22.12.2019 Mali

Mali crisis talks end with political solution distant

By Serge DANIEL
A French military base in Gao, northern Mali, a region that has recently seen more deaths of soldiers, especially Malian troops with Islamists killing more than 140 of them since September.  By MICHELE CATTANI (AFP)
LISTEN DEC 22, 2019
A French military base in Gao, northern Mali, a region that has recently seen more deaths of soldiers, especially Malian troops with Islamists killing more than 140 of them since September. By MICHELE CATTANI (AFP)

Talks on finding a political solution to the deepening crisis in Mali ended on Sunday with calls for new elections but also uncertainty about the way forward as opposition groups boycotted the initiative.

The gathering notably did not push for dialogue with jihadists, who have been waging a bloody insurgency in the troubled West African country for seven years.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita convened representatives from political and armed groups on December 14 for a so-called "national inclusive dialogue" after a recent surge of ethnic and jihadist violence.

Islamists have killed more than 140 Malian troops since September, in a widening insurgency that has also inflamed bloodshed between Fulani herders and sedentary farmers in the central Mali.

The jihadist attacks form part of a Sahel-wide insurgency which national armed forces, backed by 4,500 French troops and UN peacekeepers, are struggling to contain.

The failure to find a military solution to the violence has encouraged a feeling that dialogue with the jihadists is the way out of the crisis. It has also raised questions about France's deployment.

However, Keita made no reference to possible dialogue with jihadists on Sunday, despite many delegates backing the option during this week's talks.

Both the government in the capital Bamako and former colonial power France have repeatedly ruled out dialogue with jihadists.

The International Crisis Group, a think tank, in May urged the government to engage in talks with jihadists in order to defuse the violence. Cross-party talks in Mali in 2017 had also urged dialogue.

Keita said that this week's talks were the "start of a long period during which we must bring about the rebirth of Mali".

"Our country cannot be a ship adrift," he said at a closing ceremony in Bamako attended by some 3,000 people.

Opposition no-show

Keita hoped the talks would reconcile Mali's divided political class.

But in a display of how deep the fracture runs, most opposition groups in the country snubbed the exercise, an AFP journalist said, citing distrust of the president.

The leader of the main opposition party, Soumaila Cisse, refused to take part, for example, as did an umbrella formation which groups several parties and associations.

In attendance, however, was the opposition Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an alliance of rebel groups that signed a still shaky 2015 peace agreement with Bamako.

"The most important thing is that Malians talked to each other," said Ndoula Thiam, a MP from Keita's ruling coalition.

Bamako-based sociologist Oumar Coulibaly said armed groups showing up was a positive development, but that opposition parties would have needed to as well to make the exercise a " great celebration of democracy".

The talks concluded with recommendations to hold parliamentary elections before May next year and to revise the constitution.

Parliamentary elections were meant to be held several times over the past year but were postponed for security reasons.

Likewise, elements of the constitution need to change to fully implement the 2015 peace accord between Bamako and armed groups such as the CMA.

CMA spokesman Almou Ag Mohamed said the talks were a "useful exercise for democracy" but added he hoped that the resolutions would now be applied.

France-Sahel tensions

The push for a political solution in Mali comes as France's role in the region is coming under increasing question in Sahel countries.

Keita has acknowledged the former colonial master's role but told French TV on Saturday that its relationship with Sahel states needed to be "respectable and respectful".

For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron this week denied that he had imperialist designs on the Sahel and vowed to "keep up the fight against jihadist terrorists".

The leaders of the anti-jihadist G5 Sahel military alliance are due to attend a summit in France on January 13 to discuss recent tensions.

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