W.African bloc sees Mali returning to civilian rule in 18 months

A top West African mediator said Tuesday he had no doubt that Mali’s post-coup interim administration would hand over power to civilians within an 18-month deadline.

The mediator for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, arrived in Bamako on Monday for two days of meetings with political and civil-society figures.

“It’s too early to doubt them,” said Jonathan, who was accompanied by ECOWAS President Jean-Claude Kassi Brou and the Ghanaian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shirley Ayorkor Botchway.

“We believe… they be able to confront everything that they have set out to do within the 18 months” timeframe, he said.

The visit comes amid increasing questions over the post-coup government’s ability to reform the constitution and stage elections within roughly a year, all while tackling the country’s brutal jihadist insurgency.

Army officers ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18, after weeks of protests fuelled by frustrations over his failure to tackle the eight-year conflict, as well as perceived corruption.

In response, ECOWAS quickly levied a trade and financial embargo on Mali, a poor nation of some 19 million people.

The 15-nation bloc only lifted the sanctions after the military junta on October 5 handed power to a caretaker civilian government, which is meant to rule for 18 months before staging democratic elections.

The junta had initially pushed for the interim government to last for three years.

Figures with army links have retained strong influence over Mali’s government, however, raising questions about the military’s role.  

Coup leader Assimi Goita was appointed interim vice president, for example. And the interim president, Bah Ndaw — a civilian — was an army officer before retiring from the military.

Ndaw nonetheless pledged on December 31 to return Mali to civilian rule on schedule.

Jonathan is expected to meet both Ndaw and Goita during his visit, according to a programme published by ECOWAS.