Top West Africa envoys meet in Mali with junta after coup

Col. Assimi Goita, center, who has declared himself the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, is accompanied by group spokesman Ismael Wague, left, and group member Malick Diaw, center-left, as they meet with a high-level delegation from the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, at the Ministry of Defense in Bamako, Mali, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Top West African officials are arriving in Mali's capital following a coup in the nation this week to meet with the junta leaders and the deposed president in efforts to negotiate a return to civilian rule. (AP Photo)
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BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Top West African officials met with the junta leaders and Mali’s deposed president Saturday in the capital trying to negotiate a return to civilian rule after a coup this week.

The mediation efforts came a day after thousands of Malians took to the streets of Bamako, the capital, to celebrate the coup that ousted elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS has strongly condemned the coup and said the high-level delegation will work “to ensure the immediate return of constitutional order.” ECOWAS also demanded the reinstatement of Keita.

ECOWAS had said it’s mobilizing a regional military force, an indication it’s preparing for military intervention in Mali in case negotiations with the junta leaders fail.

The international community has expressed alarm about the coup d’etat, which deposed Mali’s democratically elected leader who still had three years left in his term. Mali has been fighting against Islamic extremists with heavy international support for more than seven years, and jihadists have previously used power vacuums in Mali to expand their territory.

The high-level delegation, led by Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, held talks with the junta, including Col. Assimi Goita, who has declared himself the group’s leader. The regional delegation also met with Keita and the other detained officials.

After the brief meetings, few details were given, but Jonathan did say that Keita was doing well.

“We have seen the president IBK and he is very well,” Jonathan said, referring to Keita as many do by using his initials.

Keita and his prime minister have remained in the custody of the coup leaders.

The widespread support for the coup seen Friday means the junta may argue to the ECOWAS delegation that they enjoy popular support.

The coup took place Tuesday when soldiers detained the president and forced him to resign and to dissolve the National Assembly and government. By Wednesday, soldiers from the junta calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People had declared they were in charge of the West African nation and would work toward a civilian transitional government.

Keita — first elected in a 2013 landslide the year after a similar military coup — saw his popularity plummet after his 2018 reelection as the Malian army faced punishing losses from jihadist attacks. Then after dozens of legislative elections were disputed this spring, demonstrators began taking to the streets calling for his resignation. He offered concessions and regional mediators intervened, but his opponents made it clear they would accept nothing short of his departure.

On Friday, they welcomed the week’s developments but insisted they remained “deeply attached to democracy.” The junta has promised it will return the country to civilian rule but has given no time frame for doing so. Mali was not due to have another election until 2023.

Military juntas across West Africa have not always been in a rush to hand over power even when promising to do so — after the country’s March 2012 coup, the first democratic election was not held until the following August.

Mahmoud Dicko, an imam who led the political opposition to Keita’s presidency, told supporters Friday that he was ready to return to his mosque. But he did not rule out a return to politics entirely, saying: “I am an imam, I wish to die an imam, but I won’t keep quiet about injustice.”