, BAMAKO, Jul 30 – Mali’s interim president put the final touches on a unity government Monday, the eve of a deadline set by foreign partners, taking the lead in negotiations after sidelining his unpopular premier.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given Mali’s interim authorities until July 31 to form the unity government, expected to be better able to deal with the occupation of the north by hardline Islamists.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore got straight to work upon his return to Bamako following two months in Paris recovering from an attack by opponents, announcing on Sunday the creation of new bodies tasked with ending the crisis.
In a televised address to the nation, he announced he would be in charge of a High Council of State, lead talks for a unity government himself and create a committee to negotiate with the Islamists controlling Mali’s north.
Some observers saw the announcements as a sign Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was being pushed aside, after key political parties called for his resignation, accusing him of “incompetence and amateurishness”
“It is a turning point in the crisis,” Malian sociologist Mamadou Diarra told AFP.
“It is clear that with the new team, the prime minister’s powers are really reduced. Traore gave a rallying speech whereas the prime minister used partisan language,” Diarra said, praising the president’s address.
However Communications Minister Hamadoun Toure said this was a “false reading” of the president’s speech.
The High Council of State is designed to “complete the country’s institutional architecture” and “adapt it to socio-political realities.”
It will be made up of the interim president and two vice-presidents, one of whom will be in charge of defence and security and handling the four-month-old crisis in the north. The other will represent the various non-political forces in Mali.
Traore also announced that “neither the president, nor the prime minister, nor the ministers, can run in the next presidential election.”
The landlocked west African nation was one of the region’s stable democracies, but has crumbled into despair in half a year as a Tuareg rebellion sparked a coup which allowed jihadists to seize more than half its territory.
ECOWAS wants to send a 3,000-strong military force to Mali, but is waiting for United Nations approval and a formal request from Bamako from a more inclusive government.
“Mali will not collapse,” Traore said several times during his speech.
He said a “national negotiating committee” would be set up to “engage in peace talks so as to seek through dialogue negotiated solutions to the crisis” in the north.
The 70-year-old was appointed in April as a junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo which ousted the regime of Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22 handed power to a civilian transition government.
However supporters of the junta protested his appointment and on May 21 a mob stormed his office and beat him savagely, leaving him with a head injury. He returned Friday from France where he has been recovering since.
The premier Diarra has been in charge in Traore’s absence, and his regime has proved powerless as Islamists acting under the aegis of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have deepened their hold on the north, an area larger than France.
They have implemented strict Islamic law and destroyed ancient World Heritage sites in the city of Timbuktu which they consider idolatrous.
The Front for Democracy and the Republic (FDR) — grouping of some 140 political parties, civil society groups and unions — criticised Diarra for having no clear plan to win back the north.
Prime Minister Diarra, who has worked for NASA and was also the Microsoft chairman for Africa, is also seen as too close to the former putschists led by Sanogo.
FDR member Fatoumate Sire Diakite praised Traore’s address saying he was “dividing tasks, because it is only through sharing roles that we can get Mali out of where it is. I am full of hope for my country.”