BAMAKO – France's defense minister is pressing Mali's military junta to return the country to civilian rule within months, saying Sunday that the three-year timeline proposed by the coup leaders is “out of the question.”
The comments came hours after the junta hastily met with prominent figures from the opposition coalition following a public dispute that highlighted emerging divisions. Both sides were united in their desire to see former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita gone, but the opposition has begun criticizing the junta in recent days showing how tense the debate over Mali's future has become.
On Friday, imam and opposition leader Mahmoud Dicko publicly urged the junta leaders to meet the demands of regional mediators in order to spare Mali further crippling financial sanctions. Dicko, whom some suspect has political ambitions of his own, called on the current leadership to "be part of the solution and not another problem.”
The 15-nation West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS has said Mali’s return to democracy must not take more than a year and already has stopped financial flows to the country among other measures.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly agreed, telling Europe-1 radio the transition should take place within “a matter of months.”
“If this does not happen, the risk is that all this benefits terrorists first and foremost," she said. "Terrorists feed on the weakness of states.”
A similar military coup in Mali in 2012 unleashed political upheaval that was exploited by Islamic extremists in the country's north. They managed to seize power of the major towns in the north and implemented their strict interpretation of Islamic law before former colonizer France led a military intervention the following year to oust them.
The jihadists though have regrouped in the surrounding rural areas, and have continued to launch scores of attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian military, one of the factors contributing to the president's downfall. While the violence started before he took office in 2013, many Malians felt his government had not done enough to stamp out the extremists, who further encroached into central Mali during Keita's presidency.
Nearly two weeks after a military junta seized power, there is still no consensus on who will lead the transition that the international community is demanding, nor has there been any agreement on how quickly that should be achieved. Many fear that further political instability could unravel more than seven years of effort by France and the international community to stabilize the country.
The French defense minister said that a video conference would be organized this week with 18 international partners, though no further details were available.
Early Sunday, Mali's opposition alliance known as M5-RFP said it had put forth its own plan to the junta, but no details were given about their suggested time frame.
Tensions had flared Saturday when the M5-RFP leadership put out a terse statement saying they hadn't been invited to the junta's planned forum on the country's future. Coalition spokesman Issa Kaou Djim later said they had “cleared up the misunderstanding” with junta leaders.
However, questions remain about what role each will play. Dicko became an influential figure during the months of street demonstrations to oust Keita. Initially, he indicated he wanted to leave politics and return to preaching at his mosque. But his public statement Friday fueled further speculation he may still have political ambitions.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.