West African leaders have arrived in Bamako on a high-stakes mission aimed at defusing Mali's weeks-long political crisis that has raised concerns of further instability in a country grappling with multiple crises, including an escalating conflict.
The visit on Thursday by the presidents of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal comes days after a mediation mission by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS failed to break the deadlock.
The foreign leaders are expected to meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and key figures of the opposition coalition behind the protests, known as the June 5 Movement.
"It will be difficult to rebuff presidents who come to help bring back peace and stability to your country," said researcher Demba Moussa Dembele, president of the Dakar-based African Forum on Alternatives.
"The government and the opposition would likely avoid being blamed if the mission were to fail," Dembele said.
Mobilised by influential Muslim leader Ibrahim Dicko, tens of thousands of opposition protesters have in recent weeks poured onto the streets of Bamako to demand Keita's resignation.
Although dissatisfaction over the country's economic woes, corruption and worsening security situation has been simmering for a while, the spark for the current crisis was a decision by the Constitutional Court in April to overturn the results of parliamentary polls for 31 seats, in a move that saw candidates with Keita's party get re-elected.
The protests turned violent earlier this month when three days of clashes between security forces and protesters left 11 people dead. Several opposition leaders were also briefly detained.
An ECOWAS mission last week, led by Goodluck Jonathan, former Nigerian president, proposed setting up a government of national unity that would include members of the opposition and civil society groups. It also suggested, among others, the appointment of new judges to the Constitutional Court, which had already been "de facto" dissolved by Keita in a bid to calm unrest.
But the proposals were rejected by the June 5 Movement, with protest leaders insisting that Keita must go and calling for accountability for the killings in the June 10-12 protests.
"The gap is currently wide between the demands of the parties - especially the June 5 Movement and what the government is ready to concede," said Ousmane Diallo, Amnesty International's West Africa researcher.
Dembele said forcing Keita to step down could be seen as "unconstitutional", warning it could result in Mali's international isolation.
In recent weeks, a number of Western diplomats and groups have also been meeting opposition leaders and government officials in an attempt to find a solution.
While a level of calmness has now been restored - the June 5 Movement on Tuesday pledged not to call protests for 10 days, until the forthcoming Eid religious festival - "the situation remains tense and could spill over beyond Bamako, to Kati, Gao and Timbuktu", Diallo said.
"Beyond the possibility of Mali sliding further into crisis if a middle ground between the parties is not found, the credibility of the ECOWAS mediation itself is also at stake."
Regional leaders are eager to avoid further instability in Mali, a country of some 20 million people that has been plagued by a conflict that began in 2012 and has since spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
According to the United Nations, attacks grew fivefold between 2016 and 2020, with 4,000 people killed in the three countries last year, up from about 770 in 2016. The fighting has also forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and led to the closure of thousands of schools.
In central Mali, a multitude of armed groups have been jockeying for control while exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
The presence of thousands of foreign troops has failed to stem the violence, while allegations of abuses and extrajudicial killings by Malian forces have perpetuated deep-rooted mistrust and enmity in parts of the country with little government presence otherwise.
"The [regional] security concerns are real," Dembele said.
"If the crisis lingers on, Mali is likely to descend into chaos, which will affect the morale of the military and weaken its fight against the terrorist groups. In that case, there is a risk that neighbouring countries, like Senegal and Guinea, will be affected, which in turn will affect other countries."
Diallo said the visit by the five presidents, only days after the ECOWAS mediation mission, showed "how important it is for them to have stability in Bamako".
"For a long time, Mali was perceived the weak link regarding the insurgency in the Sahel; there is an imperative of preventing the political crisis from impacting very negatively regional security initiatives," he added.
"The goal is to prevent a bad situation from getting worse."
© Al Jazeera 2020