W. African bloc intends to restore Mali democracy

People march along a central street as thousands rallied in a show of support for the recent military coup, in Bamako, Mali Wednesday, March 28, 2012. The body representing nations in western Africa has suspended Mali and has put a peacekeeping force on standby in the most direct threat yet to the junta that seized control of this nation in a coup last week. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
People march along a central street as thousands rallied in a show of support for the recent military coup, in Bamako, Mali Wednesday, March 28, 2012. The body representing nations in western Africa has suspended Mali and has put a peacekeeping force on standby in the most direct threat yet to the junta that seized control of this nation in a coup last week. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

BAMAKO, Mali — A bloc of west African nations suspended Mali’s membership and is sending five presidents to Mali to try to “restore constitutional order” a week after soldiers ousted the democratically elected leader of this vast and impoverished country.

The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, is also putting a peacekeeping force on standby but the junta leaders are working hard to give the semblance of normalcy here. The airport serving the capital and the country’s land borders reopened on Tuesday and a nighttime curfew was lifted. Traffic was heavy, as offices reopened for the first time since the coup.

The junta showed images on TV of goods looted by soldiers being returned to their owners.

Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast who holds the rotating chair of ECOWAS, told reporters after an emergency meeting in the capital of his nation — that itself was shot up and bloodied in a political crisis last year — that Mali’s democracy cannot be abandoned. The delegation of five African presidents was to head to Mali this week.

“We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing. It’s why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal,” said Ouattara. “This position is nonnegotiable.”

There is no immediate plan to deploy the peacekeepers, said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS commission. The move suggests the bloc may consider force if the mutinous soldiers do not stand down.

Already, the United States, the European Union and France have cut off all but essential aid, a loss of tens of millions of dollars. Additional sanctions from the region would be a further blow to the junta, which seized control of the nation of 15 million in the wake of a mutiny at a military camp in the capital last Wednesday.

In the chaos that ensued, soldiers stormed the presidential palace. The whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was due to step down after elections next month, are unknown but he is said to be unharmed.

“We want the soldiers back in their barracks,” said Mohammed Decko, a Malian wearing a shirt with Toure’s image. “This coup is putting Mali back 20 years.”

Besides the threat of military intervention, Mali’s neighbors could suffocate the nation financially. Many of the 15 nations represented on the regional bloc share the same currency, and they could together decide to cut off Mali’s supply of cash. Also if nearby Ivory Coast were to shut its border, landlocked Mali, a nation twice the size of Texas spanning over an expanse of scrubland, verdant hills and desert dunes, would run out of gasoline which is trucked in from Ivorian refineries.

The coup took the region and the world by surprise. Mali has been held up as one of the few established democracies in the troubled western corner of the continent. Late Tuesday on state television, the newscaster announced that Mali would soon be under a new constitution, indicating the putschists are moving forward with plans to create a new government.

Later Tuesday, an army lieutenant read out the lengthy document consisting of 69 articles. The first part appeared to be lifted from the country’s current constitution, including the guarantees of free speech, liberty of movement and freedom of thought. The middle and final sections set out the role of the military committee now controlling the country, which calls itself the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State.

The new constitution says that the committee will be made up of 26 soldiers or police and 15 civilians. Those asked to serve on the committee will receive immunity and cannot be tried at a later time. Article 42 says that the head of the committee is Mali’s new head of state. It says that the new head of state is simultaneously the head of the army, the head of the government and the head of judiciary.

In 1991, Toure ousted the country’s military leader in a coup that came after months of protests. The former general was dubbed “The Soldier of Democracy” after he handed power to civilians a year later, then retreated from public life. He remerged to win the 2002 and 2007 elections, and was due to retire at the end of his term.

Toure began losing support when an al-Qaida-linked terror cell implanted itself in northern Mali starting in 2003. He is accused of turning a blind eye, while diplomatic cables suggest the government entered into a pact of nonaggression with the terrorists for fear they would strike the capital in revenge.

It was in January that Toure’s popularity hit a new low, after a Tuareg uprising began in the country’s north. Again Toure did not respond forcefully, and when he finally sent troops to fight the insurgents, they were ill-equipped. Some did not even have enough food.

The group of soldiers that led the attack last week said that it was Toure’s failure and incompetence in dealing with the two-month-old insurgency that pushed them to seize power. Their leader is an army captain who before the coup was an English language instructor at a military college.

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