Regional mediators are stepping up efforts Thursday in Mali, where the political opposition has renewed its call for protests so that President Ibrahim Boubcar Keita leaves office three years before his final term ends.
The latest meetings come after Ivory Coast's president arrived in the capital this week to try to salvage talks. Opposition leaders had rejected an earlier solution proposed by mediators from the 15-nation West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS.
The plan called for Keita to form a unity government and share power, but opposition leaders said the deal fell short because the president would get to remain in office. ECOWAS said Keita's departure is not something it can endorse. The president was democratically elected in 2013 and re-elected five years later.
His popularity has plummeted amid allegations of corruption and a relentless Islamic insurgency that began the year before he took office and has worsened under his watch. In June, demonstrators began taking to the streets by the thousands calling for his ouster, naming themselves the June 5 Movement.
Nearly two weeks ago, things took a dramatic turn for the worse when security forces attempted to put down the protests over several days. At least a dozen people were killed, and grief deepened the resolve of Keita's opponents to seek his removal.
West Africa's shuttle diplomacy has included several regional political heavyweights who helped intervene in 2012 when a military coup gave way to a jihadist takeover across Mali's north. ECOWAS pressured the coup leader to hand over power to a transitional civilian government.
The year after the coup, Keita won the first elections organized after the country's return to democracy.
The Islamic extremists deposed from power in towns across the north that year have proven resilient. After regrouping in the desert, they began launching regular attacks against U.N. peacekeepers and the Malian military. The jihadist violence has spread to more populated central Mali, where it has inflamed tensions between ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, critics say Keita made purchases like a presidential airplane and overpaid for military equipment. Some combat helicopters he bought remained grounded due to lack of maintenance.
While the World Bank says Mali's extreme poverty rate has fallen under Keita's tenure, his critics say that's merely the result of exceptional agricultural production. And 47.2% of Malian families were still living in extreme poverty even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now with borders closed and most vendors and small business owners out of work, the number of Malians who have taken to the streets has grown.