Peace rally gathers tens of thousands in Mali
More than fifty thousand Malians gathered for a peace rally in the capital, Bamako, on Sunday, convened by the country’s top religious leader. Analysts see this as a strong sign that the majority of Malians blame politicians for the continuing security crisis in the north.
The meeting for "national peace and reconciliation" in Bamako's main stadium was called by the country's top Muslim body and drew several key politicians including Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra.
"Let us pray for Mali, let us pray for peace," urged Mahmoud Dicko, the head of Mali's High Islamic Council, as he addressed an estimated crowd of between 50,000 and 60,000.
Political power remains concentrated around the south of the country in the capital, Bamako. According to Kassim Koné, a social anthropologist, Sunday’s demonstration is proof that Malians see the current crisis as a political rather than a military problem.
“Political groups in the south are all positioning themselves, and are doing what they can to hang on to power. And they all want to have a major say in the government. This is what is making Malians feel impatient,” Koné told RFI.
It is no coincidence that the rally took place during Ramadam, says Koné, “The fact that the Malian people came out and made their requests at a rally during Ramadam is very significant. It means it [the crisis in the north] is both religious and political.”
Dicko recently met with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), one of two Islamist groups, along with Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), occupying the north of the country.
The groups -- which security experts say are acting under the aegis of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) -- seized key northern cities in the chaos following a coup d'etat in Bamako on March 22 that toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure.
The takeover was spearheaded by Tuareg rebels seeking an independent state for their nomadic desert tribe, but the extremists have pushed them aside and seek an Islamic state in the zone, an area larger than France or Texas.
The groups have since imposed strict Islamic law on the population in northern Mali, prompting outrage as they stoned an unmarried couple to death last month and cut off the hand of a thief on Wednesday.
Fighters from Ansar Dine also destroyed part of Timbuktu's cultural treasures -- declaring the ancient Muslim shrines "haram" or forbidden in Islam -- shortly after Unesco placed them on a list of endangered World Heritage sites.
"Our country needs peace and national healing," said Madani Ousmane Haidara, a prominent imam, at the rally.
"It's up to Malians to find a solution and I ask all Malians to forgive each other," Haidara said.
In Bamako, interim authorities who took over from the junta have stood by helplessly as Islamists have tightened their hold in the north, and are now working to form a stronger unity government on the orders of west African mediators.
The Ecowas West African regional bloc has 3,300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.
The UN Security Council is ready to approve this, but is awaiting a formal request from Bamako as well as more information on the size, means and mandate of the proposed force.