BAMAKO, Mali — Mali's parliamentary head, who was forced into exile after last month's coup, returned Saturday to this nation in crisis, marking the first step in Mali's path back to constitutional rule.
The 70-year-old Dioncounda Traore was by chance in neighboring Burkina Faso on March 21 when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Mali's capital, ousting the nation's democratically elected leader and overturning two decades of democracy. While other ministers and associates of the toppled leader were immediately arrested, Traore remained free, though unable to return for fear of being detained.
Under intense pressure from the nations neighboring Mali, the junior officer who seized power 17 days ago agreed to return the nation to civilian rule, signing an accord late Friday in the presence of ministers from Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. The accord is a milestone for Africa, and especially for the troubled western corner of the continent, where coups or attempted coups are still a regular occurrence.
"I am leaving for Mali with my heart full of hope. My country has known enormous difficulties, but I am leaving with the hope the people of Mali will come together to face this adversity head on," Traore told reporters at the airport before leaving.
The accord signed by coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo calls for the immediate application of Article 36 of the Malian constitution, which says that in the event that the president of the republic is unable to carry out his functions, the head of the assembly becomes interim president for a transitional period until new elections are held.
If the transfer to civilian rule is successful, it will mark one of the only times when sanctions and international pressure succeeded in peacefully overturning a military power grab in the region.
By contrast in Guinea, it took a horrific massacre by the military junta and the attempted assassination of the coup leader for the country to right itself following the 2008 coup. And months of sanctions in Ivory Coast failed to dislodge the country's illegitimate leader last year, who only released his grip on power after U.N. airstrikes.
Sanogo signed the agreement inside the military barracks which has acted as the de facto seat of government ever since he and his men led a mutiny there. They broke down the doors of the armory and grabbed automatic weapons, using them to launch an attack on the presidential palace. In his two-week tenure at the head of country, Sanogo had time to put up a portrait of himself on the wall of his office. The framed picture is designed to have the look of a presidential portrait, and includes his name, next to the title: "Head of State."
It took only days for the sanctions to be felt after the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, decided on Monday to seal off landlocked Mali's borders.
The country imports all of its gasoline, and neighborhoods in the capital stopped having electricity for half the day. State television announced that the energy company was running at 50 percent capacity and would need to prioritize which sections of the city received power, with hospitals and military installations taking priority over residential areas.
At the Bamako airport after Traore's arrival on Saturday, Adama Bictogo, Ivory Coast's Minister of African Integration, read out a statement from the 15-nation regional bloc, stating that the sanctions had been lifted.
"Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo," said Bictogo, "has launched the process to put into effect Article 36 of the Constitution of Feb. 25, 1992, allowing thereby a return to constitutional order in Mali. As a result, the president of ECOWAS ... has decided to immediately lift all the sanctions against Mali."
Ever since the coup, Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure has been in hiding, and his whereabouts remain unknown. Article 36 of the constitution states that in the event of a vacancy of power, the head of the assembly becomes interim president for 21 to 40 days. However, the accord read out late Friday by Sanogo indicated that this timeframe will likely need to be extended.
Besides the coup, Mali is battling a rebellion in the north. The ethnic Tuareg rebels took advantage of the post-coup chaos to make military gains, seizing the capitals of the three northern provinces last week. On Friday, they declared independence, stating that the northern half of Mali — an area larger than France — was now a new country.
The military chiefs of Mali's neighbors met in Ivory Coast this week to prepare plans for a military intervention. Bictogo on Saturday stressed that the military operation would go ahead if the rebels do not back down.
"In what concerns the armed rebellion in the north of Mali," he said, "(we) demand the strict respect of Mali's territorial integrity. In this regard, the committee of the heads of state of ECOWAS which met on April 5, 2012 has taken all the necessary preparatory measures for a rapid deployment of troops by ECOWAS in order to stop any further evolution" of the conflict, he said.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed and Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali, and Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, contributed to this report.