Bamako — Mali's coup-triggered political crisis that has seen half the country seized by Islamist militias deepened with the arrest and resignation this week of interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra - something which could complicate international peace efforts, say analysts and observers.
Nine months ago, renegade troops overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré, making possible an Islamist conquest of the north. Under international pressure and mediation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the junta turned over power to a civilian leadership, but political wrangling and the influence of ex-coup leader Amadou Sanogo have often hobbled negotiations to resolve the crisis.
Diarra, a 60-year-old astrophysicist appointed prime minister in April, was arrested by troops on the evening of 10 December as he was about to leave for Paris. The soldiers are reported to have been acting on Sanogo's orders.
Diarra was accused of jeopardizing a planned national dialogue on restoring democracy. In a televised address, he did not specify why he quit, but relations between him, Sanogo and interim President Dioncounda Traoré had been strained.
Less than 24 hours after his resignation, the president appointed the country's former ombudsman and a seasoned public administrator, Diango Cissoko, as the new prime minister.
"The removal of Diarra complicates the resolution of the Malian crisis...There is a big risk that this week's events could delay the talks now under way with some rebel groups, and the prospect of military intervention which had been acting as a lever on the rebels, encouraging them to negotiate," said Paul Melly, a journalist and associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK think tank.
Bakary Mariko, Sanogo's spokesman, said Diarra had been "doing everything to block the national dialogue...
"There is an institutional deadlock at the top level of government. It's difficult to understand that a prime minister of a country in crisis cared only about himself. He works alone, doesn't consult the president and makes pronouncements that go against those of the president and the people of Mali," Mariko said.
"He causes confusion in and outside Mali. We wanted a unifying prime minister, but Cheick Modibo was the opposite."
Gilles Yabi, of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, said Diarra's departure would not be regretted much, although it indicated the extent of the military's sway in Malian politics.
"Very few people within the political class in Mali and within the international community will regret the departure of Modibo Diarra who discredited himself by showing that he was more interested in building a basis for his own presidential future than focusing on managing a transition in a country in deep crisis," Yabi told IRIN.
Mali's former colonial power France voiced worry over Diarra's resignation: "We condemn the circumstances under which Cheick Modibo Diarra was forced to resign," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Ibrahim N'Diaye, vice-president of ADEMA, Mali's main political party
This prime minister had no political management experience of a country, or, say, public administration. It's true that his resignation will slightly halt the process of returning things back to normal because a new prime minister, a new government team, will have to be appointed, but I believe this time round we'll start on a proper basis.
Adama Coulibaly, army lieutenant
This decision has saved Mali. It's the prime minister who caused the deadlock. He was looking only after his own interests at the expense of national interests.
Ibrahim Dembélé, trade unionist
I'm afraid that Mali may become like Guinea Bissau where the army controls everything. The prime minister resigned due to military pressure. This should not be a habit whereby the army removes those who block its interests. It's because the prime minister didn't want to play their game - that's why they forced him to resign, nothing else. The person causing the deadlock is Sanogo.
Abdine Maiga, Timbuktu resident
I wonder when the army and the politicians will stop their internal conflicts over the liberation of the north. We are Mali's most forgotten people. The military and the politicians are looking only after their interests. Recapturing northern Mali is not a priority. This is making the occupiers here very happy and they commit all sorts of violations.
Since the 22 March coup, Mali has been divided, with the north under the control of Islamists groups which have imposed a harsh brand of sharia (Islamic law) and have flogged and amputated civilians, and destroyed religious edifices they deem un-Islamic in Timbuktu, a UNESCO-listed heritage city. The capital Bamako and the rest of the south are under the fragile authority of the interim government.
ECOWAS has been urging the UN Security Council to authorize an urgent military intervention to retake northern Mali from the Islamist Ansar Dine militia which controls swathes of territory alongside the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI).
The regional body has also opened talks with the some of the forces in the north. On 4 December, ECOWAS mediator and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré led talks in Ouagadougou between Mali government representatives and those of Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist Tuareg movement that initially captured key towns in northern Mali before being uprooted by Islamist forces.
While the UN and ECOWAS seem to disagree on the timing of a military intervention, the threat of force may have already helped in opening up talks with Ansar Dine and the MNLA, according to analysts who stress that diplomacy and force are mutually inclusive.
"There isn't a choice to be made between a military option to retake the north and a negotiated settlement," said the ICG's Yabi. "The crisis is complex and calls for a strategy that combines the different security, military and political aspects. What's important is having a comprehensive strategy."
The ECOWAS Council of Ministers on 1 December said it was "disturbed by the seeming lack of urgency" in deploying forces to Mali. The comments were in response to UN chief Ban Ki-moon's report days earlier in which he said a military solution should be a "last resort" to deal with hardline extremists and criminals in the north and that negotiations should take precedence.
"It is possible to imagine an agreement over enhanced autonomy and development spending for the north that could satisfy the MNLA, which is the latest manifestation of a decades old pattern of Tuareg uprisings to support demand for better treatment of the north," Chatham House's Melly said. "Such a compromise could also have attractions for Ansar Dine's leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who has long been a major figure in northern Malian affairs."
MUJAO and AQMI are not involved in the negotiations.
ECOWAS says it has 3,300 troops from regional countries it plans to deploy to Mali, but the UN has raised questions about how such a mission would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed.
In his report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already extremely fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses."
At the start of December, 353,745 Malians still remained displaced due to the crisis and a severe drought that struck the Sahel region this year which forced them to flee to other regions of the country or to neighbouring states.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]