BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita went on national television early Saturday, urging dialogue with his opponents just hours after thousands of anti-government protesters marched through the capital with some pushing their way into state television offices.
Friday’s developments marked a major escalation in the growing movement against Mali’s president, who still has two years left in office in this West African country long destabilized by Islamic extremists. Earlier in the day, anti-government protesters had barricaded roads and burned tires in the capital, Bamako.
Keita’s overnight address to the nation took a conciliatory gesture days after he had tried to appease the protesters by promising to revamp the constitutional court whose legislative election results back in April have been disputed by several dozen candidates.
“I would like once again to reassure our people of my willingness to continue the dialogue and reiterate my readiness to take all measures in my power to calm the situation,” he said in closing.
The movement against Keita’s government is now known as the June 5 Movement, or M5, a reflection of when demonstrators first took to the streets en masse. Keita’s gestures in recent days so far have failed to win favor with the opposition group, which still wants the National Assembly dissolved.
While the group has officially backed down from its calls that Keita leave office, some protesters still want him gone.
Keita came to power in the aftermath of a French-led military operation to oust Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali’s towns in 2013, winning the first democratic elections organized after a military coup the year before. Despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, and French and regional forces backing Malian troops, the extremist groups have continued to mount attacks.
Last year was particularly deadly for the army as hundreds of soldiers were killed in the north, forcing the military at one point to even close down some of its most remote and vulnerable outposts. Those losses prompted criticism of how the government was handling the crisis in the north.
Tensions mounted in late April after legislative elections were held, and several dozen candidates disputed the official results issued by Mali’s constitutional court. A mission from the regional bloc known as ECOWAS has suggested that the government re-hold elections in the localities where results are contested.
The last democratically elected leader before Keita, President Amadou Toumani Toure, was overthrown in the 2012 military coup after a decade in power. The political chaos that ensued has been blamed for creating a power vacuum that allowed the Islamic insurgency to take hold in the northern towns. Following international pressure, that coup leader later handed over power to a civilian transitional government that organized elections.