DAKAR (Reuters) -Mali could push back presidential and legislative elections set for next February to avoid their validity being contested, its post-coup prime minister said.
Mali’s progress back to democracy following the August 2020 overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is being closely monitored in a region that has experienced four coups in 13 months, two of them in Mali.
Under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali’s new military leaders agreed to an 18-month transition that would culminate with presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 27, 2022.
But in an interview with Radio France International and France24 on Sunday, Mali’s interim prime minister, Choguel Maiga, said that date could be postponed by “two weeks, two months, a few months”.
“[The electoral calendar] was based on the requirements of ECOWAS without asking what practical steps must be taken to get there,” Maiga said. “The main thing for us is less to stick to Feb. 27 than to hold elections that will not be contested.”
Maiga said a final date would be determined by late October.
ECOWAS has not yet responded. Last month the bloc said it would impose sanctions, including asset freezes, on anyone holding up preparations for Mali’s elections.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the United Nations on Monday that French military efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel “are not sustainable without political stability and respect for the democratic process”.
“I particularly have in mind the timetable for elections in Mali, which must be strictly observed,” he said in a video statement to the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
Maiga also addressed reports that Mali is close to a deal with a Russian company, the Wagner Group, to hire private military contractors to help fight Islamist insurgents.
“We are at the stage of rumours and often even disinformation,” he said.
As soon as Mali agrees a deal with any country or partner, it will be announced, he said.
“We will have no shame in making it public,” he said.
Diplomatic and security sources told Reuters Mali was close to a deal to with the Wagner Group. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the Malian authorities had turned to a private military company from Russia.
The possibility of such a deal has triggered opposition from France, which has said the involvement of Russian military contractors was incompatible with a continued French presence in the West African state.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Writing by Cooper InveenEditing by Alessandra Prentice and Angus MacSwan)