West African leaders will gather Sunday to discuss Mali's political crisis, with the military junta submitting a new timeframe for a transition back to civilian rule at the last minute after its first proposal was rejected.
The extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc in Ghana's capital Accra is expected to discuss possible sanctions on the Sahel state over potentially delayed elections, among other issues.
The meeting comes after months of increasing tensions over the timetable for restoring civilian rule in Mali after a military takeover in 2020.
In August that year, army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita toppled the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita amid street protests against his unpopular rule.
Under threat of sanctions, Goita subsequently promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022 after holding presidential and legislative elections.
But he staged a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government.
The move disrupted the reform timetable, and was met with widespread diplomatic condemnation.
ECOWAS insisted that Mali hold elections in February.
But the government then said it would only set an election date after holding a nationwide conference -- arguing that a peaceful vote was more important than speed.
Swathes of Mali lie outside of state control, with the government struggling to quell a jihadist insurgency that has raged since 2012.
On December 30, after Mali's reform conference ended, the government suggested a transition period of between six months and five years, starting from January 1, 2022.
This would enable the authorities to "carry out structural institutional reforms and (organise) credible, fair and transparent elections", it said.
But ECOWAS mediator Goodluck Jonathan asked the regime to revise that plan during a visit last week, Mali's foreign minister said.
On Saturday, the junta submitted a new proposed timetable to the bloc's acting president, Malian state television reported -- without giving any details about its contents.
- Potential sanctions -
The 15-nation ECOWAS has led the push for Mali to uphold its commitment to stage elections early this year.
The return to civilian rule has put the bloc's credibility on the line as it seeks to uphold fundamental principles of governance and contain regional instability.
At a summit on December 12, its leaders reiterated demands that the elections be held by February 27 as initially planned.
They maintained sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans within the ECOWAS region against around 150 junta figures and their families, and threatened further "economic and financial" measures.
The possibility of fresh sanctions is expected to be on the agenda at Sunday's summit.
A West African Economic and Monetary Union summit will immediately precede the ECOWAS talks in Accra, with its eight members potentially meeting to lead concerted action and impose new economic sanctions.
Sanctions have proved effective in the past.
For example, the bloc responded to Goita's first coup, in 2020, by shuttering Mali's borders, imposing trade restrictions and suspending the country from its decision-making bodies.
Mali's army installed a civilian-led government in response and pledged to hold elections, which led to a lifting of the economic sanctions, although Mali remains suspended from the bloc's main bodies.
ECOWAS did not impose sanctions immediately after the second putsch, but in November it opted for targeted measures against individual junta members over perceived delays in its election preparations.
Analysts say regional leaders must take into account the risks of pitting Malians against ECOWAS.
A large proportion of the country's political class boycotted the recent reform consultation, but the government's narrative promoting national sovereignty resonates with some of the population.