BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Several thousand people took to the streets of Mali's capital Wednesday in support of last week's military takeover and a new constitution hastily written by the coup leaders.
A bloc of West African nations suspended Mali's membership and is sending five presidents to Mali to try to "restore constitutional order" a week after soldiers ousted the democratically elected leader of this vast and impoverished country.
The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, is also putting a peacekeeping force on standby but the junta leaders are working hard to give the semblance of normalcy here, and thousands are hoping the junta will stay.
"It's the first time I'm really proud of Mali and of Africa," said Niamoye Toure, a young doctor. "Honestly I'd given up on Mali. It's only now with the military that I've regained some hope."
Toure said the marchers wanted ECOWAS to recognize the new leadership.
"Capt. Sanogo isn't here to hold onto power, but just to bring some order to the country," she said, referring to coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo.
The new constitution was read on state TV late Tuesday night.
The 69-article constitution includes many of the guarantees of the former law, including the guarantees of free speech, liberty of movement and freedom of thought. New measures include the creation of a military-led council headed by Sanogo. It says that the new head of state is simultaneously the head of the army, the head of the government and the head of the judiciary.
The middle and final sections set out the role of the military committee now controlling the country, which calls itself the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State.
The new constitution says that the committee will be made up of 26 soldiers or police and 15 civilians. Those asked to serve on the committee will receive immunity and cannot be tried at a later time.
Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast who holds the rotating chair of ECOWAS, told reporters after an emergency meeting in the capital of his nation — that itself was shot up and bloodied in a political crisis last year — that Mali's democracy cannot be abandoned. The delegation of five African presidents was to head to Mali this week.
"We cannot allow this country endowed with such precious democratic instruments, dating back at least two decades, to leave history by regressing. It's why Mali needs to immediately return its democratic institutions to normal," said Ouattara. "This position is nonnegotiable."
There is no immediate plan to deploy the peacekeepers, said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the ECOWAS commission. The move suggests the bloc may consider force if the mutinous soldiers do not stand down.
Already, the United States, the European Union and France have cut off all but essential aid, a loss of tens of millions of dollars. Additional sanctions from the region would be a further blow to the junta, which seized control of the nation of 15 million in the wake of a mutiny at a military camp in the capital last Wednesday.
In the chaos that ensued, soldiers stormed the presidential palace. The whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was due to step down after elections next month, are unknown but he is said to be unharmed.
Besides the threat of military intervention, Mali's neighbors could suffocate the nation financially. Many of the 15 nations represented on the regional bloc share the same currency, and they could together decide to cut off Mali's supply of cash. Also if nearby Ivory Coast were to shut its border, landlocked Mali, a nation twice the size of Texas spanning over an expanse of scrubland, verdant hills and desert dunes, would run out of gasoline which is trucked in from Ivorian refineries.
But the thousands marching Wednesday said they trusted the junta, and called on ECOWAS to reconsider.
"The junta came to save Mali," said interpreter Eric Koite. "ECOWAS won't dare force Capt. Sanogo from power because he is an expression of the will of the people."
Sidi Ahmed Diallo, a sociologist, said: "If ECOWAS really wants to help us, then they should help us secure our territory. There are the rebels in the north of the country and if they like they can intervene there."
In 1991, Toure ousted the country's military leader in a coup that came after months of protests. The former general was dubbed "The Soldier of Democracy" after he handed power to civilians a year later, then retreated from public life. He remerged to win the 2002 and 2007 elections, and was due to retire at the end of his term.
Toure began losing support when an al-Qaida-linked terror cell implanted itself in northern Mali starting in 2003. He is accused of turning a blind eye, while diplomatic cables suggest the government entered into a pact of nonaggression with the terrorists for fear they would strike the capital in revenge.
It was in January that Toure's popularity hit a new low, after a Tuareg uprising began in the country's north. Again Toure did not respond forcefully, and when he finally sent troops to fight the insurgents, they were ill-equipped. Some did not even have enough food.
The group of soldiers that led the attack last week said that it was Toure's failure and incompetence in dealing with the two-month-old insurgency that pushed them to seize power. Their leader is an army captain who before the coup was an English language instructor at a military college.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.