'Rattled' Mali junta urges protests against ECOWAS sanctions

Published : January 12, 2022 16:54 IST

Mali's military rulers have described ECOWAS imposed sanctions as inhumane and unnecessary. Photo: Präsidentschaft der Republik Mali

Mali’s junta is urging citizens to protest against the recent financial and economic sanctions imposed by ECOWAS.

Mali's ruling military junta has been left frustrated by the recent punitive economic and financial sanctions imposed on the country by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in response to delays to the country's elections. At a meeting in Ghana's capital Accra on January 9, the bloc announced the closure of land and air borders with Mali, suspension of financial assistance, economic transactions, and withdrawal of all ECOWAS ambassadors from Mali.

Mali's coup leaders have reacted angrily to the latest ECOWAS sanctions, calling them stringent, inhumane, and unnecessary. The junta's spokesman Colonel Major Abdoulaye Maiga said Mali denounces the measures. "The government of Mali deplores the inhumane nature of these measures, which are affecting populations already severely affected by the security and health crisis linked to Covid-19. The government of Mali calls for calm and restraint," Maiga said on national television.

In August 2020, Colonel Assimi Goita ousted Mali's elected civilian leader Ibrahim Boubacar Keita following street protests. Many Malians were unhappy about the worsening security situation and economic hardship. After briefly handing over to a civilian-led transitional team, Goita staged another coup, offering to restore civilian rule by February 2022. Instead, he has since asked for more time to return the country to constitutional order.

Pitting Malians against ECOWAS

The military leaders are urging citizens to demonstrate on January 14. On January 10, supporters of the military regime organized a large rally at Independence Square to denounce the sanctions imposed on Mali. Ousmane, a reseller of mobile phone accessories in the capital Bamako, told DW that he was confident despite the sanctions. "I have no fear of ECOWAS sanctions. I don't see why we should worry about it if our goods can go through Algeria or Mauritania. So, there is more fear than harm. I believe that this is the time or never for Mali to leave ECOWAS permanently," Ousmane said.

Another trader, Boubacar, supports the military regime's pushback, while insisting that Mali can withstand the sanctions. "We must be proud first of all to be Malian. That's the first thing. We have everything here, food, rice, among others. I'm not sure the prices are soaring in the market, because we have factories here," Boubacar told DW.

But not everyone supports retaliation. Instead, some Malians want more negotiations in order to reach an amicable solution to the country's political crisis. Souleymane, a resident in Bamako, told DW that the tug-of-war between Mali and its neighboring countries is a threat to everyone. "I'm petrified. It is a loss for the state first. Because if the state goes bankrupt, it has to subsidize many things, the different products, and they become more and more expensive. That's my concern," Souleymane said.

Tussle over the transition timeline

The military rulers offered a timeline of four to five years for the transition, citing security concerns, but ECOWAS leaders said that was unacceptable. They refused to compromise on the timetable of elections scheduled for next month. ECOWAS has maintained that the junta-backed government must hold elections as soon as possible to return the country to civilian rule.

President of ECOWAS Jean Claude Kassi Brou expressed his distaste for the position taken by the soldiers. "The authority simply finds the proposed chronogram for a transition totally unacceptable. This chronogram simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage during the next five years," Brou told journalists in Accra.

But Grit Lenz, coordinator of the civil-society network Focus Sahel, which works on peace and development policy issues in the Sahel, told DW that generally, Malians support a longer transition period. "There is a strong mood against external influence on Mali, on the Malian transformation process," Lenz said, adding that many Malians disagree with the fact that Mali is being led by external pressure to organize elections very quickly.

'No rush to hold elections'

Holding elections quickly to return Mali to a democratic rule is the priority of ECOWAS, but Lenz said there is no need to rush the process. "History has also taught us that this often does not help. That these hastily held elections are by no means a guarantee for democratically legitimized governments that do better than the government that was in power before the coup," Lenz said.

Ghanaian security analyst Adib Saani agrees with Lenz. Saani faults ECOWAS for failing to negotiate well with the Malian Military leadership on the way forward. "I am wondering how ECOWAS expects Mali to be able to conduct a free, fair election under such circumstances," Saani told DW. "I think that ECOWAS could have resulted to more diplomacy and giving the Malian regime more time to be able to put its house in order so we can have a progressive election held." However, for Lenz, "these sanctions tend to strengthen the Malian military government. And it is indeed the case that there are considerations in Mali. There are voices that are in favor of leaving ECOWAS completely," Lenz warned.

Will the sanctions work?

Analysts say the latest move by ECOWAS would affect ordinary citizens but could further jeopardize the state of Mali, which is already struggling with its economy and security. "Yes, the ECOWAS sanctions will, of course, affect the population," Lenz said but was quick to add that Mali could explore other alternatives.

When ECOWAS first imposed stringent sanctions on Mali after the first coup last year, the military regime turned to countries like Mauritania and Algeria for trade. "There are certainly neighboring countries that are not [ECOWAS] members with already economic relations and which have also taken over the role very quickly in the past sanctions after the first coup," Lenz said. He believes contacts with the non-ECOWAS neighboring countries will do Mali a lot of good for the moment, buying it enough time to hold its stance.

According to Lenz, countries like China and Russia have been anti-Western and could further explore opportunities presented by these sanctions. For him, Mali is already re-orienting "towards Russia, China, and Turkey in the area of security policy. There are also new partnerships in this area. So the Malian government military government is by no means dependent on ECOWAS."

The nation of 19 million people continues to battle security threats posed by Islamist extremists operating in the Sahel region. Moreover, the recent withdrawal of French troops from parts of the country has further exposed its vulnerability.