The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has ramped up sanctions on Mali and activated its standby military force following the failure of transitional authorities in the country to organise elections.
In response, the transitional government of Mali has condemned the sanctions and imposed its own counter-measures. Meanwhile, the refusal of Guinea’s ruling junta to apply the sanctions is likely to lead to firmer action against the second country also currently under suspension from ECOWAS.
Stricter sanctions imposed
In a joint statement issued on 9 January, ECOWAS heads of state and government said that the country’s transitional authorities had failed to comply with an agreement reached with ECOWAS in September, which maps a return to civilian rule in line with the country’s own Transition Charter. A coup in May last year was Mali’s second in the last two years.
“[ECOWAS] deeply deplores the obvious and blatant lack of political will from the Transition authorities that led to the absence of any tangible progress in the preparations for the elections, despite the willingness of ECOWAS and all regional and international partners to support Mali in this process,” said the heads of state and government in the declaration.
In response, the West African grouping decided to maintain existing sanctions and impose new ones with immediate effect in the strictest action yet against the Sahel country.
- Immediate recall of ECOWAS ambassadors from Mali.
- Closure of land and air borders between ECOWAS countries and Mali.
- Suspension of all commercial and financial transactions with Mali except for food, pharmaceutical and medical products, petroleum products and electricity.
- The freezing of Mali’s assets in ECOWAS central banks and commercial banks and suspension of Mali from all financial assistance and transactions with all financial institutions, particularly the ECOWAS Bank for Investment and Development (EBID) and Banque Ouest-Africaine de Développement (BOAD).
The statement instructs all ECOWAS institutions to implement the sanctions with immediate effect and calls upon the UN, the AU and other partners to support them.
Two days later, the US Department of State endorsed the sanctions, stating:
“We share ECOWAS’s deep disappointment with the transition government of Mali’s lack of action or progress toward organizing elections, as it committed to do following the August 2020 coup d’état. We support ECOWAS’s decision to impose additional economic and financial sanctions to urge the transition government to keep its pledge to the Malian people to return their country to democracy.”
Two coups in two years
Sanctions were originally imposed in August 2020 after a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, following months of street protests and years of instability.
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ECOWAS relaxed sanctions in October 2020 after the Transition Plan for a return to civilian rule within 18 months was drawn up, naming a new transitional government.
However, in May 2021, Goita staged a second coup. ECOWAS decided to impose limited sanctions in December (including freezes on bank accounts and freedom of movement of coup leaders), but moved to impose full sanctions again on 9 January after the military regime announced that elections might not take place before 2025.
ECOWAS leaders said the new calendar would be tantamount to “tak[ing] the Malian people hostage for five years.”
The military government has argued that establishing security in the country was necessary before elections could be carried out. Large swathes of the country have remained outside government control for years due to jihadist and separatist insurrections.
French troops helped to regain control of large parts of the north in 2013 and France has continued its presence in the country as part of its wider Operation Barkhane counter-insurgency activities in the Sahel.
However, the operation has become increasingly unpopular in both France and Mali, and the former colonial power has begun a draw-down of troops, who are being partially replaced with a European force known as Tabuka.
In September rumours emerged that the transitional government was negotiating a security contract with the Wagner Group, a private Russian military outfit alleged to have close links with the government of the Russia, raising concerns among Western powers. In December, 15 countries including France, the UK and Germany, issued a statement condemning Russian involvement in Mali.
Despite the transitional government’s subsequent denial of Russian involvement, the ECOWAS leaders expressed concern at the “deployment of private security agents in Mali with its potentially destabilizing impact on the West Africa region”, in their 9 January declaration.
The sentiment was echoed by the US State Department, which said: “these forces will not bring peace to Mali and will divert resources away from the Malian Armed Forces’ fight against terrorism”.
The ECOWAS leaders also said that “in view of the potentially destabilising impact on Mali and the region, as a result of this transition in Mali,” they had decided “to activate immediately the ECOWAS Standby Force, to enhance its preparedness, should the need arise”.
The ECOWAS Standby force is made up of military, police and civilian components that can provide peace support and intervention missions.
Miners will face significant disruptions to Mali operations
Mining groups operating in Mali must prepare for major disruptions to their export routes and logistics supply lines as long as ECOWAS maintains its suspension of trade and financial exchanges with the country, warns Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
“Considering the importance of the gold mining sector as a source of revenue for Bamako, we do not expect the bloc to provide any exemptions to miners,” he said in a note on the situation.
Barrick Gold, which owns Mali’s biggest gold mine complex, told Reuters that it has not yet been affected by sanctions but that the situation was “very fluid” and it was monitoring it closely.
However, the French-language African news magazine Jeune Afrique notes that most of Mali’s gold exports go via air, and will therefore be less affected by terrestrial border closures.
Raymaker also points out that Mali is at risk of further economic sanctions from other international partners, including the European Union.
Mali has the third largest gold mining sector in Africa. Mining represents around 10% of the country’s GDP.
Sanctions ‘inhuman’ says Mali’s military regime
The military regime’s spokesman, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, said in a televised statement on 10 January that the government of Mali condemned the sanctions, which he described as “illegal” and “inhuman”.
In a retaliatory move, he added that Mali had decided to recall its ambassadors to ECOWAS countries and close its land and air borders with them.
And in what could be a message to Côte d’Ivoire, whose president was among the signatories of the 9 January statement, the junta ordered the release of Sess Soukou Mohamed, alias Ben Souk, an Ivorian opposition politician detained on an international arrest warrant for criminal charges of “subversion” in his own country.
On Friday 14 January, thousands of demonstrators across the country responded to the government’s call for a show of opposition to the sanctions. Protestors displayed placards saying “Down with ECOWAS” and “Down with France” and waved Malian flags.
Some commentators have predicted that ordinary Malians will bear the economic brunt of the sanctions.
“Mali is now essentially politically and economically isolated and it will have detrimental effects on its capacity to pay civil servants, and trade regionally and internationally, and this could stir more unrest,” BBC Monitoring’s Beverly Ochieng told the BBC World Service.
More than 1.8m people in Mali are expected to need food assistance in 2022 compared to 1.3m in 2021, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the country, El-Ghassim Wane, told the UN Security Council on 11 January.
Why is ECOWAS taking a tougher line?
In his address, Colonel Maiga accused ECOWAS of taking a tougher line because it was “exploited by extra-regional powers with ulterior motives”.
However, Reuters comments that the tougher line “reflects the pressure the organisation is under to show it can protect democracy from a backslide to military rule after West and Central Africa saw four coups within 18 months”.
The 9 January statement by ECOWAS heads of state and government also expressed concern over the slow progress to civilian transition in Guinea, four months after a coup overthrew President Alpha Conde. Guinea, like Mali, has been suspended from ECOWAS and was not a party to the summit.
The ECOWAS heads of state and government said that they regretted the absence of a timetable for elections and a National Council of Transition in Guinea, and ordered that a mission be sent to Conakry to discuss the transition process.
Guinea’s rejection of sanctions is “playing with fire”
In a statement read on Guinean television on 10 January, Guinea’s ruling junta, the National Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), disassociated itself from the decision of the ECOWAS leaders.
“[T]he [CNRD] reaffirms that the air, land and sea borders of the Republic of Guinea remain open to all sister nations in accordance with its pan-Africanist vision,” said CNRD spokeswoman Aminata Diallo.
For Eric Humphrey-Smith, Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, this amounts to “playing with fire”. He expects the move to result in the imposition of similar sanctions on Guinea, including a ban on trade by ECOWAS countries, suspension from international financial markets and a freeze on international aid disbursements.
Although closure of terrestrial borders would not affect Guinea’s mineral exports in the same way as landlocked Mali, it would have an impact on imports of food and equipment and could further delay mining projects such as Simandou and Nimba, says Humphrey-Smith.