Are the sanctions imposed on Mali in January “disproportionate, inhuman, illegitimate and illegal”, as the country’s military government has claimed? And will their “socioeconomic consequences” inevitably have a “harsh effect” on the populations not only of Mali but those of the whole West African sub-region, as the junta also asserts?
At the same time, as France and Europe announce the withdrawal of troops that have been engaged in the fight against jihadism in Mali, are we witnessing a turning point in France’s relations with the continent and the emergence of a new Cold War in Africa, and what will be the consequences for the region?
In this article we examine the background to the sanctions, their effects on Mali and the region, and the wider ramifications of recent events for peace, security and trade in West Africa.
Ecowas imposes sanctions on Mali
On 9 January, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) imposed tough sanctions on Mali – which was already suspended from membership of the regional organisation – when it became clear that its military government would not comply with an agreed roadmap for a return to civilian rule after successive coups in 2020 and 2021.
The sanctions included closure of land borders between Ecowas countries and Mali, suspension of all but essential commercial transactions, suspension of financial transactions and the freezing of the country’s assets in Ecowas central and commercial banks.
Sanctions were originally imposed in August 2020 after a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goïta overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, following months of street protests and years of instability, but had been greatly relaxed following the establishment of the roadmap.
The Mali junta accused Ecowas of taking a tougher line because it was “exploited by extra-regional powers with ulterior motives”, a veiled reference to the country’s former colonial power, France, which has maintained a strong military presence in the country for 10 years, as part of its fight against jihadism in the region.
However, Reuters commented that Ecowas’s tougher line “[reflected] the pressure the organisation is under to show it can protect democracy from a backslide to military rule”.
In the period since Mali’s August 2020 military takeover, there have been four further coups in the region, three of them in states that are members of Ecowas. In Guinea, the army overthrew President Alpha Conde in September 2021 and in Burkina Faso President Roch Kaboré was overthrown on 23 January this year.
In Guinea-Bissau an attempted coup on 1 February was unsuccessful, while in Chad, a Sahelian country that is not a member of Ecowas, the instalment of Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno as president after his father’s death in April 2021 was described by the opposition as an “institutional coup“.
The roots of the crisis in Mali and the Sahel
“The crisis of Mali and the Sahel is multidimensional,” says Morten Bøås, research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and author of the forthcoming regional analysis Sahel: The Perfect Storm.
State fragility, jihadi insurgents with fine-tuned strategies of asymmetrical warfare and international responses that have not been able to prevent rebellions from engulfing larger parts of the territories during 10 years of crisis have all contributed to the present crisis, he tells African Business.
In 2012, longstanding grievances among the Touareg minority in the north of Mali, fostered by the return of former rebels from Libya after the downfall of Muammar Gadaffi, erupted into a rebellion. The rebels took control of most of the north of the country, but were subsequently ousted by former jihadist allies.
French troops entered Mali in 2012 in an operation that saw rapid successes against the jihadists. The operation was expected to be short-lived, but 10 years later – and with 53 French troops killed in Mali and the wider region – the security situation in the country has only deteriorated further. Large parts of the north and east of the country are in jihadist hands, and conflict has spread into neighbouring areas of Burkina Faso and Niger.
Figures collected by freelance data analyst José Luengo-Cabrera reveal the stark rise in internally displaced persons and refugees as a result of conflict in Mali since 2015.
Other figures collected by Luengo-Cabrera illustrate the rise in fatalities and violent events across four countries in the region between 2015 and 2021, with a sharp spike in fatalities in Mali in 2020.
2012 also saw the start of constitutional instability in Mali, after democratically elected President Amadou Touré was overthrown by the military on the pretext of the government’s failure to deal with the rebellion.
Under restored civilian rule, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won presidential elections in 2013 and 2018, but as the military situation deteriorated and he failed to make progress in a promised fight against corruption, his rule became increasingly unpopular.
Keïta was re-elected with a 67% majority in the 2018 presidential election, but he faced accusations of vote rigging. In April 2020 a decision by the country’s Constitutional Court that overturned results in parliamentary elections to give the president’s own party a majority of 10 seats led to massive demonstrations in the capital, Bamako.
On 18 August 2020,Keïta was overthrown by a coup led by Goïta, a member of Mali’s special forces.
“Our country is sinking into chaos, anarchy and insecurity mostly due to the fault of the people who are in charge of its destiny,” said air force deputy chief of staff Col-Major Ismaël Wagué in a televised announcement on behalf of the junta, which promised to set up a “civilian political transition” leading to elections within “a reasonable time”.
Popular support for the junta
The August 2020 coup was greeted by widespread demonstrations of support in Bamako.
“This was widely seen as a corrupt government that has basically been unaccountable to the people for a number of years,” Susanna Wing, associate professor of politics at Haverford College in the US, told the BBC’s World Service at the time. “There was a great deal of disillusionment with the poor government of the country. People don’t trust the system.”
However, a poll by Afrobarometer found that while the popularity of the coup came as no surprise, Malians rejected military rule as a system of government.
“Even if many citizens appear willing to accept military intervention in the short term, they reject military rule as a system of government. Findings suggest they will hold coup leaders to their promise to call elections and transition back to civilian government,” said a dispatch from the pan-African research institute.
Opposition to the latest round of sanctions has again roused popular support for the military regime. On 14 January, large crowds responded to the junta’s call to show their oppositon to sanctions by assembling in Bamako’s Independence Square, where placards bearing the words “Down with Ecowas” and “Death to France and its allies” were strongly in evidence.
Popular discontent with France
It is ironic, when French President Emmanuel Macron has increased aid to Africa, kept French troops in the Sahel to fight jihadists and supported Ecowas in defending electoral politics against military takeovers, that his country is now the target of embittered African complaints on an unprecedented scale, writes Paul Melly, a consulting fellow on the Africa Programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London.
Part of the problem, according to Melly, is his “self-confident”, even “arrogant” personal style, but the larger problems relate to the perceived failure of France to deal with the jihadist threat and the baggage of its relationship as former coloniser – a problem that is shared with many other former colonies on the continent.
For Melly, writing last December, “a significant proportion of local public opinion feels that France, as a high-tech Western military power, should have been able to ‘sort’ the [security] problem and should now get out of the way if it cannot do so”.
Created in 1945 for use in France’s African colonies, it still remains the currency of 14 independent African countries. Defenders of the CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro and whose convertibility is guaranteed by the French Treasury, point to the macroeconomic stability and low inflation that it brings to the countries that use it.
The currency’s detractors see it as a form of neo-colonial tutelage. France’s role as “guarantor” of the CFA franc has given it great power over its former colonies, whose monetary policies, far from being independent, have had to keep in step with those of France, and latterly the European Monetary Union.
Increasing anger is felt at the existence of the currency, which is widely perceived as benefiting local elites and France and holding back rather than adding to the development of African economies.
On 17 February, after months of rising tensions with the military authorities in Bamako, which had seen the expulsion of the French ambassador to Mali, President Macron announced that France and the EU would be withdrawing their forces from the country and that the centre of European operations in the region would shift to Niger.
“We cannot take action with authorities with whom we cannot agree,” he said in a broadcast statement.
“The withdrawal of French and other European forces from Mali will reduce the capacity both of the Malian military – with whom they were working closely – and the overall strength of the military response to jihadist and other violence in the Sahel,” Paul Melly tells African Business.
Towards a new Cold War in Africa?
For Morten Bøås, the consequences go even further. “The end of France’s military engagement in Mali could represent a huge turning point in the history of Paris’ relationship with former African colonies, with serious consequences not only for regional security, but also for Europe and for France’s world power status,” he says.
Apart from the jihadist leaders,Bøås sees only losers in the conflict: “Mali is losing… France is losing. How can France whose world power status very much relies on its position in West Africa afford to lose Mali, and possibly Burkina Faso?”
A large bone of contention between France, other Western powers and Ecowas, on the one side, and the government of Mali on the other has been the presence of the Wagner Group in the country.
A private military company already operating in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique, Wagner’s ownership is shrouded in mystery, but it is reputed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is believed by some to be a front organisation for Russia’s Ministry of Defence, and therefore constitutes a security concern for Western powers at a time of growing tension with Russia.
Despite the transitional government’s denial of Russian involvement in the country, 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 sanctions declaration.
But the Malian junta’s plan appears to be to use the Russian group to restore security in the country rather than the French, and reports in the French-language pan-African magazine Jeune Afrique indicate that hundreds of Wagner Group mercenaries have already arrived in the country, some of them brought in by Russian military transport planes.
“The Sahel crisis has become a part of what we may call a Cold War,” saysBøås. “Parts of Africa could be in for a rocky ride.”
How are sanctions affecting Mali?
“There have already been reported increases in the prices of basic commodities in Mali as well as restrictions to sending funds outside the country,” BBC Monitoring’s Beverly Ochieng tells African Business.
“About 70% of food is imported and a food crisis has been worsened by the insurgency. Transnational movement for work and trade supports that majority of rural, border populations so many risk losing sources of income if border closures are enforced.”
Bøås says that traders are in a precarious situation as many have money locked up in goods that are standing still in Abidjan due to sanctions.
“Many of these traders could go out of business, as their business is based on selling their goods, taking a small profit and investing what’s left in the next shipment. This is causing economic stress in Mali, but also among traders in Côte d’Ivoire, as they also depend on this border economy being in circulation,” he says.
The freezing of Mali’s accounts in the Central Bank of West African States (which serves as a central bank for the eight West African states that use the CFA franc – see below) in line with Ecowas sanctions is also hitting the country hard. In late January Mali’s government blamed its default on $31bn in bond repayments on the banking restrictions.
The authorities need income from tax to pay about $120m in monthly government wages, Modibo Mao Makalou, a former adviser to ousted President Keïta, told Reuters on 21 February, but revenues are drying up.
“I think [the government] can last 2-3 months maximum, but the noose must be loosened,” Makalou told the news agency.
Is Ecowas policy failing?
The regional organisation has failed to pressure Mali’s military government into calling elections and its actions over the last 18 months have not deterred coups or coup attempts in three other member states.
Criticisms of the organisation focus on its being a presidents’ club out of touch with – or uninterested in – the needs of local populations.
“Ecowas has clearly lost all credibility in Burkina Faso, as it has in many West African countries,” France 24’s local correspondent Kalidou Sy told the French broadcaster on 28 January, in the wake of the Burkina Faso coup.
Burkinabes saw the regional bloc as playing a “double game” by imposing sanctions against Guinea and Mali for coups that were supported by the majority of their populations while it had previously remained quiet on the manipulations of the constitution by Guinea’s overthrown President Alpha Condé and Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, he said.
“A consistent point of criticism against Ecowas has been its failure to act before a complete breakdown of democratic institutions and political leadership, which have led to the majority of recent coups in West Africa,” says the BBC’s Beverly Ochieng.
“During the protests against Guinea President Alpha Condé’s plans to extend his term through a controversial constitutional change, Ecowas did little more than issue lukewarm statements urging dialogue. In Mali, Ecowas dismissed demands by opposition activists for a review of the 2020 legislative elections and concerns over insecurity. In Burkina Faso, the violent crackdown on protesters expressing their grievances over the government’s mismanagement of insecurity was not criticised by the regional bloc.”
The governments in Mali and Burkina Faso may have been elected, but they didn’t make good on their promises to fight corruption or restore territorial integrity, says Bøås.
“Democratically elected governments in this part of the world need to deliver people more than just the right to vote,” he said in a webinar in February.
Ecowas has to strike a balance between accountability and sovereignty. Apart from a commitment not to alter their constitutions less than six months before an election, every member of Ecowas has the right to alter its constitution as it wishes. But the organisation also needs to do more to protect democracy, says Ochieng.
“West African leaders appear to be keener to protect personal political interests than call out regressive and undemocratic practices that curtail public goodwill,” she says. “Ecowas faces pressure to be more proactive about calling out electoral malpractices and poor leadership, while also providing institutional support to uphold democracy.”
Ecowas: ‘Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater’
When it comes to reacting to coups, “the rules are simple”, writes Marwane Ben Yahmed in his editorial for the March issue of Jeune Afrique: in accordance with the Organisation of African Unity’s Declarations of Algiers and Lomé, coups must be condemned, sanctions must be imposed and a limit of six months given for return to the constitutional order, .
While their effects on ordinary citizens are distressing, sanctions are the only means that Ecowas has at its disposal, and those who are saying that the organisation is failing should remember its many achievements, he argues.
An inhabitant of the zone can travel visa-free throughout the 14 member countries and sell their products anywhere, with further integration on the cards, an example that is the envy of other regions.
“While the regional organisation is far from perfect, it would be absurd to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he concludes.
What will be the effect on business in the region?
Trade and security will suffer most from the current situation, says Ochieng.
“Sahel states already rank lowest in UN’s human development index due to chronic instability. An economic downturn in Mali will have a ripple effect on neighbouring countries, such as Senegal, which received about 70% of traffic, and Côte d’Ivoire, which had about 20%.”
The withdrawal of international forces will pose risks for the continued functioning of the local economy in northern Mali, where international forces were present, Paul Melly tells African Business.
“There is a risk that violent tensions over access to land and water could intensify, and some communities could become more vulnerable. The Russians or Wagner mercenaries will not be able to fully replace the departed French and European military capacity,” he says.
Whether the situation in Mali will have wider effects on other Sahelian countries or coastal West African countries will depend on whether any worsening of the security situation is contained.
“The support of the various European forces that are remaining in the region and have offered to provide support where it is wanted will matter, but so will the way in which countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso, or the coastal states, build up their own capacities,” he says.
“Burkina’s important gold mining and cotton ginning activities could be impacted if conditions deteriorate. If more widespread insecurity spreads into the key coastal economies such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire that would obviously have a major impact on business. Coming months will show whether it is possible to contain insecurity in the areas currently affected or whether it spreads.”