/ 18 January 2022

Democracy delayed in Mali spurs sanctions from neighbours

Mali Politics Unrest Coup
A man holds a sign reading "Support to the army. Long live Russia and China, Ecowas and France get out" as supporters of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People) take part in a rally on Independence square in Bamako, on September 8, 2020, following a call by the MP4 (Popular Movement of 4th September) for a gathering to support the role of the army in Mali's transition phase after a military junta overthrew the president. (Photo by MICHELE CATTANI / AFP)

On 16 January, the heads of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) imposed far-reaching sanctions on the recalcitrant regime in Mali.

The sanctions were as emphatic as it gets, including the suspension of all non-essential financial transactions and an indefinite freeze of Malian state assets in all banks in the Ecowas region. The hardest blow of all was the closure of most of Mali’s land and air borders – potentially crippling for a landlocked country.

The trigger for the sanctions was, ostensibly, the delay in a return to democracy.

A week earlier, the regime of interim President Assimi Goïta had proposed a timeline of as much as five years for elections originally scheduled for next month. Ecowas deemed this unacceptable, and with good reason. Many democratically elected presidents in the region serve terms of just four years. An unelected transitional government, led by army generals responsible for two coups, was seeking five years in power. It was a proposal as ridiculous as it was infuriating to Ecowas negotiators, led by Goodluck Jonathan, a former Nigerian president.

But Ecowas’s turn as a staunch defender of democracy is perhaps a little surprising.

The region has seen a surge of democratic backsliding over the last few years. Dodgy constitutional amendments have elongated tenures in Guinea (Alpha Condé has since been deposed by putschists) and Côte d’Ivoire (where Alassane Ouattara reneged on a promise to not run for a third term). Quasi- and full-blown dictatorships abound. In Togo, Faure Gnassingbé has been in power since 2005; Ali Bongo became Gabon’s leader four years later. Both inherited their posts from their long-serving dictator fathers, who expired in office.

Beyond mildly worded condemnations, nary a peep has been heard from Ecowas in any of these cases. 

Trojan horse

So what, then, is behind the regional bloc’s sudden commitment to democracy?

Consider Mali’s argument: that Ecowas is being used as a Trojan horse for grievances held by powers outside the bloc. This argument is made in the junta’s statement released Monday. Ecowas, Mali said, is being “exploited by extra-regional powers with ulterior motives”.

Griffon armoured vehicles from Operation Barkhane patrol the streets before the handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base to the Malian army in Timbuktu, on December 14, 2021. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP)

One does not need to read tea leaves to know this broadside is directed at a certain République that used to be the colonial master of eight of the bloc’s fifteen member states.

Paris still holds a lot of sway in the region, thanks to its history of colonial plunder and outsized financial influence. It is also a crucial security partner in the “war on terror” in the Sahel.

But the war has achieved mixed results at best. Despite a surfeit of foreign help, from American intelligence gathering to French troops, the Malian government barely has any control beyond its major cities. Jihadists rampage in the north.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has decided the war is no longer worth the effort and has begun a troop drawdown that will halve the size of his soldiers in the Sahel.

In turn, Mali has turned to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit that deploys freelance fighters to conflict hotspots globally, and increasingly in Africa.

They bring experience from Sudan, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. The UN has accused the group of human rights abuses. The Kremlin denies it is using the young men as part of its diplomatic engagement in Africa.

France has been vehemently opposed to Wagner’s presence in Mali. In December, it led 14 other Western nations to sharply criticise Russia and Mali.

The Malian junta repeatedly denied it had struck any deal with Wagner. But pictures published on Monday by France24 (a broadcaster owned by the French state) showed that Wagner’s men are already present in Segou, a town in south-central Mali.

And so a power-grabbing military regime clings to power, bereft of friends among its traditional allies. It is now shopping for friends wherever it can find them.

Russia is proving to be a new friend, a security partner in Mali’s time of need. Alongside China, Russia blocked the UN Security Council from issuing a statement supporting the Ecowas sanctions.

A day later, Mali, a country with exactly zero participants in next month’s Beijing Winter Olympics, issued a statement of support for the Games that has been diplomatically boycotted by the West.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Mali is at the centre of a dangerous geopolitical game – and while we don’t know who is going to win, we can say with increasing certainty that it is ordinary Malians who will lose. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.