GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 609, 15 January 2022

Mali: Tensions escalate as ECOWAS imposes sanctions
Apoorva Sudhakar

What happened?
On 13 January, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Mali's military government to outline an "acceptable election timetable." Al Jazeera quoted Guterres: "I am working with the ECOWAS and the African Union to create conditions which can allow the government of Mali to adopt a reasonable and acceptable position to accelerate a transition which has already been under way for a long time."

On 9 January, the Economic Community of West African States imposed sanctions on Mali, ordering for the closure of land and air borders, a trade embargo, freeze over Mali's assets in ECOWAS banks, and suspending non-essential financial transactions. 

On 10 January, the military spokesperson announced Mali's decision to recall its ambassadors to the ECOWAS countries and close its borders in response to the sanctions. On the same day, coup leader and head of Mali's transitional government Colonel Assimi Goita termed the sanctions "illegitimate, illegal and inhumane." However, he said, Mali was open to dialogue to reach a consensus with the ECOWAS. On the same day, France backed the ECOWAS decision at the UN Security Council; however, Russia and China blocked the French endorsement. 

What is the background?
First, the immediate background. The sanctions signify the ECOWAS's rejection of the junta's revised timeline for the transition period. On 30 December, citing deepening insecurity in Mali, the military government proposed that the presidential and legislative polls scheduled for February 2022 be delayed by six months to five years. With this, the transition to civilian rule would be completed by 2026. The ECOWAS, however, insisted on the polls being held in February. 

Second, Mali's suspension from the ECOWAS. In May 2021, following the second coup by Goita, in less than nine months, Mali was suspended from the ECOWAS. The coup had taken place despite the threat of sanctions looming since the first coup in August 2020. The August coup was briefly met with sanctions which were lifted after Goita assured the ECOWAS of a return of civilian governance. 

Third, internal responses in Mali. Mali's response to the revised timeline and sanctions has been mixed. A 10-party coalition rejected the proposed extension of the timeline, maintaining that the decision had not been discussed and was unreasonable. Some civilians, too, called for the re-establishment of democracy. On the other hand, the junta also enjoys popularity in Mali as it acknowledges the anti-French sentiment among the population. Following the announcement of sanctions, the junta called on protesters to demonstrate against the ECOWAS decision. 

Fourth, the role of foreign powers. The junta believes the sanctions were influenced by external powers, hinting at France with a strong external presence in Mali since 2013. In recent times, France and other Western powers have expressed concern over reports speculating the presence of Russian mercenaries, from the Wagner Group, in Mali. Mali has denied the presence of Russian mercenaries. Meanwhile, Russia termed the Western apprehensions double standards and maintained that Mali has the right to have ties with other partners.

What does it mean?
First, the imposition of sanctions shows that ECOWAS can put its foot down, contrary to previous notions of the regional organization being weak. The decision could also send a message to other countries in the region, like Guinea, which witnessed a coup in September. Meanwhile, the willingness to hold dialogue with the ECOWAS indicates that Mali understands the impact the sanctions are likely to have on the country. 

Second, the junta's stance that external interests drive the sanctions could work in its favour. Since Goita came to power in May 2021, the transitional government has been looking for justification for the coup to the population, which is increasingly wary of the French presence in the country.

Third, the West's apprehensions over the alleged Russian involvement and the latter's denial could lead to increased complexities within Mali, making it a hotspot soon. 

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