At its January 9 summit, the Economic Community of West African States imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Mali. Formed in 1975 and headquartered in the capital of West African regional heavyweight Nigeria, ECOWAS has taken on political and military roles alongside its original economic focus and now finds itself in a standoff with the military-dominated regime in Bamako.
If ECOWAS can compel Mali’s soldier-politicians to return to the barracks, that could help pave the way for addressing other, even more deep-rooted challenges in the country. Yet there is a danger that even under civilian control, Mali would drift back into the broken status quo that obtained before the present political crisis began.
A group of colonels have effectively ruled Mali since taking power in an August 2020 coup and have been negotiating with ECOWAS ever since. Initially, ECOWAS and the colonels agreed on an 18-month transition to elections and a resumption of full civilian control and constitutional order. The Malian government, however, recently confirmed that it will not hold elections in February 2022 as initially envisioned; it then proposed a timetable with presidential elections to take place by the end of 2026. ECOWAS, which has generally enjoyed western and U.S. backing, balked and imposed sanctions (Russia and China blocked a U.N. statement of support for the sanctions at the Security Council this week).
The regime currently consists of a military/civilian hybrid. On the military side, the August 2020 coup-makers hold key positions in the transitional institutions: Colonel Assimi Goita is head of state, Colonel Malick Diaw heads the transitional legislature, and other officers hold key cabinet portfolios. On the civilian side, career politician Choguel Maiga is prime minister, while various career diplomats and civil servants occupy major roles, such as Abdoulaye Diop as foreign minister (reprising a role he previously held under the last civilian president). Goita, Maiga, and their allies confront a tumultuous political arena, including powerful labor unions and protest collectives, a constellation of political-military armed groups, and a host of politicians eyeing the next elections (whenever they may come). Maiga has exhibited an authoritarian streak, including arresting rivals who criticize him.
In dealing with ECOWAS and the larger international community, the colonels have kept channels of negotiation open even as they have repeatedly defied outsiders. Back in September 2020, ECOWAS insisted that the transition be civilian-led, and Goita initially accepted a role as transitional vice president under a retired officer, Bah Ndaw. But when Goita and his colleagues felt threatened by that arrangement, they staged what observers called a “coup within a coup,” ousting Ndaw and then-Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Despite outrage from ECOWAS, France, and others, Goita’s installation as head of state was allowed to stand. Tensions between the Malian government and ECOWAS continued, especially as Maiga’s government repeatedly suggested that elections would be delayed. In November, ECOWAS imposed travel bans and asset freezes on “the entire Transition authorities,” whom ECOWAS accused of delaying Mali’s transition.
Nevertheless, the Malian government may believe it can out-negotiate ECOWAS. At each major juncture since August 2020, Goita and the colonels have either preserved or increased their power. In the latest negotiations with ECOWAS, tense as they may be, the Malian government has shown some flexibility about the timetable, while simultaneously creating a political reality that no elections will take place in February 2022. Even as ECOWAS sanctions Mali and readies its Standby Force in what appears to be a threat of military intervention, it has nevertheless implicitly accepted that the transition timetable is slipping. If Goita and Maiga find a way to de-escalate, they may emerge having bought themselves many more months in power.
Another complicating factor — and potential bargaining chip — is Russia and the Russia-linked private military firm, the Wagner Group. News broke in September 2021 that Mali was close to a deal with Wagner, whose mercenaries have also been active in Libya, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere in Africa and beyond. At the time, Maiga suggested a strong connection between the Russia option and the partial, although sometimes exaggerated, drawdown of French forces in the country.
Particularly since December, diplomatic tensions have increased between Mali and Western powers over Wagner: Mali denies any deployment of Wagner personnel in the country, insisting that there is merely government-to-government cooperation with Russia, but Western governments and journalists say they have confirmed the presence of Wagner forces, notably in conflict-torn central Mali. It appears that the regime’s reported dealings with Wagner reflects not only its desire for additional muscle, but also its awareness that playing the Russia card could indirectly aid the colonels’ apparent desire to stay in power — either by conveying to France and others that they would break off the Wagner contract if Western powers and ECOWAS accept a prolonged transition, or by showing that Mali has other allies if the authorities decide to “go rogue.”
In any case, the latest sanctions imposed by ECOWAS are crushing, and even Russia cannot cushion their impact. Mali already ranks 184th out of 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index. ECOWAS has closed land and air borders, frozen Malian assets, cut off economic assistance, and suspended “all commercial and financial transactions between ECOWAS Member States and Mali, with the exception of food products, pharmaceutical products, medical supplies and equipment, including materials for the control of COVID-19, petroleum products and electricity.”
The question now is how long either side can hold out. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 coup, ECOWAS also cut off Mali’s commercial transactions, but critics objected — with some justification — that the measures were “affecting Malians more than the junta.” If the junta is feeling the heat now, ECOWAS itself is also taking political risks. Military intervention would not be unprecedented — an ECOWAS force went into Gambia in 2017 to force then-President Yahya Jammeh to accept the results of an election he had lost. Yet ECOWAS, which faces other crises in the region, notably in Guinea, likely strongly prefers to avoid taking that route with Mali, which is vastly larger than Gambia and whose rulers are so far less diplomatically toxic than Jammeh was.
Assuming the junta and ECOWAS reach some agreement that staves off Mali’s total economic collapse, the more subtle potential tragedy is that Mali’s multiple underlying problems will again be papered over. On one level, the August 2020 coup and everything that has followed constitute “Mali’s crisis;” on another level, the coup itself was merely a consequence of deep dysfunction within Malian politics and its foreign relations. “Normalcy” in Mali has come to mean procedural democracy in the capital alongside a French-led and U.S.-backed decapitation campaign targeting jihadist leaders in the northern two-thirds of the country. But holding elections and killing “high-value targets” did little, between 2013 and 2020, to ameliorate the deep poverty and profound insecurity that many Malians face, including the violence that originates not just with jihadists but also with state security forces and ethnic militias.
The problem in Mali is not merely one set of ambitious colonels, but rather the failure of conventional politics to produce serious solutions to the country’s myriad crises, a failure compounded by the West’s willingness to overlook even serious abuses of power by civilian heads of state. The length of the transition matters, and a shorter period of military rule appears better overall than an extended reign by Goita and his fellow coupists. But what ultimately matters most is the quality of the transition and what it produces.