ECOWAS Sanctions Against Mali Necessary, but May Be Counter-Productive

Representatives of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (left) including Col. Assimi Goita meet with a high-level delegation from ECOWAS (right) in Bamako, Mali, August 22, 2020. The West African officials are in Mali's capital following the coup in the nation this week to meet with the junta leaders and the deposed president in efforts to negotiate a return to civilian rule. (AP Photo)

At the 4th Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held in Accra, Ghana, on January 9, 2022, to review the political situation in Mali, additional sanctions were imposed on the country due to the failure of the transitional authorities to take the necessary steps to organize presidential elections before February 27, 2022.

The latest sanctions include the recall of ECOWAS member states ambassadors accredited to Mali; closure of land and air borders; suspension of all commercial and financial transactions except for food products, pharmaceutical products, medical supplies, and equipment, including materials for the control of COVID-19, petroleum products and electricity; freezing of Malian assets in ECOWAS central banks; and the suspension of all financial assistance and transactions. The transition authorities in Mali reciprocated by accusing ECOWAS of being “exploited by extra-regional powers with ulterior motives” and announced that it was recalling its ambassadors and closing its land and air borders with ECOWAS countries.

While the raft of economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Mali can be seen as a necessary coercive diplomatic measure to elicit compliance to the transition charter and ECOWAS protocols, it may not achieve the desired effects and is not a pragmatic approach to expeditiously return the country to long-lasting constitutional order.

Background to the Sanctions

The new sanctions were triggered by months of growing tensions between ECOWAS and the military-dominated transitional government over the timetable for Mali’s return to civilian rule after two successful coups d’état led by Colonel Assimi Goita, who currently heads the transitional government. The first coup, which occurred in August 2020, deposed the elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, amid street protests against his rule over corruption, the mismanagement of the economy and a dispute over legislative elections. In line with the relevant provisions of its Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, and the Supplementary Act A/SP.2/08/11 on Sanctions Against Member States That Fail to Honour Their Obligations to ECOWAS, ECOWAS imposed trade restrictions and border closures and suspended Mali from all its decision-making bodies. Following dialogue with the ECOWAS appointed mediator, former president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, the military junta handed over power to a civilian-led transitional government and pledged to hold elections within 18 months. This culminated in the lifting of sanctions by ECOWAS except for the country’s suspension from ECOWAS-related proceedings.

The second coup toppled the interim civilian-led government in May 2021, after the military junta accused transitional President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane of failing in their duties. This disrupted the transition calendar that required the holding of presidential elections before February 27, 2022. Nevertheless, ECOWAS called on the Malian authorities to respect their own commitment to hold elections by February 2022 in line with the transition charter. But contrary to the position of ECOWAS, the transition authorities submitted a transition calendar on December 31, 2021, proposing the end of December 2026 as the period for holding elections. ECOWAS rejected the proposed transition period of six and a half years and, in response, the transition authorities submitted a new calendar on January 8, 2022, scheduling presidential elections for the end of December 2025. 

Why the ECOWAS Sanctions?

Mali’s transition is a key test of ECOWAS’s commitment to protecting the hard-earned democratic progress made in the region since the 1990s against the resurgence of putsches by power-seeking militaries, particularly after the coup by Guinea’s military in September 2021 and the recent coup in Burkina Faso in January 2022. For almost a decade, ECOWAS has made considerable diplomatic investment in Mali since the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) in March 2012 and the subsequent signing of the 2015 Algiers Agreement. Although its strength, primacy, and diplomatic influence in Mali has arguably wavered over the years due to the strong presence of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the G5 Sahel, French forces, European Union (EU) forces, and other international partners, it has continued to support the country in its efforts to resolve the complex multidimensional crisis.

From a normative perspective, every member state of ECOWAS has the obligation to respect community rules, norms, principles, and values or face the applicable sanctions when they are in default. The imposition of sanctions could therefore be justified by Mali’s non-fulfillment of obligations, including respecting rule of law, democracy, and constitutional order, under Article 2 of the Supplementary Act A/SP.2/08/11 on Sanctions Against Member States that Fail to Honor their Obligations to ECOWAS. Except for the closure of land and air borders which is not explicit in the Act, all of the sanctions imposed on Mali fall under the applicable judicial and political sanctions in the event of non-fulfillment of obligations under Articles 5 and 6. Technically, all that ECOWAS has done is to apply the self-accountability mechanisms of Member States as agreed in its protocol, which Mali has ratified.

It is also imperative to note that ECOWAS did not just pursue sanctions as the first option. There has been a long and arduous mediation process over a year with the Malian transitional authorities making commitments and reneging on them. Since the adoption of the Decree 2020-0072/PT-RM of 1 October 2020 enacting the Transition Charter, the transitional authorities have failed to show strong political will and commitment to restore constitutional order. To date, little progress has been made in terms of the needed constitutional changes and the preparations for the election in February 2022. As of now, there is no draft constitution for review by the National Transitional Council for a constitutional referendum which should have been done in October last year. Moreover, the review and audit of the voter registration lists are not completed. Instead of adhering to the transition plan, the military staged another coup in May 2021, pushing back the election timelines to possibly legitimize an extension of the transition. Understandably, the posture and power-seeking behavior of the military-dominated transitional authorities left ECOWAS with limited options after choosing a pathway that ignores its own initial commitments.

Mali Needs More than Sanctions

Although the ECOWAS sanctions are politically and normatively justifiable, this approach is likely to cause severe hardships and serious disruption to an economy already hurt by multifaceted security challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Malian situation requires utmost caution despite the erratic behavior of the transitional authorities. As a country at the epicenter of the current Sahel crisis, Mali needs help to strengthen its sociopolitical resilience to overcome these persistent challenges without perceived threats or intimidation.

The uncertainty of the political transition coupled with the ECOWAS sanctions may aggravate the security situation with far-reaching humanitarian and regional ramifications. At present, parts of northern and central Mali lack security and state control, with the civilian population constantly being targeted by violent extremists or criminals. Many of the victims of this violence are women and girls, who are often deprived of access to schools, health centers, and markets and are subjected to sexual violence, including gang rape and sexual slavery, with little or no access to justice. The persistence of state absence, rampant impunity, and widespread armed violence could worsen and generate multiple and protracted displacements, with increased risk of community tensions.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 6.3 million people in Mali currently need humanitarian assistance, an increase of 6.8 percent compared to 2021. The consequences of the diplomatic, trade, and financial sanctions of ECOWAS, and the likely sanctions by other international partners including the EU, may negatively affect the strong international financial and technical support needed to ameliorate the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Mali. It may further weaken the capacity of the Malian authorities and hinder the essential investment required for a return of state authorities and services throughout the country, which is essential for the credibility and legitimacy of the presidential elections.

Overall, Mali’s population, especially the unemployed youth, displaced people, and marginalized groups in rural communities and the borderland regions are likely to suffer the most from the sanctions. Cutting off the country from regional trade, finance, and security assistance could potentially affect the economic well-being and physical security of the vulnerable population. It may escalate the civilian protection crisis and the food and nutrition crisis, as well as increase food prices and loss of income and government revenues from exports due to business slowdown. The border closures may disrupt both formal and informal intraregional trading activities, especially relating to agriculture and manufacturing sectors, with Mali’s main trading partners like Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. As such, the trade embargo could affect not only Mali but also the economies of other West African countries that trade with Mali, despite the exclusion of essential basic goods and services from the ECOWAS sanctions.

As with all international sanctions, the segment of society with privileged access to political and economic resources like the political elites, leaders of Mali’s transition government, their families, and supporters might incur no major cost from the ECOWAS sanctions. It is rather the general populations in vulnerable situations that will significantly suffer due to their disadvantaged position in society. When the situation gets worse, the transitional authorities will manage to negotiate the adverse effects of the sanctions to a far greater extent than poorer citizens. Moreover, due to the potential loss of revenues, the Malian authorities may change their public spending priorities by shifting the limited public resources to military equipment and personnel to enhance their coercive capacity, particularly as ECOWAS plans to activate its Standby Force. Resources may also be redirected to supporters such as those in police, gendarmerie, military, and civil service to maintain loyalty and support. With the heightened anti-French sentiments in the country, and the relationship of ECOWAS with France, the United States, and the EU, the sanctions could allow the transitional authorities to continue to stir up nationalist sentiments against ECOWAS to prolong their stay. 

Towards a Resolution of the ECOWAS-Mali Impasse

The proposed five and a half years transition period is unrealistic. At most, a period of up to November 2022 may be feasible to have a fair election, otherwise, Mali could fall into an authoritarian regime. This request to extend the period of transition arguably reflects the self-interested motivations of the leaders of the transition government vis-à-vis broader patriotic service to the public. That notwithstanding, the issues cited to explain the country’s inability to organize presidential and legislative elections by February 27, 2022, which include the persistent insecurity and the need for institutional, governance, and constitutional reforms, are germane to the credibility and legitimacy of the elections. Without key reforms, the election outcome could be disputed or contested. Consequently, instead of having a blanket application of the provisions of its protocols, ECOWAS should treat Mali as a special case to reflect, review, and rethink its conflict management approaches. The failure to strictly apply its protocols and take a decisive stance to prevent incumbents like President Faure Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, former President Alpha Condé of Guinea, and President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire from circumventing term limits to win alleged fraudulent elections has negatively impacted the credibility of ECOWAS. It is important therefore for ECOWAS not to take any action that would further affect its reputation across the region. The fact that its approach in Mali could not deter a military coup in Burkina Faso should send a clear message about the shortfalls of its current conflict management approaches.

ECOWAS intervention in Mali must be exercised with determination, caution, and discretion. The situation requires flexibility, pragmatism, and skilled diplomacy. For instance, from a security perspective, there would be some wisdom in allowing the transitional authorities a reasonable length of time to restore and strengthen security throughout the national territory to enhance the legitimacy of the elections rather than assisting with a messy transition that could allow for another coup. Forcing the Malian authorities to hold elections as soon as possible may not be particularly helpful for the long-term stability of the desired democratic transition.

Accordingly, it is important for ECOWAS to engage Malian authorities constructively and consistently, alongside relevant international partners including neighboring countries like Algeria, to discuss solutions to the obstacles for holding elections and set out a realistic electoral calendar. As a condition for lifting the current sanctions, ECOWAS and the Malian authorities should agree on an acceptable timetable for holding elections to mitigate the negative impacts on vulnerable populations, the country’s economy, and the security situation in the Sahel region.

Moreover, there is the need for intensified and sustained political pressure from the African Union, the United Nations, and other partners on the Malian authorities to respect their own commitments to the transition. However, if the transitional authorities deliberately continue to jeopardize the hopes for a credible democratic election process within the agreed timeline, ECOWAS and other multilateral sanctions could be “smarter” or targeted at the de facto authorities of the Malian State, their families, and close associates to ensure individual accountability. The sanctions could include travel bans, visa restrictions, and the freezing of financial and other assets to cripple their revenue sources. In that way, the impact of the sanctions will be on the leaders and political elites responsible for the objectionable behavior, limiting collateral damage to the general population.

Dr. Festus Kofi Aubyn is Head of Research and Capacity Building at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) Regional Office in Accra, Ghana.