*By Paul Ejime
Thousands of Malians on Friday joined staged protest rallies in several cities called by the embattled military-dominated Interim government against ECOWAS sanctions on Mali.
The regional bloc on January 9 imposed tough sanctions including financial, trade and border blockage of Mali after the Col Assimi Goita-led government announced a five-year delay to its transition programme.
This followed two military coups within a year, one of which toppled the elected government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.
Mali has already been suspended from ECOWAS, which also announced the withdrawal of member States’ envoys from the country.
In its response, the Bamako regime rejected the sanctions as extreme, announced the closure of Mali borders and the withdrawal of Malian Ambassadors from ECOWAS member States.
Friday’s protests in Bamako, Bougouni, Timbuktu and other major cities began with prayers for peace in Mali, which is reeling under the devastation of insecurity, poverty and bad governance compounded by the Covid-19 devastation.
Some of the protester had placards with Goita’s picture and criticised France, the former colonial power, which is reducing its forces fighting terrorism and jihadist extremism in the Sahel region and Mali.
Paris and its Western allies support the ECOWAS sanctions, but are also opposed to the presence of Russian private military personnel in Mali under a defence pact between the Bamako regime and Moscow.
The Goita-led government says the Malian armed forces are recording successes in the terrorism fight with some 500 Russian military personnel on ground.
This contrasts with the presence of French forces and some 15,000-strong UN Mission, MINUSMA, which have been in Mali since 2013, costing around two billion US dollars a year to maintain.
The Mali crisis has divided the UN Security Council members with France and other EU countries supporting the ECOWAS sanctions, while Russia and China have blocked a pro-sanctions Resolution.
Mali shares borders with seven countries, including five ECOWAS member States – Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Guinea, which is also suspended by ECOWAS because of military takeover of government in Conakry in September last year.
The Col Mamady Doumbouya-led military regime in Guinea, which has yet to unveil a Transition Commission or timetable despite an ECOWAS imposed six-month timeline, has dissociated the country from the ECOWAS sanctions against Mali.
Mali’s two non-ECOWAS member-State neighbours – Mauritania and Algeria – have neither supported nor opposed the ECOWAS blockage of Mali.
In its official reaction, Algeria called for peaceful negotiations and proposed a “reasonable” transition timetable of about 12 months.
Algeria has a vested interest in keeping terrorists and jihadist insurrectionists outside its borders.
Subsequently, it has hosted several peace meetings on Mali, in the past, culminating in the 2015 Peace Accord signed in Algiers by Malian protagonists. But that Agreement remains largely unimplemented.
Independent observers consider the ECOWAS sanctions against Mali as disproportionately unprecedented and capable of stifling the nation and exacerbating the suffering of ordinary people.
The measures could also cause humanitarian disaster and mass displacements in the land-locked country with some 19 million people and further destabilise the restive region.
No doubt, the sanctions might hurt the junta, but they can also engender anti-ECOWAS and xenophobic sentiments, which could adversely affect regional/International interventions.
Therefore, ECOWAS must act with greater independence, introspection and without foreign influences and, especially in the interest of Malians and some 400 million Community citizens in a manner consistent with its regional integration mandate.
Beyond local patriotic sentiments, some political parties in Mali are opposed to military long stay in power, although they also “regret” the ECOWAS sanctions.
Going forward, the Bamako regime must do itself a World of good by quickening the transition process with inputs and support of local and external stakeholders all acting in good faith for the restoration of peace and constitutional order in Mali and across the region.
ECOWAS leaders too, must address the problems of bad governance, corruption, cronyism, election rigging and tenure elongation, which are the triggers and drivers of political instability and recession of democracy in the region.