With its sanctions, the West is once again showing that it is not concerned with ending terror, but only with maintaining its domination. The sanctions imposed by France, the EU, the USA and in their wake ECOWAS are massively worsening the living situation in Mali. They boycott the grassroots democratic reconstruction of the country from below that has begun in Mali - and that is exactly what France, the USA and the EU have in mind. They prefer to get raw materials and markets by cooperating with small corruptible elites rather than promoting democracy, although this is precisely what promotes flight and makes it easier for groups that rely on violence to recruit. Let us commit ourselves - also in order to be able to contain the violence - to ending the sanctions and enabling Mali to make a new social and democratic start. On Sunday (23 Jan), we will discuss how this can be achieved at a first webinar. The link:
Greetings in solidarity, Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Promoting terror or daring more democracy?
an assessment by Franza Drechsel, Claus-Dieter König
Current alternatives to the sanctions against Mali
The situation in Mali looks anything but rosy: The country is the sixth most populous in the world, radical jihadist groups are instrumentalising the economic and social crisis and exacerbating it through attacks and displacement, foreign militaries are fostering instability, and the political elite lacks visionary strategies for solutions. But the sanctions imposed on Mali by the ECOWAS states on 9 January make everything worse. What is needed is a courageous democratic new beginning - supported from outside instead of torpedoed.
Actually, Mali's current government should have been busy preparing for elections - at least that is what Western countries and the members of the West African community of states ECOWAS wanted. At the end of February, the transitional government, in office after two coups in August 2020 and May 2021, was to be replaced by an elected government. As the transitional government opposed new elections at this stage, ECOWAS leaders, supported by the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), reacted with strong sanctions on 9 January. Since the following day, the landlocked country's borders have been closed; ambassadors have been recalled and a comprehensive financial and trade embargo has come into force, excluding only medicines and food. France's Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who immediately supported the ECOWAS sanctions, has since been trying to get more countries on his side. The USA has already joined in, and the European Union decided on 14 January to impose entry bans and freeze the funds and resources of individuals and organisations it considers to be endangering peace and security or obstructing an electoral process. In the UN Security Council, however, a resolution failed due to vetoes by Russia and China. Mali's neighbour Guinea does not participate in the sanctions either, so at least this border remains open.
The tough sanctions were also preceded by loud deliberations by the Malian government to hire mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group to take more massive action against jihadist-terrorist groups in the country. This is because the prime minister of the transitional government, Choguel Maïga, and President Colonel Assimi Goïta are increasingly faced with the challenge of stabilising the security situation in the country. The current increase in attacks was one reason why they postponed the elections.
Another reason they cited was the process of national assemblies for the refoundation of Mali that had begun.
These "Assises de la Refondation" took place in December 2021 in 649 out of 725 communes, and thus in 51 out of 60 districts, as well as at the national level, with the aim of collecting recommendations for restructuring the country. While some political parties boycotted the process, it was generally well received by the population. The final document contains nearly 600 recommendations, including a call for the postponement of elections. A postponement of up to five years was mentioned in order to put Mali's political structure on a sustainable footing.
A democratic new beginning
The fact that the transitional government is supported by a large part of the Malian population was shown not least by the recent mass demonstrations on 14 January, which the Malian government had called for as a protest against the sanctions. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in several cities, including Bamako, Timbuktu, Koutiala, Mopti, Ségou and Gao. Nouhoum Keita, a journalist from Bamako, described this moment as "historic".
Not only Malians support the current government, but also trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations from neighbouring countries published statements against the sanctions. Demonstrations were also held in the diaspora, including in Belgium, in solidarity with the Malian people. Many people in West Africa see the sanctions as another neo-colonial intervention by France and therefore support the military government standing up to the former colonial power.
From a Western point of view, new elections are the symbol of democracy. But new elections would only reproduce the failed Gaullist presidential system once again, and the resulting government would hardly find support among the Malian population. For years, reducing democracy to presidential and parliamentary elections alone has led to problems such as repression and impunity in many West African states. Although the political structures of the states are formally democratic, they do not guarantee the participation and co-determination of the population.
For example, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was president of the country from 2013 to 2020, needed only 1.3 million votes out of a total of 8 million eligible voters to win the first round of the 2018 presidential election. This crisis of legitimacy of democratic institutions across West Africa leads to low voter turnout and recurrent protest movements. The first-past-the-post system, together with the strong concentration of presidential power, encourages conflict and violence. New elections at this stage could therefore further destabilise Mali. Instead of further confrontation, however, Mali clearly needs a renewal of institutions aimed at more participation and compromise. Such a process needs a roadmap for several years. But Mali is currently not given any space to re-found democracy from below, precisely because of the sanctions.
The "Assises" are a good starting point for the re-democratisation of Mali. In order to keep a close eye on the transitional government and to address the country's problems in an inclusive manner, they should be institutionalised at least for the duration of the transition process. This would create a forum in which local, regional and national solutions to problems could be negotiated. Civil society organisations and the population would have to ensure that the assemblies are representative and that no relevant groups are excluded.
Another element is the numerous conflict resolution processes and peace agreements at local and regional level that have been concluded since 2019 and are also advocated by the participants of the Assises. They usually include agreements on basic social services (such as schools and health facilities) and on the coordinated use of land and other important resources so that the population can build new economic prospects. The government is left with the challenge of raising local agreements to the national level. The participants of the Assises recommended a revision of the Algiers Agreement, which was concluded in 2015 and never really implemented, and its rapid implementation.
Boycotted by the West and ECOWAS
The sanctions, on the other hand, exacerbate the country's already major problems and thus make a new democratic start more difficult. As always, they mainly affect the civilian population, as price increases are the inevitable consequence. Because traders in the border regions are dependent on local transnational trade, closures hit them all the harder. The economist Bérenger N'Cho assumes that the trade embargo will lead to an increase in informal trade, which will further weaken state structures and reduce state revenues. He also does not rule out the possibility that trade routes will change in the long term, which would be counterproductive for Mali's economic development. Moreover, since financial flows are stopped, remittances from the diaspora do not come into the country. A large part of the people in the ongoing socio-economic crisis is dependent on them in one way or another.
Social inequality, growing conflicts over land by selling it off to multinational corporations (as in the Office du Niger) and increasingly noticeable effects of the climate crisis are causes for the establishment of radical jihadist groups and for the approval that parts of the population give to their acts (for example, when the judicial system they have introduced means an end to impunity).
By exacerbating social inequality, the sanctions indirectly promote terrorism. It seems contradictory that France's declared goal is to support Mali in the "fight against terrorism". Yet it is hardly conceivable that the West African and Western states will give in. In this respect, it is no wonder that the Malian government is turning to states like China, Russia or Turkey. However, it is to be feared that their governments will not selflessly stand by the side of the transitional government, which could lead to further problems in Mali in the long run.
With the mass demonstrations on 14 January, Mali's people took the first step towards pledging their support to the current government. This could strengthen Goïta and Maïga to negotiate a compromise with the sanctioning governments.
The Malian government, for its part, must allow criticism. The imprisonment of Oumar Mariko, secretary-general of the LEFT's sister party SADI, because of a leaked private phone call in which he insults the current prime minister, does not show openness to an inclusive political process. It is up to Malians to decide the future of their country. If they want a real democratic re-foundation, they will have to uphold this demand against the current government.
Dr. Claus-Dieter König is head of the RLS West Africa office in Dakar, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
Franza Drechsel is a consultant and project manager for West Africa