Mali’s military ruler Assimi Goita has said Bamako is open to dialogue after the 15-member West African economic bloc, ECOWAS, imposed additional sanctions on the troubled Sahel country over delayed elections.
Military commander Goita seized power last May – the second time within a year – attracting sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
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“Even if we regret the illegitimate, illegal and inhumane nature of certain decisions, Mali remains open to dialogue with the Economic Community of West African States to find a consensus,” Goita said on state TV on Monday.
“There is concern about the consequences of these measures, but I reassure you all that we are taking actions to face this challenge.”
Mali’s military government has announced the recall of its ambassadors in ECOWAS states and the closure of its borders in response to the latest sanctions. It has promised to take “all necessary measures to retaliate” against the measures, which it says will “affect populations already severely affected by the security crisis and the health crisis”.
Leaders from the West African bloc agreed on Sunday to shutter borders with the Sahel state and impose a trade embargo, following a proposal by the army-dominated government last month to stay in power for up to five years before staging elections.
US ambassador Richard Mills urged Bamako “to return to democracy in a timely fashion”, but stopped short of taking a stand on the ECOWAS sanctions, which it is reviewing.
The bloc’s decision was backed by France, Mali’s former colonial power, at a United Nations Security Council meeting on West Africa on Monday.
The French ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Riviere, voiced his country’s “full support for ECOWAS’s efforts”.
Airlines from France and the Ivory Coast have cancelled flights to Mali. Air traffic from Senegal was also disrupted, according to a Reuters reporter trying to enter Mali.
Guinean authorities, where a similar military government seized power last year and was also targeted by ECOWAS sanction, announced they would keep their borders open, providing landlocked Mali with continued access to a seaport.
Second round of sanctions
Relations between Mali and France, which has thousands of troops in the country, have deteriorated since Goita took power in a military coup in August 2020, removing elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Earlier sanctions by ECOWAS in the immediate aftermath of Keita’s removal were lifted after Goita promised an 18-month transition to civilian rule, culminating in presidential and legislative elections in February 2022.
But he staged a second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government, disrupting the reform timetable, and provoking widespread international condemnation.
The bloc hopes renewed economic pressure, including cutting Mali off from regional financial markets and trade of non-essential goods, will push Bamako to rethink the latest proposal to delay presidential and legislative elections to December 2025 – nearly four years after they were supposed to be held.
Sanctions, however, are likely to further hobble the economy in one of the world’s poorest countries where a rebellion rages, fuelled in part by widespread poverty.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Bamako, said “a sense of panic and anger” was spreading in Mali’s capital.
“People rushed to banks petrol stations and markets for provisions … after the West African body ECOWAS announced a raft of sanctions,” Haque said.
Activist Evelyne Zeinab Jacques told Al Jazeera, “Mali won’t be able to withstand the latest sanctions.”
“We are a landlocked country dependent on our neighbours. We don’t have access to the ocean we need the ports of Senegal and Ivory Coast to get goods in our country. For business owners the economic sanction is suicidal,” she said.
Mali has struggled to quell an armed rebellion that started in 2012 before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger. Swaths of its vast territory lie outside government control.
The military-led government has argued that rampant insecurity means peaceful elections cannot be guaranteed at present.
Burkina Faso President Roch Kabore has said, “As much as we are aware of the complex situation of the country, we think that all political, economical and social reforms looking to reshape Mali can only be headed by democratically elected authorities.”
Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda have gained ground in central Mali.
Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, a government spokesman, said, “It’s curious that these sanctions come at a time when the Malian army are making spectacular progress in the fight against terrorism, something that hasn’t happened in the last decade.”
Meanwhile, Russia has called for the military’s efforts to restore order in the country to be supported.
Moscow said it “understood the difficulties” in organising new elections when a lack of security might undermine the outcome.
Western politicians have condemned what they say is Moscow’s growing influence in Mali, some alleging that the military regime has hired mercenaries from Russia’s controversial Wagner group.