Russia and China have blocked the United Nations Security Council from supporting a decision by the West African economic bloc ECOWAS to impose new sanctions on Mali, after its military leaders proposed staying in power for up to five years before staging elections.
A French-drafted council statement endorsing the sanctions failed to be approved in closed-door consultations on Tuesday, prompting three African council members – Kenya, Ghana and Gabon – to speak to reporters to back the regional bloc’s position.
Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, said he was “disappointed” that the council could not agree on what he called a “relatively mild” press statement and expressed support for the “imposition of sanctions on the military authorities in Mali to ensure an expedited transition to constitutional rule”.
On Sunday, leaders from the Economic Community of West African States suspended most commerce and financial aid to Mali, closed land and air borders “with the states concerned” and activated the bloc’s standby force, saying it “will have to be ready for any eventuality”.
The move came after last month, Mali’s interim government proposed staying in power for up to five years before staging elections, despite international demands that it respect a promise to hold elections on February 27 this year.
France, Mali’s former colonial power which also holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, and the United States, have underlined their support for the ECOWAS sanctions.
“We are in complete solidarity with the region and with this very courageous and clear stance” by ECOWAS, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters on Tuesday.
Washington also supported the “strong actions” by the 15-member bloc and urged the Mali regime to honour its pledge to return to democracy.
“A five-year transition is not in their interest and extends the pain of the people,” US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a Security Council meeting.
The presidency of Algeria, which shares a long border with Mali, also called on the military to negotiate with ECOWAS and “reach a plan to end the crisis, taking into account international demands and the legitimate demands of the Malian people”.
Support for Mali’s military government
Chinese ambassador Dai Bing noted that Mali is in the middle of a critical transition period and said outside forces must refrain from exerting excess pressure on the West African country.
Taking note of recent measures by ECOWAS, as well as the response of the transitional authorities, he encouraged both sides to strengthen dialogue and resolve regional issues.
Russia rejected the proposed council statement as unbalanced and expressed sympathy to the government.
“We understand and are cognisant of the difficulties encountered by the Malian authorities in preparing for general elections,” Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said.
“We concur with the fact that absent restoration of government control in many parts, regions of the country, it will be difficult to view the vote as legitimate.”
French ambassador Nicolas de Riviere reiterated his country’s condemnation of the deployment of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, who he said “are known to threaten civilians, loot resources, violate international law and the sovereignty of states”.
He expressed regret that Mali’s transitional authorities “are using already limited public funds to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the national forces and public services for the benefit of the Malian people”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has denied that the Russian government is involved and said the company has a “legitimate” right to be in the West African nation because it was invited by the transitional government.
Mali’s UN ambassador Issa Konfourou told the Security Council there are no mercenaries on Malian soil. He said Russian trainers are in Mali to advise and train its military on the use of military equipment acquired by the government from Russia.
Konfourou said his government was “shocked” by ECOWAS’s economic and financial sanctions and “emphatically condemned these illegal and illegitimate” measures.
In an address to the nation on Monday, military leader Colonel Assimi Goita called the sanctions “inhumane” while also stating that Mali remains open to dialogue.
Goita led a coup in August 2020 that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Under threat of sanctions following the coup, he had promised to hold presidential and legislative elections, and to restore civilian rule by February 2022.
But he staged a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing out an interim civilian government and disrupting the timetable to restore democracy.
Goita declared himself interim president and in December his government proposed staying in power for up to an additional five years.