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West African Winter: Why Sanctions Won’t Work

Image via Annie Risemberg/Getty Images

Today, apart from vegetables, nothing is affordable in the market. Neither onions nor oil, let alone meat.” – Fane Tenin Berthe, local of Bamako. 

January 14th, Bamako Markets, Mali. 50 kilograms of Sugar costs 31,500 Central African CFA Francs (a 18% increase since yesterday). One Onion, 12,000 CFA (20% increase since yesterday). 1 Tonne of Cement, 130,000 CFA (45% increase since yesterday).

When Colonel Assimi Goïta seized the Malian presidency early last year, his administration promised that a return to democracy would be swift. In the first days of 2022, however, his announcement that elections would not be held for another five years provoked shock and condemnation worldwide. A bloc of Mali’s neighbors, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), quickly imposed harsh sanctions in retaliation. ECOWAS froze Mali’s cross border assets, halted non-essential trade, and closed Mali’s borders with other member states, causing massive price hikes on all imported goods. Given the circumstances, Mali’s leaders were expected to fold, but to ECOWAS’s suprise, they did not. Instead, just days after the sanctions were announced, thousands of Malians poured out into the streets of Bamako in support of Goïta and his new government. So what did ECOWAS do wrong?

Three West African nations have fallen to military juntas in the last 18 months, and after Goïta’s most recent incursion in January, ECOWAS members felt action was necessary. Members of the UN promised to stand firm with ECOWAS and even though official support for these sanctions failed to pass a Security Council vote—due to vetoes by Russia and China—the symbolism of the West and ECOWAS’s union against Goïta was clear. As is often the case in the history of Western policy in West Africa, however, these proposed sanctions show a deep misunderstanding of those they are levied against. First, the West fails to recognize the crushing effect the sanctions have on the everyday Malian. Next, it ignores the ineffectual impact these policies have on constricting Mali’s international trade. But perhaps most importantly, these sanctions reflect a mindset that is deeply out of touch with what the citizens of Mali want.

Mali is landlocked. About 70 percent of the nation’s food comes from imports, economic growth is increasingly tied to the construction sector, and one in three Malian people rely on humanitarian aid. Various Islamic State  and al-Qaeda affiliated groups continue to plague the north, and population centers in the south have seen recent Covid-19 spikes in a region where extreme poverty rates have risen by almost 3 percent since last year. 

ECOWAS sanctions made clear exceptions for food, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and electricity. Mutual border closures, however, have caused trade between Mali and its most active ECOWAS trading partners, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, to all but cease, driving up prices on everything from meat to petroleum. Traders hoping to make a quick profit stockpile supplies in Malian markets as ordinary people are able to buy less and less. ECOWAS’s border closures have affected humanitarian assistance as border tensions make nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) increasingly less able and willing to risk crossing into Mali. It is the mother who can only afford vegetables for her family, the day laborer who no longer has a project to work on, and the nomadic tribesman under more direct terrorist threat now than in recent memory who face the brunt of these sanctions. ECOWAS offers no relief. 

The construction industry, badly hurt by the shortage of nonessential concrete, has suffered greatly, stunting infrastructure growth and development. Were Mali facing this crisis alone, perhaps time under the effective blockade could force the junta to step down or induce a failed state. But despite the crippling effects of these sanctions, recent coups in Guinea and Burkina Faso have created a buffer of allies in the region. In a show of solidarity, Guinea’s current military junta, sanctioned by ECOWAS since September, offered Mali use of their port-capital Conakry, providing a crucial link to international trade. From there, Mali has begun to resume trade with its largest non-ECOWAS trading partners, China, France, and Austria, unabated.

Most significant is what the sanctions reveal about ECOWAS and its failure to deal with Mali’s recent shift in public opinion on the role of democracy. 11 years ago, unrest in Tunisia spread throughout the Arab world, bringing decades of dictatorships and one-man autocracies to a grinding halt. Few would have guessed, however, that within five years nearly every country involved in the Arab Spring would begin backsliding to new forms of autocracy. 

Egypt’s democratically elected president Muhammed Morsi was jailed, and crackdowns on the media, activists, and opposition were swift. Despite the brutality, former head of the armed services Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the 2014 election in a landslide, signaling an embrace of populism and strongman rule that the West later dubbed the “Arab Winter.” Western ears hear the word “junta” and see chaos, but perhaps we need to look at the statistic that no liberal Westerner wants to see: the percentage of Egyptians that say that a stable government without full democracy is preferable to a democracy with risk of political instability. In the year Egypt fell to its junta, that number exceeded 50 percent. 

The Arab Winter has reached West Africa. For Mali, instability comes from every side. Prior to Mali’s 2020 coup, which would eventually lead to Goïta’s administration, President Ibrahim Keita’s favorability fell to a dismal 26.5 percent. A reign of endemic poverty, food insecurity, political repression, incompetence, and Covid-19 outbreaks was punctuated by horrific stories of ethnic cleansing by armed northern groups. Fatima Maiga, the founder of an NGO fighting for women’s rights in Mali, stressed that women and girls in Mali have long been deprived of “access to schools, health centres, markets and fields and subjected to sexual violence, including gang rape and sexual slavery, with little access to justice.” This is not to say that an armed coup is preferable to democracy, but only that, as current president Colonel Goïta put it, “Mali is in a situation of socio-political crisis. There is no more room for mistakes.”

With this backdrop, the outpouring of support for the transitional government following ECOWAS’s recent sanctions is more than understandable. The weekly Mali-Horizon in Bamako declared that Mali must “unite or perish,” and another news site, Malikile, called for a “sacred union” with Goïta’s administration to defend the country. Whether or not ECOWAS wants to hear it, Keita had lost the mandate from his people long before the recent coup. Now, whether Keita’s incompetence has swung Malian public opinion irreversibly against democracy remains to be seen, but as Malian schoolteacher Bouba Toure put it, “What good are elections if they can’t be organized in two-thirds of the country?”

Though ECOWAS continues to bungle the response in Mali, at least for the time being, it appears to have learned its lesson. In response to Burkina Faso’s January 23 coup, ECOWAS members took a different route. Instead of harsh sanctions, they sent two delegations to open lines of dialogue with the deposed president and the new military government. It is far from ideal, but it represents a step towards understanding the impetus for these coups and finding a framework for supporting the people living through them. Mali will need to reckon with a host of internal problems before a return to democracy is feasible, but the policies of the UN and ECOWAS will be integral to determining whether the state can make that transition or backslide into permanent despotism. And the next time sanctions are suggested for a country facing as much instability as Mali, perhaps the international community will think twice.