International economic sanctions against the impoverished West African country of Mali punish the very people fighting for democracy, freedom, and a better future. The economic sanctions imposed on Mali in 2021 were the harshest sanctions ever imposed on the country, hurting millions of vulnerable people, many of whom believed the coup d’état that year against the French-backed regime was necessary to liberate citizens from a power-hungry, corrupt, incompetent government that had ignored nationwide protests demanding President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) to resign.
About 7.5 million people, a third of Mali’s population, are in need of humanitarian aid. 13 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the International Rescue Committee, Action Against Hunger, and Plan International, have been pleading for the international community to ease the new sanctions that affect access to humanitarian aid for Mali’s vulnerable population that has been heavily impacted by the ongoing food crisis, social insecurity, and COVID-19 pandemic. These groups argue that the “sanctions will have devastating consequences for the people and the humanitarian situation in Mali. The people of Mali already face the worst food insecurity seen in ten years.” The food crisis has worsened due to the insurgency from the North, forcing the country to export approximately 70% of its food. The sanctions prevent Mali from importing much needed goods.
Mali is a landlocked country, surrounded by members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and non-ECOWAS members, the country is heavily reliant on its ECOWAS neighbour’s seaports for importing and exporting resources. Therefore, the restricted access to these ports has affected millions of Malians. Prices of basic commodities rose due to economic sanctions, and when combined with a lack of access to the seaports and closed borders, many traders in Mali run the risk of going out of business as their goods are stranded in neighbouring ports. The remaining goods that are in Mali such as dwindling amounts of vegetables, meat, and onions have become too ‘expensive’ for many Malians.
But why did the international community resort to using economic sanctions? The international community believes that economic sections will coerce the military junta to return their political power to civilian rule, while releasing political prisoners, and hopefully returning to the barracks. In addition, the sanctions are also aimed at isolating Mali from the rest of the world, crippling its economy and inspiring Malian citizens to pressure their leaders to resort to a quick election. This has backfired; the international community and Malian citizens do not share the same sentiments about IBK’s government.
The international community views IBK’s government as a democratically elected government that was illegally removed from power in 2020 by the army in a coup. In contrast, this very same government according to Malian citizens is seen as corrupt, incompetent, and in need of stepping down. The IBK Government was widely accused of corruption which triggered large demonstrations in the country; an estimated 70 billion CFA was lost through fraud and mismanagement, while 40 million CFA was used to purchase a presidential jet for IBK’s Government. IBK was also accused of nepotism, whereby he appointed his son Karim Keita as the President of the National Assembly Defence Committee, and other extended family members also held high-profile positions such as Issaka Sibibe, his father-in-law, who was the President of the National Assembly and former Minister of Investment. These acts of corruption robbed many Malians of education, healthy livelihoods, jobs, and security. Hence, the economic sanctions that were supposed to turn Malians against its military government instead turned them against the international community, awakening a feeling of patriotism. Malians took to the streets to demonstrate their dissent against the sanctions and supported the military junta with the coup.
In fact, in the 2020 coup, thousands of Malians celebrated the removal of the unpopular government, with many gathering in Bamako’s Independence Square to the sound of vuvuzelas declaring victory over IBK and his Government. Talking to news agencies, Mariam Cissé, an opposition supporter said “I am overjoyed, we won. We came here to thank all the people of Mali because it is the victory of the people,” Ousmane Diallo, a retired soldier said “IBK has failed… The people are victorious,” but he warned, “the military should not be thinking now that they can stay in power.” The coup came after months of anti-government protests demanding IBK to resign due to corruption that led to poor socioeconomic factors and opened the country to instability.
Sanctioning Mali under these circumstances sends the wrong message to the Malian people. This message shows international support for IBK’s corrupt government, with lack of care for the suffering of millions of Malians. These ECOWAS sanctions should be removed – it was a wrong decision that has created tension between ECOWAS states and Malians, and has been antithetical to solving the crisis in Mali. In conclusion, I would like to end with a quote from Dr. Antwi-Danso, the Dean at the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College, who said, “ECOWAS must help those countries to step up and get a workable constitution which will help the country, rather than insipid sanctions that do not work.”