The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two coups and no election later, West Africa cuts off Mali

Col. Assimi Goïta meets in Bamako, Mali, with a delegation from the Economic Community of West African States in August 2020. (AP)

DAKAR, Senegal — Eighteen months ago, military officers in Mali ousted the president and seized power in a coup d’etat. Seven months ago, they did it again. The West African nation of 20 million was supposed to hold a new election in February, launching a fresh era of civilian rule, until the mastermind of both takeovers, Col. Assimi Goïta, pushed that date to 2026.

Now Mali — the epicenter of one of the world’s fastest-growing Islamist insurgencies — is confronting more chaos after regional leaders moved late Sunday to close borders and cease trade with the country, effectively cutting it off from the rest of West Africa.

Delaying the election by another four years “simply means that an illegitimate military transition government will take the Malian people hostage,” the heads of the Economic Community of West African States, a 15-nation bloc known as ECOWAS, said in a statement unveiling the harshest sanctions yet.

The junta’s spokesman, Col. Abdoulaye Maiga, shot back Monday, calling the measures “inhumane” for a population “already impacted by the security crisis and the health crisis.”

For those caught in the geopolitical crossfire, Mali’s deepening isolation threatens livelihoods that rely on the flow of goods from neighbors. Many Malians have relatives in Senegal, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

“If the borders stay closed, there is no work for us,” said Sekouba Zala, a 29-year-old truck driver who rolls between Mali’s capital, Bamako, and the Ivorian capital, Yamoussoukro. “We need to make money. The country needs stability.”

The lost business will ignite more desperation, said Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and Liberia’s former minister of public works. “This is a poor, landlocked country that depends on its neighbors for all trade,” he said. “These actions will have a significant impact on people already living in difficult conditions.”

Both ECOWAS and the junta emphasized that their troops remain at the ready. The tensions spiked as Mali’s ties weakened with Western allies and grew with Moscow.

News broke in September that Bamako was cutting a deal to hire 1,000 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which has a record of human rights abuses on the continent. Among them: extrajudicial killings and sexual assault, U.N. experts have reported. Russian trainers have already arrived in the ancient city of Timbuktu, among “several parts of Mali,” Malian officers told the France 24 television network this past week.

“The junta is finding itself with very few financial partnerships, and Russia is one that will take on a greater role,” said geopolitical analyst Samuel Ramani, author of the forthcoming book, “Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?”

Moscow has sought for years to expand its influence in the region, providing security assistance and arms in exchange for access to natural resources. Mali is home to rich sources of gold and uranium.

“Backing this junta,” Ramani said, “is a classic example of Russia embracing coups when it’s convenient.”

Russia’s entrance has overlapped with France’s drawdown of troops in the nation, announced in June, as fighters linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda continued to batter Mali’s north and center.

Before Paris began closing bases in northern Mali last year, France had roughly 5,100 troops in West Africa. That number is set to shrink by 2,000 in 2022 — an exodus that analysts warned will upend the international response to nearly a decade of violence.

The first French soldiers arrived in 2013 when al-Qaeda militants were closing in on Bamako. Fighters have since regrouped, splintered and scattered, killing tens of thousands of West Africans and displacing millions. Much of Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso has fallen out of state control.

French President Emmanuel Macron, facing pressure to end what his critics call France’s forever war, said it was time for West African nations to take the lead. Paris and Bamako have publicly sparred for months, with Macron condemning last year’s “coup within a coup.”

Goïta, the 39-year-old special forces officer acting as Mali’s president, said the election should be postponed until the military tames the conflict. Millions of Malians now cannot vote because extremists control their towns.

The junta grabbed power in August 2020 after toppling Mali’s president of seven years, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Keïta’s popularity plummeted as Mali descended into conflict, and people struggled to get by. Protesters demanding his resignation flooded Bamako, accusing him of prioritizing the interests of Paris over the Malian people. Many held signs that read: “France, get out!” Others waved Russian flags.

Social media blitzes against France and democracy in Mali — laced with pro-Moscow messages — went viral ahead of Keïta’s downfall, leading researchers to conclude that disinformation campaigns in 2019 poured fuel on the public’s discontent.

The junta rode that wave. Initially, it appointed civilians as interim president and prime minister, pledging to hold an election in early 2022. Last May, however, Goïta accused the temporary leaders of reshuffling the transition government without his permission and sacked them.

He then named himself president.

ECOWAS, which initially targeted the coup leaders, long debated tougher punishment, concerned that a lack of serious backlash would embolden copycats. Military officers in neighboring Guinea deposed their president in September and have yet to release a clear transition schedule.

Days after Goïta unveiled the new timeline, ECOWAS sealed the borders and suspended most financial transactions. (The flow of health-care supplies, it said, would continue, among other essentials.) Members of the regional bloc froze Mali’s state assets in their commercial banks and recalled ambassadors from Bamako.

“More than two weeks of this, the population will not be able to bear it,” said Mohamed Maiga, an economic analyst who works in Bamako and Paris. “When we have nothing to eat, there is a problem.”

Borso Tall in Dakar contributed to this report.

Read more:

Mali’s acting vice president ousts leaders in second coup d’etat

France’s drawdown in West Africa fuels local extremists’ hopes for a Taliban-style victory

Destroying a fragile peace, extremists wreak havoc in Mali