Adama Cissé was among thousands of Malians who took to the streets last month after the military government called for protests against sanctions imposed by the regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ) due to the postponement of the elections.
“It is neither ECOWAS nor France that will decide in our country,” said the 40-year-old teacher, also referring to the former colonial power of Mali. “Down with ECOWAS,” he chanted, alongside others in the capital, Bamako.
The tough economic and diplomatic sanctions package, also backed by the European Union, the United States and France, was the latest string pulled by ECOWAS after the military government announced it would remain in power for the next five years, although he initially agreed to hold the elections in February, in accordance with a transitional roadmap in place since the soldiers took power, first in August 2020 and then again in May 2021.
Described by ECOWAS as “contagious”, the coups in Mali showed other armies in the region that they could seize power and keep it.
Indeed, there have been four successful military coups in West Africa in the past 18 months – two in Mali and one in Burkina Faso and Guinea – as widespread frustration over corruption and the inability of local and foreign forces to cope with years of security The crisis has eroded trust in state institutions in conflict-affected countries in the Sahel region.
Fahiraman Rodrigue Kone, senior Sahel researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Bamako, said while the region was no stranger to military coups, the recent wave of coups had a thing in common: popular support.
“The recent military coups…are applauded,” he argued. “And it reflects deep disillusionment with civilian political elites who seem to have failed.”
“Attacks on the people”
Struggling to contain the spread of militarization, the 15-member ECOWAS has painfully watched its member states fall into the hands of soldiers one by one. Each time, he responded to the coup by suspending the country’s membership.
In Mali, after talks with the ruling army broke down, ECOWAS also imposed sanctions, including a trade embargo and a freeze on the country’s assets at the Central Bank of West African States.
The objective was to isolate the military who overthrew the elected officials so that the Malian citizens themselves would start pushing for the elections. But, so far, the strategy does not seem to have worked.
Many in Mali have rallied behind the head of the military government, Colonel Assimi Goita, who has urged Malians to “defend our homeland” against punitive sanctions imposed by a body the military government has described as a tool of the West – namely France – which seeks to destabilize the country.
One of the main unions, the National Union of Workers of Mali, said ECOWAS had “once again betrayed Africa”. No significant figure in Malian public life has so far expressed support for the punitive measures.
“Economic sanctions, in particular, are seen as attacks on the people, not on military leaders,” Kone told Al Jazeera. “They produce the opposite effect by exacerbating nationalism and instead providing popular support for the nationalist rhetoric of the putschists.”
After ECOWAS also announced the closure of air and land borders between Mali and other member states, another military government in Guinea said it would not comply, throwing Mali a lifeline by giving the landlocked country with maritime access.
Burkina Faso’s new military government, also bordering Mali, has yet to say whether it will implement ECOWAS measures, while non-bloc neighbors Mauritania and Algeria have shown no sign of protest. interest in applying sanctions.
“ECOWAS is going through a crisis of legitimacy and credibility. The body is accused of applying double standards regarding its own democratic demands,” Kone said.
While the body is “intransigent” on publicly backed military coups, Kone said it has remained silent on constitutional “coups” by longtime ruling presidents who have removed two-term limits and clung to power, such as in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
Widespread anger over 83-year-old President Alpha Condé’s third term among Guineans was one of the reasons given by the military when it ousted him in September 2021.
Daniel Eizenga, a researcher at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said ECOWAS must deal with democratic backsliding if it “is to meet the growing aspirations of its increasingly young populations.
“Failure to do so comes with high costs, as evidenced by the recent series of coups and criticism of double standards leveled at the regional economic community,” Eizenga told Al Jazeera.
But for Yabi Gilles, founder of the West African think tank WATHI, it is the ruling elites, not ECOWAS, who are responsible for the region’s democratic decline.
“Heads of state are the decision-making authority and make the most important decisions, but they will not make decisions that go against their own interests,” Gilles said.
And “solidarity between the heads of state in the region”, Gilles added, means that ECOWAS does not really have a say in the political leadership of member states.
In 2015, the bloc nearly banned third presidential terms following the dismissal of veteran Burkina Faso leader Blaise Compaore the previous year in an uprising sparked by its efforts to extend his term.
Such a decision would have been a first for an African regional body, but it never happened because some ECOWAS leaders opposed it.
The military governments of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have presented themselves as a bulwark against corrupt political elites, ECOWAS and France. Whether they will be able to deliver on the promises they have made to the public remains to be seen.
Eizenga is not optimistic.
“The Malian junta justified its coup on insecurity and yet the Malian junta has not demonstrated its commitment or ability to respond to security issues. Attacks by militant groups increased by 30% in 2021 compared to 2020 when the junta took control,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are also questions about how long the ruling military would be able to withstand the impact of harsh sanctions, especially in the face of rising food prices and shortages.
For now, however, he still seems to have the backing of supporters like Mouss Diallo, a young electrician from Bamako.
“The military asked for five years. Of course, it’s long, but what does it represent in the life of a nation? said Diallo.
“We haven’t moved forward in 30 years of democracy. They are our only hope for recovery.