The outcome of the latest Ecowas heads of state meeting may have gone against the expectations of Malian authorities, but it may also signify a softening of tone by the bloc, which appears to be paying off.
And Bamako is exploiting it to its advantage.
Mali was expecting the sanctions imposed on it by Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) on January 9 to be lifted at the Summit in the Ghanaian capital, Accra on June 4. The leaders instead resolved to maintain the sanctions, pending continued negotiations.
While it expressed ‘disappointment’ over the decision, the military-led transition administration has called the bloc’s bluff by announcing a unilaterally agreed transition timeline.
A day after the meeting, Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, who represented the junta in Accra, said they were expecting the immediate lifting of sanctions but that they were disappointed at the outcome. He went on to say that the outcome still points to a positive outlook.
Two days after the Summit, on June 6, junta leader Col Assimi Goita issued a decree announcing the formal adoption of the 24-month transition timeline. The decree signed by both Goita and Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga indicates that the timeline takes effect in March 2022 and ends in March 2024.
The Ecowas sanctions were imposed after the junta failed to meet the initial deadline to conduct elections and hand over power to a civilian administration by the end of February. The sanctions include financial and economic embargo, as well as assets freeze.
Amidst appeal by the junta and its supporters, Ecowas has insisted that it can only review the sanctions with evidence of concrete actions in the direction of the restoration of democracy.
Meanwhile, indications on the ground are that the sanctions are really biting hard. As the Ecowas leaders were discussing the country’s fate on June 4, Prime Minister Maigar was meeting with aggrieved traders from the traders’ union.
And this is exactly the goal of Ecowas and its backers, who hope that the junta could soften its stance when sanctions force the masses to direct their anger towards the military leadership.
But if anything, the ordinary Malian's view has hardly changed about the supposed foreign interference.
And to make matters worse for Ecowas, it has come under immense pressure from civil society groups in the region to moderate its hardline response to the crises in the region by engaging in dialogue, rather than coercion.
Besides Mali, the Accra Summit also discussed the progress in the transitions in neighbouring Guinea and Burkina Faso, which are also under military regimes, as well as Guinea Bissau, which has recently been teetering on the brink of instability, after two years of semblance of peace ushered in by the election of President Umaro Sissoco Embaló. Ecowas wants to deploy a military stabilisation force in the country.
Last month a group of over a dozen organisations, under the auspices of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), issued a joint statement calling on Ecowas to engage the juntas in dialogue, lamenting the effects of sanctions on the people.
All three countries—Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso—remain suspended from the bloc, meaning they can’t participate in its proceedings or have any say in its decisions.
The heads of state resolved to continue dialogue with the juntas until its next meeting scheduled for July 3, when it will take further decisions.
But the move by the Malians to unilaterally announce the 24-month timetable angered the bloc, prompting a statement from the Ecowas Commission condemning the move.
“Ecowas regrets that while negotiations are still ongoing to reach a consensus, the Malian authorities took this decision on the transition,” it says. But it promises to continue with the engagement.
The timeline was a major obstacle to the negotiations between the junta and the Ecowas mediation team headed former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
While the junta insists on 24 months, Ecowas holds on to 16 months. The mediators were also concerned about lack of actions that show a commitment to holding elections soon.
The Malians have consistently argued that they needed enough time to fulfil certain important milestone relevant to holding of elections.
“We hoped from week to week to find an agreement with Ecowas to enter into an acceleration process, but we reached a point where we lost three months of discussion and today we decided not to wait any longer,” PM Maiga was quoted telling members of the National Transitional Council (CNT), the legislative arm of the government.
Ecowas says sanctions will be lifted gradually as benchmarks of the transition are met.
On his arrival in Bamako from Accra, Foreign Minister Diop told journalists that the report presented by the Ecowas mediator was welcomed by majority of the delegations, noting that because the document was based on the transition government’s proposals, it’s a sign that there is a “positive dynamic at the Community level in order to be able to move forward.”
A key concern of the bloc is the joint mechanism for regular monitoring of the implementation of the timetable.
Diop said all they need is to provide detailed information on these issues to convince the West African leaders to lift the sanctions.
“What is important is that the final conclusions of this summit take into account the government's proposals, and therefore the aspirations of Malians for security, political and institutional reforms in a period of 24 months of Transition.”
While the Ecowas Commission statement condemned the junta’s unilateral decision on the timeline, it fell short of explaining its next action towards it. This, to some analysts, is a tacit indication of acceptance.
And it seems some of the bloc’s partners are also coming to terms with the reality about the inevitable route of dialogue, rather than coercion, as the ultimate solution and are softening their tone.
The US State Department, for instance, in a statement on Thursday acknowledged the junta’s position on the transition timeline, while urging the two parties to work towards reaching agreement on a “robust monitoring mechanism with tangible benchmarks for the remainder” of the transition.
“We urge the Malian transition government to make sustained, tangible action toward holding elections, including detailed benchmarks and the early adoption of the electoral law. Transparent and inclusive processes that respect diverse perspectives and fundamental freedoms are critical to building a strong foundation for the future,” it says.