When the West African bloc Ecowas imposed sanctions on Mali, the country’s junta leader Col Assimi Goïtata called for mass protests to denounce the blockade. It was a show of just how popular his military revolution has become in Mali.
Heads of state of the bloc on January 9 imposed tougher sanctions on the landlocked Sahel country after concluding that the transition administration had failed to meet its deadline to conduct elections and hand over power to a civilian administration by February 27.
Ecowas ordered its member countries to shut their land and air borders to Mali and suspend all commercial transactions, except for food and medicine.
There has been growing international support for the sanctions. After a failed attempt, the UN finally reached an agreement last week supporting the Ecowas position.
Nonetheless, Bamako is unmoved. The authorities have been selling the Ecowas action as a proxy war, pointing mainly to its dispute with France and other Western powers over its approach to the protracted Islamist insurgency in the north and central regions.
And Malians are buying this narrative, even among those who want a return to democracy.
Transition prime minister Choguel Maïga this week told State broadcaster ORTM that Bamako intended to file legal challenges with sub-regional, African and international institutions against the “illegal” sanctions.
“We do not close the door to dialogue,” he said, adding: "But what we do not want is humiliation and the return to slavery."
Following the Malian backlash, there have been reports of a softening of tone by Ecowas, which has recently reiterated that it is willing to walk with Mali through their journey to democracy.
This position was articulated by Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who is seen as a defender of the interests of France, which the Malian junta and its supporters say is pulling the bloc strings.
The Ivorian leader was quoted at the end of a visit to Gabon this past Monday saying that Ecowas leaders need a credible transition timetable to lift the sanctions. President Ouattara has always argued that it’s unacceptable for a military regime to rule for a five-year period.
"Security is deteriorating, the situation of the population is as difficult in Mali as in large neighbouring countries such as Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire. We are as unhappy as the Malians," he said.
The anti-Ecowas demonstrations of January 14 were staged countrywide, with the largest gathering held at the Independence Square in the capital Bamako. Speakers took turns to lambast Western interference in the country’s sovereignty.
Some high profile Malians, like celebrity musician Salif Keita, took to social media to express his support for the demonstrations. The “Golden Voice of Africa,” as he is known, said the demonstrations were a message “to show the world and those who want to bring Mali to its knees that we are a proud, dignified and [unified] people.”
The Panel of High Personalities, a group of distinguished Malians, presented a position paper to the junta calling the sanctions "a real aggression” from an organisation that Mali expected support from. The document contains legal, economic and financial analyses of the sanctions and recommendations on how to get the country out of the crisis.
The junta is now hatching plans for dealing with the inevitable effect of the sanctions. On the day of the protests, Col Goïta presided over a meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence to validate the government's “retaliation” plan.
Government spokesperson Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga said the plan contains diplomatic, geopolitical, economic, financial and social components.
The Malian junta is putting pressure on private sector business interests to counter the effects of the sanctions.
Last week it issued an ultimatum to airlines to indicate their decision on whether to continue flying to the country or risk losing their licences. It followed the suspension of flights by regional airlines like Air Senegal, Air Cote d’Ivoire and Air Burkina, in line with the Ecowas mandate. Air France also followed suit after France backed the Ecowas sanctions.
The junta is also using diplomacy to maintain relations with strategic neighbours to maintain a flow of goods. This week, a government delegation visited Conakry in Guinea and Nouakchott in Mauritania.
Guinea, also under a junta, supports Mali and it issued a statement distancing itself from the Ecowas decision. It vowed to keep its borders with Mali open. Guinea is one of seven countries that share a border with Mali. The others are Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria.
Algeria and Mauritania are non-Ecowas members. Algeria is reportedly opposed to the sanctions, due to fears of the potential implication on security in the region.
Reports indicate that Ecowas has been piling pressure on Mauritania to support the sanctions. Nonetheless, many analysts say there are few incentives for it to toe the Ecowas line.
Mali and Mauritania share more than 2,000km of border, and the port of Nouakchott is one of Mali’s access routes to the sea. Both countries are members of the G5 Sahel bloc, where they address the same security threats.
For Guinea and Mauritania, opening their borders to Mali means they benefit from increased trade in the absence of the other “closed” five neighbours.
But for Guinea, this is likely to be short-lived because if it doesn’t get punished for defying a treaty it is signatory to, it faces potential sanctions due to its own political crisis.
With its failure to provide either an electoral calendar or a transition plan, Ecowas is likely to impose similar sanctions on Guinea, four months after the military deposed president Alpha Conde.