Malians have taken to the streets in droves after the country’s ruling military called for protests against severe sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) over a postponed election.
Thousands of people wearing the national colors of red, yellow and green gathered in a central square in Mali’s capital on Friday for a demonstration organized by the military government.
People poured into Independence Square in Bamako, holding up signs that read “Down with ECOWAS” and “Down with France”, and sang patriotic songs.
Nicolas Haque of Al Jazeera, reporting from Dakar in neighboring Senegal, said Friday’s protests swelled to thousands of people across the country.
The people had gathered as an “act of resistance to the sanctions” as well as “a show of support for Mali’s leadership,” Haque said.
Leaders of the 15-member ECOWAS bloc last week agreed to punish Mali, imposing a trade embargo and closing its members’ land and air borders with the country.
The move, later supported by the United States, the European Union and former colonial power France, followed a proposal by the Malian military to hold elections in December 2025 instead of February as originally agreed.
The military called the sanctions “extreme” and “inhumane” and called for demonstrations.
The strong Colonel Assimi Goita, who took power for the first time in August 2020 via a coup d’état, has also urged the Malians to “defend our homeland”.
On Friday, his office said the interim government had developed a “response plan” to the potentially crippling sanctions, without specifying any details. It added that the government remained open to dialogue with regional institutions and had no intention of engaging in “arm wrestling”.
According to Haque, the price of basic necessities such as rice has risen in recent days since the sanctions.
“It will become increasingly difficult for the government to pay frontline officials and soldiers if it does not have access to its own money from the regional central bank,” he said.
Senior government officials attended Friday’s Bamako rally and were cheered by the crowd.
Nouhoum Sarr, a member of Mali’s transitional legislature, said that “our country will be saved and liberated by the Malian army and all the Malian people”.
“Long live Assimi,” Abdoulaye Yanoga, a 27-year-old unemployed man, said at the rally, referring to Mali’s leader. “These sanctions will not succeed here.”
In addition to closing the borders and imposing a trade embargo, ECOWAS leaders also cut financial aid to Mali and froze the country’s assets with the Central Bank of West African States.
The sanctions threaten to damage an already fragile economy in one of the world’s poorest countries. Since 2012, a brutal armed insurgency has raged in Mali, with parts of the vast country beyond government control.
Mali is already starting to feel the effects of the sanctions as several airlines, including Air France, have suspended flights to Bamako.
The country is also at risk of cash shortages. Kako Nubukpo, commissioner of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, said it is “cut off from the rest of the world”.
UN urges ‘acceptable’ voting schedule
France, Mali’s former colonial power that also holds the rotating EU presidency, and the US have both expressed support for the ECOWAS sanctions.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrel said on Thursday that Brussels will follow ECOWAS in taking measures against Mali over the postponed elections.
The same day, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said it is “absolutely essential that the government of Mali presents an acceptable election schedule”.
Despite the pressure, many in Mali have rallied behind the military, with nationalist posts flooding social media.
Mali’s relations with its neighbors and partners have steadily deteriorated since the August 2020 coup led by Goita against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Threatened by sanctions after the putsch, Goita had promised to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2022 and restore civilian rule.
But he staged a de facto second coup in May 2021, forcing an interim civilian government and disrupting the timetable for the restoration of democracy. Goita also declared himself interim president.
His government has argued that the rampant insecurity in Mali is preventing it from holding secure elections at the end of February.
The mass protest on Friday drew comments from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“If it’s safe enough to demonstrate, it’s certainly safe enough to vote,” he said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest, in northwestern France.
France has thousands of troops in Mali and neighboring Sahel countries in West Africa fighting armed groups. “We are in Mali and we will stay, but under no circumstances,” said Le Drian.