Why Protests Erupted in Mali, With People Demanding France Out and Thanking Russia for Support

Protest in Mali in January 2022 / credit: twitter/swimming_free
Protest in Mali on January 14 / credit: twitter/swimming_free

Editor’s Note: The following represents the writer’s analysis.

Thousands of demonstrators took to Mali’s streets on January 14 to demonstrate against sanctions the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed on the country after the military government’s supposed delay in the transitional map (plan) to transfer power to civilians. The military junta called for mobilizations throughout the country. Protests took place in the capital, Bamako. Other cities in the West African country also witnessed demonstrations, the most notable ones being in Timbuktu in the north and Bougouni in the south.

The former transitional president, Bah Andau, called on his compatriots to defend the homeland.

What is the general context in which these popular demonstrations took place? What are the positions of the actors in the crisis? How did international actors react, including France and Russia? And how is their position a reflection of the Malian authorities and the demonstrations?

Election Day Canceled

The beginning of the latest crisis started at the national conference—organized by the transitional government on January 2—which concluded its work in Bamako by adopting a recommendation to extend the political transition map for a period ranging from six months to five years.

The transitional government, led by President Asimie Goïta (also spelled Guetta), had approved an 18-month timetable, from the military coup carried out in August 2020 to elections that are supposed to be held this month.

Then the transitional government retracted that map, claiming the transitional phase needed to be elongated because the country had suffered from terrorist attacks that coincided with the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling military council justified this change by saying it was unable to meet this month’s deadline, pointing to the continuing instability due to violence, in addition to the need to implement reforms, including that of the constitution. The hope was protests would not take off around the election, as had happened with previous elections.

Unprecedented Cruelty of ECOWAS Sanctions

After the recommendation to elongate the transitional period was issued and submitted to ECOWAS, it decided to hold a double special session of the Conference of the Heads of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. That is where ECOWAS imposed a set of sanctions on January 9, which included:

  1. closing the borders of ECOWAS member states with Mali, 
  2. imposing a ban on trade (not including the trade of basic materials),
  3. imposing a ban on financial dealings with Mali,
  4. freezing Mali’s assets in West African banks, and
  5. summoning the ambassadors of member states to Bamako.

ECOWAS said the junta’s proposal to hold presidential elections in 2026 is “totally unacceptable” because it “means that an illegitimate transitional military government will hold the Malian people hostage over the next five years.” ECOWAS will only lift sanctions gradually, when Malian authorities present an “acceptable” timetable and when satisfactory progress is observed in its implementation.

These sanctions are more stringent than those imposed after the first coup in August 2020, which prompted observers to accuse the regional organization of unfairly applying economic and political sanctions for goals linked to foreign interests, France in particular. This is pertinent because ECOWAS did not impose the same sanctions on another West African country, Guinea, which witnessed a coup in September. 

<span style="font-family: georgia, palatino, serif;">Represented in green is post-World War II French West Africa, a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. Dark gray indicates other French colonies in Africa. Black shows the French Republic as well as Algeria, another colony / credit: VoodooIsland/WIkipedia</span>
Represented in green is post-World War II French West Africa, a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. Dark gray indicates other French colonies in Africa. Black shows the French Republic as well as Algeria, another colony / credit: VoodooIsland/WIkipedia

The strong French influence within the corridors of ECOWAS affects the independence of the organization’s decisionmaking. France colonized large portions of West Africa from the 1800s onward. Although West Africa gained independence and was split into sovereign states in the 20th century, France keeps a military presence in the Sahel region of West Africa and mandates many French-speaking African countries use the French currency, the franc, for transactions. 

These sanctions would seriously affect the Malian economy, which is among the poorest in the world and has been experiencing a crisis stemming from terrorism and the pandemic. This is especially because the Republic of Mali is landlocked and depends on Senegal and the Ivory Coast to engage in trade. Consequently, these sanctions constitute a tremendous political and economic pressure on the country, exacerbating its worsening problems. 

The Transitional Government Reacts

The government in Mali chose two parallel courses.

First, they rejected the sanctions and escalation in a strongly worded statement and recalled its ambassadors from ECOWAS countries, closed its land and air borders with them, and stated it would reserve the right to review its participation within ECOWAS bodies. The ECOWAS stated it did not take the situation in Mali into consideration before imposing sanctions, which Mali considered illegal, and not based on any legal basis regulating the work of the group. The sanctions also contradict ECOWAS’ objectives as an African regional organization aimed at achieving solidarity, and Mali expressed regret that the regional organization had become an “instrument in the hand of forces from outside the region have hidden plans,” an unmistakable reference to France.

Despite the harsh tone, Mali declared the door for dialogue is still open to reach a solution to the aggravating crisis.

The second trend has been to mobilize the street, which is rising in anger at France and its suspicious role in Mali, as well as at ECOWAS and its sanctions that disturb Malians’ lives. Surprisingly, these demonstrations denounced the French presence, and saw the French occupation as grounds for terrorist practices. Protesters declared in their slogans their support for Russia’s directions in support of their country’s cause. During the action, the demonstrators carried posters in which they thanked Russia and its efforts in Mali.

It is no secret the agenda that appeared in the rallies and popular demonstrations is the same as the agenda carried by the Goïta government, which no longer desires the support of the French colonizer. Rather, the government has accused France on more than one occasion of being a major supporter of terrorism in Mali, and therefore saw in the Russian presence a hope and a means that could be relied upon to get the country out of the security quagmire and reduce or end the suspicious French role.

It may be true these demonstrations came out in response to the call of the military, and that they protested against the despised French colonial presence, as well as denounced the penalties of ECOWAS. But it should not be taken for granted that their emergence lends a kind of legitimacy to the double military coup, as well as offers approval and acceptance of the five-year transitional map.

It is undoubtedly a long transitional period, at the end of which may only see an extended military rule, or a false civilian rule that covers for the military rule that holds the wheel of government.

These demonstrations ignited a wave of anger against French colonialism, as the Malian and general African community demonstrated in front of the Malian embassy in Paris, in support of the Malian government’s decision to reject the ECOWAS decisions. January 22 was dedicated to organize demonstrations in front of the French embassies throughout the world.

The World Reacts

The Malian military’s agenda, which the popular demonstrations supported, met with multiple international reactions. For example, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France and the Europeans, who are militarily involved in the fight against militants in the region, want to stay in Mali without any conditions.

The French Ambassador to the United Nations, Nicolas de Rivière, affirmed Paris’ full support for ECOWAS’ sanctions because Malian authorities did not respect ECOWAS demands and obligations in terms of a speedy return to the democratic process.

French anger in this context is understandable. It saw the Malian demonstrations and a hostile military that France did not expect and did not want. France fought against such a change in power for decades by passing whoever it deemed to be at its mercy into power, while suppressing and oppressing peoples with a tyrannical, dictatorial rule that hardly allows their voices to be heard.

However, Mali expelled the French ambassador on January 31, giving them 72 hours to leave the country.

As for Russia, it demanded an understanding of the position of the Malian authorities. The Assistant Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, called during a meeting of the UN Security Council devoted to West Africa and the Sahel region, to show the necessary respect for the Republic of Mali and its efforts aimed at restoring order in the country, calling for an understanding of the difficulties they face. Without the return of the state’s authority to many regions of the country, it will not be possible to take into account the credibility of the election results, according to Russia.

The Russian position, consistent with the vision of the military government in Mali, rebuffs the Western presence that has begun to recede from Mali. It is a prelude to the expected Russian presence, whether in the form of security companies (Wagner) or direct support by Russian military forces.

These popular demonstrations may constitute the beginning of a real departure for the French colonialist and a decline in its role in West Africa. It may form the nucleus of a popular legitimacy that would constitute a lever for stable rule in the coming days.

Kribsoo Diallo is a Cairo-based Pan-Africanist researcher in political science related to African affairs. He has written for many African magazines and newspapers. Diallo has contributed to translated editions of papers and articles in Arabic and English for several research centers within the African continent.