Mali’s military government wants to postpone elections it once promised for 2022 to as late as 2025. The move has brought strong sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States, against which the junta has mobilised a protest backlash. Meanwhile fears rise for the impacts of closed borders on the many who rely on food aid. The backdrop is one of insecurity caused by jihadist insurgency, which has not been halted by a French and United Nations military presence. Now there’s growing concern about the role of Russian mercenaries. It’s time for the junta to give some ground and commit to genuine dialogue and a proper timetable for transition.

It’s been a dramatic start to 2022 in Mali. The military government has placed itself starkly at odds with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The 15-country regional body imposed stringent sanctions, including the closure of borders, when the military unilaterally went back on a commitment to hold elections this year.

As sanctions start to bite in the form of shortages and rising prices, the consequences could be severe for Mali’s people. Thirteen international aid organisations have warned of potentially devastating consequences in a country where one third of people rely on aid and food insecurity is high and rising. They have called for guarantees of continuing humanitarian access to provide food and medicines.

Coup after coup puts pressure on ECOWAS

The immediate origins of the current impasse lie in the August 2020 military coup that ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. This came after two months of protests over flawed parliamentary elections, with people further mobilising out of anger at corruption, the government’s handling of the pandemic and ongoing insecurity caused by Islamist insurgency.

Disaffection was such that many, including the M5 opposition movement, welcomed the coup. Hope for a quick return to civilian rule rose in September 2020, when a transitional government containing a mix of civilian and military personnel was announced. Responding to international pressure, including from ECOWAS, the government had a civilian president, Bah N’daw, and a civilian prime minister.

But when push came to shove, the military wouldn’t let go of power. In May 2021, when President N’daw tried to put a more broad-based cabinet in place, replacing two coup leaders, he was the one who lost his job. N’daw was detained and dismissed, along with the prime minister and defence minister.

Coup leader Assimi Goïta quickly became the new president of a government with military personnel in key positions. Shortly after, in an apparent move to keep M5 on board, one of its leaders, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, was appointed ‘prime minister of the transition’.

In justifying this second coup, Goïta claimed the ousted civilian leaders were sabotaging the transition and he was getting it back on track. He promised elections in 2022.

But as 2022 approached, that promise started looking shaky. The junta insisted it should first hold national consultations. A dialogue did indeed take place in December 2021, in which over 80,000 people are reported to have taken part. But the junta determined the schedule and parameters of the dialogue, and it seems to have been a shallow process with little time for genuine discussion. It’s unlikely to have told the military anything it didn’t want to hear.

It’s on the basis of what it claimed it heard in the dialogue that in January 2022 the military told ECOWAS it would hold elections not in 2022 but sometime later – perhaps in 2025. If elections were not held until then, this would mean five years of military rule.

ECOWAS, which has in the past been accused of being slow to act, moved quickly. At an emergency summit held in Accra, Ghana, it imposed sanctions, including the closure of air and land borders and the freezing of Malian state assets held in banks in other ECOWAS countries. The West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) – a group of eight ECOWAS members that share a common currency – instructed financial institutions to suspend Mali, denying it access to regional markets. The government of Mali reacted by calling these ‘illegal sanctions’ and recalling its ambassadors from ECOWAS states. The battle lines were drawn.

A fallout with France

The European Union (EU) says it supports ECOWAS’s decision and plans to impose its own sanctions soon. By chance, the presidency of the EU’s Council, which rotates every six months, has just been taken over by France. France is a big player in Mali and the broader Sahel region, and President Emmanuel Macron’s government has found itself increasingly at odds with Mali’s junta.

France has maintained a military presence in Mali and the Sahel since the 2012 insurgency that saw jihadist groups take control of northern Mali. While the insurgents were pushed back, violent attacks and clashes have continued since. Around 5,000 French troops have stayed in Mali and neighbouring countries. A United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), also has a presence of around 12,000 troops.

France has experienced significant costs, both in terms of human lives, with over 50 French soldiers killed, and financially, at an operating cost of close to a billion US dollars a year.

However, it’s become increasingly clear that this military approach to security hasn’t really worked. If anything, insecurity has grown in recent years. Insurgent attacks have spilled into other countries and are increasingly taking place in central Mali, whereas before they were mostly concentrated in the north. Jihadists are exploiting ethnic divisions to sow unrest.

Across the Sahel, in the last two years, over two million people have been forced to leave their homes by conflict. The UN independent expert on human rights in Mali, following a visit in July and August 2021, reported a deteriorating human rights situation in the country, with extrajudicial and arbitrary killings, kidnappings and enforced disappearances, torture and death threats, committed by security forces and non-state armed groups, including jihadist groups. In Mali and the Sahel as a whole, conflict remains an enduring reality.

In what seems an admission that the militarised approach has failed, Macron says he wants to reduce his country’s deployment, to provide only a smaller number of troops as part of an international force. France is an increasingly unpopular presence in Mali and the region, strongly criticised by protests, including those in support of Mali’s junta. In November, protesters in Burkina Faso and Niger disrupted a French military convoy as it crossed their countries on its journey from Côte d’Ivoire to Mali. Two people were killed during the protest in Niger.

France has rightly long been criticised for its relationships with former African colonies, which have often been characterised by high-handedness and paternalism. It’s a presidential election year in France, and it would do Macron’s chances no harm if he brings soldiers home while looking like an international statesman.

But at the same time, France is an easy target for Mali’s military rulers. France has long been criticised for enabling African dictators, but now is attacked for urging a military junta to yield to democracy. France is condemned both for its presence in Mali and its plans to leave. It’s a convenient populist punchbag. Rallies organised by the military since the imposition of sanctions have taken a decidedly nationalist tone. Both ECOWAS and France have been castigated as interfering.

Russia’s creeping presence

The stakes are high for ECOWAS too. It will be keen to show its pressure can make a difference. The continent has seen several high-profile coups recently, including a military coup in Sudan and a presidential coup in Tunisia, and West Africa is starting to look like a hotspot. The military took charge in Guinea in September 2021 and in Burkina Faso this January. Civic space is seriously restricted in almost every ECOWAS country. The danger in West Africa is of coups becoming normalised and respect for the institutions and practices of democracy no longer being seen as the norm.

There’s another problem, for ECOWAS and France: Russia’s apparent growing role. Mali’s government has long denied claims it is using Russian mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner group. It continues to say those Russian soldiers present are merely military instructors. But it seems increasingly clear that Wagner mercenaries are there. In December 2021, 15 states, France included, issued a statement condemning their presence.

Wagner is an opaque set of companies whose reported leader is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. It cooperates closely with Russian state forces and is under EU and US sanctions. Its presence in Mali is a concern because Wagner mercenaries have been linked with atrocities, notably in the Central African Republic. There’s even less possibility of accountability over violations committed by its mercenaries than by state forces.

The government is also criticised for spending money hiring these mercenaries – which may well allow Russia to extract economic concessions in return – rather than developing the capacity of its own forces. And there’s no guarantee that, when protesters eventually turn against the junta rather than rally for it, such forces can’t be used as agents of domestic repression.

Further, if their presence is normalised in Mali, it may lead to a growing regional role. This is why not only western states have expressed concern. Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, for example, has said Mali’s deployment of Russian mercenaries is a ‘red line’ for countries in the region.

This is the dilemma, for ECOWAS, France and others: hold a high line, risk isolating Mali and create a space Russia can fill, or engage, compromise and risk being strung along by a junta that may have no intention of conceding power. Meanwhile, insecurity continues to impact on Malians’ daily lives.

Not everyone in Mali supports the junta. A coalition of 10 political parties has, for example, condemned the pushback of elections as a violation of the commitment to democratic transition. Scepticism is justified: the May 2021 coup was the fifth since independence.

It looks like the usual pattern observed time and again around the world: a military typically snatches power on the promise of re-establishing order before quickly handing over to civilians. But generals enjoy being presidents, so timetables get pushed back and when elections are eventually held, the military tightly control them and don civilian suits to stay in office. In Mali, all promises about transition so far have been broken, and when the civilian part of the government last tried to limit military influence, its leaders were instantly replaced. So why should the military be trusted now?

But some kind of compromise needs to be reached that allows humanitarian help in but sets a genuine timetable for a faster transition to democratic, civilian rule as a condition for sanctions to be lifted. An accountable government – in which people feel they have a stake, can have a say and see as responding to their needs – will ultimately offer a better defence against insecurity than foreign mercenaries. But none of this will happen until the military gets serious about negotiating.


  • The government of Mali should urgently commit to a roadmap and timetable for transition, with elections to be held by a date agreed with ECOWAS, and long before 2025.
  • The government of Mali should end its use of Russian mercenaries, and work with the international community to develop a sustainable approach to security.
  • The EU should step up sanctions to match those of ECOWAS, while making humanitarian exemptions to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable Malian people do not suffer.

Cover photo by REUTERS/Amadou Keita via Gallo Images