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Mali sanctions threaten humanitarian crisis in the SahelAlmost all of Mali’s neighbours have closed

A woman rides her bicycle near Malian trucks parked near the border town of Tingrela following additional sanctions imposed on Mali's transitional government CREDIT: ANGE ABOA /REUTERS

A diplomatic schism over the future of Mali involving Russian mercenaries in Timbuktu, French soldiers and Malian coup leaders is threatening to upend humanitarian relief efforts to millions of people in the Sahel.

This month ECOWAS, west Africa’s regional political body, announced devastating sanctions on the landlocked nation of Mali. While the anxiety has been building over the last year, a clear pivot towards Russia and abject failure to hold elections has finally triggered action from the region’s democrats.

Almost all of Mali’s neighbours have closed their borders to the nation, while a trade embargo has been put in place and the regional bank has frozen the country’s assets.

France – which still wields enormous clout in the predominantly francophone region – has followed closely behind, suspending flights to the country. The European Union also said it will support ECOWAS with its own sanctions.

The United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Mali, which includes 250 British peacekeepers, has also suspended its flights, apart from medical evacuations. Now a group of 13 NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Oxfam and Action Against Hunger, are calling for the international community to protect the people of Mali.

They say 7.5 million people – about a third of the country – are already seeing the worst food insecurity the country has faced in a decade.

“It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions,” said Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s director in Mali. “These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

Malian truckers rest near their trucks parked on a site, following the closure of the border between Ivory Coast and Mali CREDIT: ANGE ABOA /REUTERS

The news is a punch in the gut for the Malian people, who for the last decade have been stuck in a seemingly endless, dizzingly complicated desert war with the fastest-growing jihadist insurgency on earth.

Since 2012, young Malian soldiers – often ill-equipped and badly trained – have died in droves in the face of marauding attacks and roadside bombings from jihadists allied to Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

The humanitarian situation is dire across vast tracts of the north and centre of the country, where jihadists have unleashed spates of ethnic bloodletting. “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians,” said Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali.

“Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

At the heart of the new sanctions are two key issues. First is the military junta, who have been in power in the Malian capital Bamako for the last 17 months. In August 2020, a group of Malian soldiers launched a coup that overthrew the corrupt but democratically elected government supported by France. Then in early 2021, Assimi Goïta, a special forces colonel who led the first coup, launched a second putsch and crowned himself president.

Mr Goïta’s regime has failed to meet internationally agreed deadlines to hold national elections. Other west African states – worried by the slow backsliding of democracy in the coup-prone region and under pressure from Paris, which feels its influence waning – are trying to isolate Mali’s junta. At the same time, Western governments are furious about Russia’s move in an area they traditionally see as Europe’s backyard.

There is a deep-rooted anti-French sentiment on the streets of Bamako, Mali’s capital. Some 5,000 French troops have been stationed across the Sahel region since 2013, when French and Chadian soldiers launched an offensive to drive the jihadists out of northern Mali. While 2013 brought a quick military victory for France – which saw then President Hollande gifted a camel in the medieval city of Timbuktu – the conflict has descended into an Afghanistan-like quagmire, stretching out across neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Many Sahelians see France as incapable of solving the crisis. Some argue the conflict has as much to do with underdevelopment and stagnation resulting from France’s century-long political and economic dominance over the region as it does with radical ideology.

The underlying anger boiled up across the Sahel with huge protests against a convoy of French soldiers in November. The convoy was chased and blockaded through Burkina Faso and Niger by groups of protestors.

For months Mr Goïta’s military junta has also been flirting with Moscow as an alternative to the myriad of failed Western and international military interventions. There was word on the street in Bamako that Russian operatives were around as early as 2019. Now hundreds of Russian soldiers have been deployed to Timbuktu to ‘train’ Malian forces in a military base the French had recently left.

The Russian forces’ arrival in Mali follows deployments to several other African hotspots. It is part of what analysts say is an attempt by Moscow to recover influence on the continent, after a long absence following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and to disrupt Western interests abroad.

“Russia has found a cheap way to mess with Europe and ensure instability in the Sahel, which leads to greater migration to Europe, which destabilises it,” said Michael Shurkin, an analyst following the conflict. “And [it] wrecks French efforts to use the Sahel to help build out a European defence policy and capability.”