European soldiers will stay in Mali, but “not at any cost”

France and the Europeans, militarily engaged in the anti-jihadist fight in Mali, want to stay “but not at any price”, declared Friday the head of the French diplomacy Jean-Yves Le Drian at the end of an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest (western France).

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“If we are in Mali, we stay there, but not under any conditions,” he repeated, while the tension is at its height between the Malian junta and the European Union, which is preparing, in the wake of West African countries, sanctions against the Malian military having postponed the elections and the transition for several years.

“We are preparing sanctions against those who obstruct” the transition, had previously declared the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell during the final press conference.

Staff reductions

Mali has been plunged into a serious security and political crisis since the outbreak of independence and jihadist insurgencies in 2012, and has experienced two coups d’état in August 2020 and May 2021.

Also read: Africa, decisive front against terrorism

France, militarily present in Mali for nine years to fight against the jihadists, is in the process of reducing its troops there while maintaining troops in northern Mali in Gao, Ménaka and Gossi. The Europeans are present in the Takuba force, made up of special forces and nearly 900 strong, but the deployment of Russian instructors in recent weeks has raised concern and anger.

For the EU and France, they are mercenaries from the Russian paramilitary group Wagner. Jean-Yves Le Drian accused this group on Tuesday of “supporting” the ruling junta in Mali under the guise of anti-jihadist struggle.

Massive protests against sanctions

Malians responded massively on Friday to the call of the ruling junta in Bamako to demonstrate against West African sanctions. “If we are safe to demonstrate, we must surely be safe to vote”, joked Jean-Yves Le Drian in this regard, while the junta led by Colonel Assimi Goïta argued that there was persistent insecurity in the country for postpone until five years the elections initially scheduled for February 2022.

Large crowds also in Timbuktu, on Sankoré Square, in front of the mosque, several Tombouctiens told AFP. Images posted on social media show a dense crowd marching behind the national flag in the streets of Kadiolo, bordering Côte d’Ivoire. Similar scene to Bougouni, also in the south. Malians interviewed by an AFP correspondent said they took to the streets, not to support the junta, but to defend the country.

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Government “response plan”

At the same time, the head of the junta and transitional president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, validated a government “risk plan” to West African sanctions, his services said on Facebook. The plan has several components, diplomatic or economic, they say without giving more details.

Also read: Make an example with Mali? The strategy is perilous

“The objective of this plan is not to be in a position of arm wrestling” with West African organizations, and Mali remains “open to dialogue”, they say. The Malian government launched Monday, the day after the “extreme” retaliatory measures taken by the organization of West African States ECOWAS, a call for “general mobilization throughout the national territory”.

Colonel Goïta, brought to the head of Mali by a first coup d’état in August 2020 and inducted as president of “the transition” following a second in May 2021, urged the Malians to “defend (their) homeland “.

Country’s economy dangerously threatened

Mali has been facing heavy sanctions from ECOWAS since Sunday. These punish the military’s plan to continue to govern for several years, and the revoked commitment to organize elections in February 2022 that would have brought civilians back to the head of the country.

The closure of the ECOWAS borders, the embargo on trade (excluding basic necessities) and on financial transactions as well as the freezing of Malian assets in West African banks are dangerously threatening the economy of a country among the poorest in the world, hit by violence and the pandemic, landlocked and heavily dependent on the West African ports of Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.

Also read: ECOWAS harshly sanctions the junta’s retention in power in Mali

West African companies as well as Air France have suspended their flights to Bamako. The country risks suffocation due to lack of liquidity. Mali was unable to carry out an operation on the regional financial market on Wednesday. It is “cut off from the rest of the world,” says Kako Nubukpo, commissioner for the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Uémoa).

The junta asks for five years

The sanctions have sparked a concert of condemnation in Mali. The ECOWAS is accused of being the instrument of foreign powers and an outdated club of leaders cut off from the populations.

The junta wraps itself in national sovereignty. She asked for up to five more years. She said she is currently unable to call Malians to the polls, citing persistent insecurity in a territory of which two-thirds are beyond the control of the authorities. She is asking for time to carry out essential reforms, according to her, and to organize indisputable elections.

No significant voice was raised in Mali to approve the ECOWAS. On the other hand, a certain number are pressing for a resumption of discussions with ECOWAS, worrying about Mali’s international isolation. Colonel Goïta assured to remain “open to dialogue with ECOWAS”.

No end to the crisis in sight

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Thursday demanded from the Malian government an “acceptable” electoral calendar, recalling that ECOWAS could then gradually lift the sanctions.

Mali’s partners as important as France and the United States have supported the West African sanctions. The head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell said Thursday that the EU would take measures “in the same line” as the ECOWAS.

No way out of the crisis is discernible for the moment. The UN secretary general said he was working with ECOWAS and the African Union to create the conditions for the junta to return to a “reasonable and acceptable” position.

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